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Across Philadelphia, strong reactions to school-closing plan

By the Notebook on Dec 13, 2012 11:08 PM
Photo: Kimberly Paynter for WHYY

Hundreds opposed to the closing of Philadelphia neighborhood public schools attended a rally Thursday afternoon on the steps of the School District building on Broad Street.

by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner

It was all Philadelphians could talk about Thursday. The School District of Philadelphia wants to close one-sixth of its schools, a move that would affect about 17,000 students. 

Inside the school administration building at 440 N. Broad St., an expectant silence fell over dozens of District employees lining the indoor balconies as a row of TV cameras trained their lenses on Superintendent William Hite.

"We are recommending the closure of 37 buildings and changing the grade configurations of 18 schools," Hite said.

The news had leaked out hours before. But for many, the magnitude of the District's school-closing plan was still sinking in.

Hite looked into the cameras.

"We are about to embark on a very difficult process," he said. "As an educator, and as a parent, I realize that the recommendations will be shocking, painful, emotional and disruptive for many communities."

44 schools and 17,000 students affected

Under the District's plan, 44 schools would be closed or relocated. Roughly two dozen more would undergo grade changes. Other schools would be merged or "co-located" with existing schools. All told, roughly 17,000 students would be displaced.

Standing at the lectern, flanked by a dozen members of his staff, Superintendent Hite argued that the upheaval would be worth it.

"At the end, we will have a school system that is better-run, safer, and higher-performing," he said.

An alliance of labor and community groups known as Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools rallied on the steps outside District headquarters, chanting "Save our schools" and decrying the lack of public input in the development of the recommendations.

Parent Lisa Jackson is the mother of a 9th grader at Lankenau High. She came out because she's upset that her son's school could be relocated inside Roxborough High.

"I'm sad about the School District," said Jackson. "The powers that be see fit to dismantle it piece by piece."

Unions blast plan

Teachers' union president Jerry Jordan blasted District leaders for closing neighborhood schools instead of fighting for them.

"They're not talking to the people, and they're not really working and pressing on the elected officials in Harrisburg to fund Philadelphia schools," Jordan said.

District officials say the case for mass school closings is straightforward: City schools are broke, and the District needs the savings to balance its books and provide kids with a better education.

Inside City Hall, Mayor Nutter praised Hite and his team for making tough choices that their predecessors avoided.

"Their decision was one that says, 'You cannot kick the can down the road any farther,'" Nutter said.

The mayor said that Hite has his "full and unequivocal support."

Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, also backed the school-closing recommendations.

"This is fundamentally about putting more of the city's children in higher quality public schools," he said. "Closing low-performing and under-enrolled schools will allow the city to put more resources into quality instruction."

The 'myth' of privatization

Gleason said there's a "myth" floating around the city that the school-closing recommendations are part of a larger agenda to privatize public education.

"In fact," Gleason said, "they're the byproducts of parents choosing to leave schools that have been failing for years and years."

The school-closing plan will, no doubt, be hotly debated over the coming weeks.

District officials will host a series of community meetings. The first will be Saturday at 10 a.m. at South Philadelphia High.

The School Reform Commission is expected to vote on the recommendations in March.

But standing outside Bok Technical High in South Philadelphia on Thursday, 18-year-old Brandi Reed wasn't thinking about any of that.

Bok is one of the 11 city high schools now on the chopping block.

Reed said that her mom graduated from the school. This spring, Reed expects to graduate from Bok, too.

"Where are we going to have our class reunions?" she asked.

This story was reported as part of a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.

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Comments (14)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 9:04 am
The District has been holding community meetings on Facilities and Planning for the past 2-3 years at various community locations. The communities that would be affected were asked to come out and hear why changes are needed what the plan would be. Opportunity was given for discussion and for communities to give their imput on how they would be impacted and their recommendations and preferences. I (a community member & parent) attended quite a few of those meetings. VERY FEW parents or community members came out. These are the people who could have expressed safety concerns, transportation concerns or even demanded that education be improved right were they were. But they didn't show up. Now that decisions have been made, now we have strong reaction. Now people are griping, complaining and feeling left out. Now that they may be inconvenienced, or otherwise unacceptably impacted they want to be heard. Now they want to be part of the process. This is why we are where we are now. We have got to STOP being apathetic until the problem is at our door. Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around, yes things should have been done years ago. But we can't keep paying fare on a sinking ship. Many schools have been failing our children for to many years. Many schools are falling apart and are unsafe for our children for many reasons. Let's stop working against each other and work together to find a way to give our children more than promises for some and lip service to others when it comes to educating them and preparing them to be successful. Let's stop graduating children who are not able to read, write and calculate well enough to get even a basic job to support themselves. Our children and our communities will be stronger if we stop trying to be the one who is right and start putting their education and future first.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 12:03 pm
Why are you anonymous? Why should I not presume that your comment is placed here by Dr. Hite and his minions? I am anonymous because I am a school district employee reading and writing this on my lunch break. Otherwise you would see my name. I do not approve of information that is manipulative, when it is from a writer who will not step forward. This is the problem, a fear based society in which stakeholders will not own their opinions. This democratic society, which is being eroded as I write, is in great peril. I implore all citizens who understand what is happening, to step up, speak up, and work tirelessly to stop the corporatization of public education.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 12:32 pm
amen. they've been telegraphing this move for over a year. it's a done deal now. and trying to form "coalitions" propped up with union money is not going to get it. bogus legal manuvers won't due. it's all the same old same old from the usual susects. it's over. i really hope the above community member and parent will find a better placement for her child. she deserves better.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 4:12 pm
Every thinking person does not have to be manipulated by the District and its 'minions'. I choose to be anonymous in expressing my opinion (and that's all it is, my opinion) because of the small minded who can't simply disagree but must go a step further and try to personally attack me because they don't like what I have said. I have as much a right to my right my opinion as any. Being anonymous simply keeps personal slights to a minimum. Unfortunately, we live in a very petty society and not everyone has the ability to just read with interest the opinion of another without becoming venomous in their reply. I'm not claiming to know anything special or have the utopian solution. Just expressing my opinion. Just sayin'
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on December 14, 2012 5:33 pm
It is true that the District held many meetings about the Facilities Master Plan. At the same time, people may not have been able to foresee how the SDP would use the FMP. If the FMP fully guided the school closing recommendations, then why was the BCG report necessary? Also, the current recommendations are not exactly the same as the FMP. And I keep asking this question, but why hasn't the District been more vigilant about making charters locate in vacant/underutilized District buildings? EGS
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on December 15, 2012 3:12 pm
EGS---Money, Money, Money !! Money. These folks were told exactly what to do and they did rather than risk there lively hood.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2012 10:47 pm
This is sad that many schools mainly in poverty stricken neighborhoods are being affected, not one school in the northeast is closing. The reason that school are closing are because inaffective teachers such a Sharon Newman formerly of Edison High School. She was late evey day if she came in all, yet she always claim to be there for the students the staff and students were quite happy to see her leave. Thankfully we have a new teacher that is on time and here every day to but our principal had to totally recreate a position to ge.t rid of a pest. If the district would do away with teachers like her we would have an almost perfect district.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 18, 2012 9:03 am
"... parents should have been more involved. Unfortunately, parents of those who are 97% under the poverty line don't have much of a voice or representation. They depend on "educated community leaders, politicians and school professionals" to represent their interests, and they have been let down." Poverty does not equal voiceless, stupid or powerless. These parents are inactive and apathetic for many reasons (none valid if it means their children suffer). No one should 'depend' on someone else's intellect or political connection to get what they are entitled to. That's just a lazy man's road to nowhere, apathy defined. That's like wanting steak and eating garbage just because an 'educated community or political leader gave it to you. People have got to stop finding excuses and placing blame. We have got to accept some accountability for what we allow to happen, roll up our sleeves and fix it. Change is always hard but to do nothing or maintain a status quo with a proven history of failure is insanity. Good and dedicated teachers are being discourged and lost. Opportunity for quality education is being trampled on to save a system that does not offer the same opportunity for achievement to ALL students. There is no easy solution at this point. No matter what happens there are going to be LOTS of unhappy folks. I just hope the children get the education they deserve without another decade or so of research, analysis and waste of financial resourses with no result.
Submitted by Classroom Cowboy (not verified) on December 15, 2012 8:45 am
I am a Philadelphia high school teacher. I agree that parents should have been more involved. Unfortunately, parents of those who are 97% under the poverty line don't have much of a voice or representation. They depend on "educated community leaders, politicians and school professionals" to represent their interests, and they have been let down. What we have to deal with in community schools is the permanent underclass. Children who cannot or refuse to perform are shunted into "community schools." Therefore, the school district has created a repository for "throw away kids." They have to house them till they are 18. Working as a teacher in one of these places is a challenging, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes rewarding experience. Giving students the ability to perform at grade level is what we work on every day even though we get kids from middle school working at 4th and 5th grade levels or worse. We teachers in the classrooms have to fight parental apathy, the frustration of undisciplined angry children, a raft of mental and emotional disabilities, unsafe and unsanitary broken buildings, and hostile administrators that want to blame us for any failings of the system. Those of us left in the classroom, our ranks have been decimated by a union busting SRC and a series of flunky superintendents, have been hamstrung by a new student coddling discipline code. My school has no in-school suspension, effective electronics policy, or enforced dress code. I have to compete with loud earbuds, cell phones going off, texting and kids who refuse to stop loud talking. I have to pay for and supply kids with paper and something to write with or they won't do any classwork. I cover the holes in my blackboards with posters. I give my students homework that 90% of students refuse to do. I get called every name in the book for trying to do my job. For some reason, I haven't thrown in the towel like most Philly teachers do before their fifth year in this mismanaged mess known as the School District of Philadelphia. I make 20% less than my suburban counterparts with a master's degrees. Now do you know why I call myself a classroom cowboy? Those of us who stick this out for a career are few and far between. We're classroom cowboys alone on the range, despised and maligned yet still showing up to teach those 1 or 2 kids in each class that want to get an education and make something of themselves.
Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on December 16, 2012 2:36 am
nicely stated
Submitted by work home business resource (not verified) on February 7, 2013 8:50 pm
Greetings! Very useful advice within this article! It's the little changes that will make the most significant changes. Thanks for sharing!
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on December 14, 2012 10:00 am

The name of the Coalition that held the rally is Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) which has 14 member organizations including students, parents, community groups and unions.  Our statement on the closings: 

 

The SRC’s decision to close 37 schools comes just weeks after the School District of Philadelphia admitted that its rating system, a significant factor in the evaluation and closing process, is flawed and unusable.  Today’s announcement marks the endgame of months spent ignoring the input of students, parents, teachers, and the people living and working in the neighborhoods that depend on these schools.  It’s the product of years of political gamesmanship in City Hall and Harrisburg, where elected officials demand more and more from Philadelphia families and teachers, but offer to help them less and less.

 

These closings will force thousands of students to attend unfamiliar schools farther from their homes, teachers and friends.  The neighborhoods these schools have anchored for decades will lose yet another force of positive energy and hope.  Teachers, administrators, school personnel and the families who depend on these jobs will now almost certainly face the stress and uncertainty of layoffs.

 

Like the SRC and others, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) understands that our local education system must be reformed.  However, PCAPS believes that students, parents, teachers and communities deserve better than shuttered schools and an education plan that owes more to the boardroom than the classroom. 

 

We implore the District leadership to hold off on closing these schools or expanding charters until a full community-impact study is completed.  We can’t kick children, teachers and employees out of their schools until we make a sincere attempt to solicit and understand their experiences and perspectives.  We shouldn’t throw up our hands until the SRC, our elected officials and others with a stake in the future of our City demand that Harrisburg reprioritize the education of our city’s future leaders.

 

This is an opportunity for our local and state leaders to join with students, parents and teachers to renew our commitment to improving local schools.  Unfortunately, today’s announcement is confirmation that the SRC and its allies remain dedicated to following a  path of school shutdowns, job cuts and indifference to communities across the City.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on December 15, 2012 3:03 pm
I've been writing for 2.5 years that the people need to fight this kind of abuse and to NOT expect politicians to do the right thing...................especially where money is concerned. Our leaders have failed us and they simply don't care about the kids, not really. Dollar signs on the backs of those kids, yes, but not the best interests of those same kids. If truth be told, these business types know they're unwelcome in suburban areas so those attack the most vulnerable among us. Nutter should be ashamed but without self respect, you can't feel shame. By the way, if he ran for Mayor tomorrow, he'd win again by a landslide. Stupid is as stupid does.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on December 16, 2012 10:58 am
Joe, Keep writing. As this story emerges in the coming months, many new readers will join the notebook readership. These readers will include many Philadelphians who are looking more deeply into our education scenario for the first time. It will include many naive, earnest people who actually are expecting that our governing officials are willing to stand up and to demand our citizens rights to public schools. We need to meet these readers where they are- in the way we meet the child in the classroom where they are. We need to educate them from the beginning. We need to explain the national trends eroding the peoples rights to a participatory democratic process with regard to our schools. We should all be alarmed at this trend.

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