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School-closings plan gets raucous reception in North Philadelphia

By Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner on Jan 9, 2013 01:33 AM
Photo: Charlotte Pope

Nearly a thousand angry students and parents from North Philadelphia turned out to a community meeting Tuesday night to challenge the School District’s school-closings plan, which would hit their neighborhood especially hard.

“How do you justify closing 12 schools in North Philadelphia?” asked Shamiah Simms, a 6th grader at T.M. Peirce Elementary, 23rd and Cambria Streets.

Along with Peirce, Strawberry Mansion High and LP Hill, Whittier, Duckrey, Meade, Reynolds and Morris elementary schools would be shut down altogether under the proposal. Vaux High, Rhodes Middle, and Pratt Elementary would lose their academic programs, and the Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson would move out of its building.

From elected officials to 1st graders, the crowd overwhelmingly denounced the plan.

“I have a real problem with it,” said City Council President Darrell Clarke, whose district covers much of North Philadelphia. 

“I say we should fight back!” said 7-year-old Sariyah Sparks, to raucous approval from the overflow audience in the auditorium at Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School.

Citywide, the District wants to close 37 school buildings and relocate or reconfigure dozens more. Since December, Superintendent William Hite has pressed the argument that dramatic action is necessary in order to save $28 million a year and focus the District’s attention on improving the remaining schools. In North Philadelphia, the superintendent said, the District has failed for years to adjust to declining student enrollment.

But at Tuesday’s forum, the first of nine, Hite and other officials struggled to make their case.  Their attempt to begin the meeting with a formal presentation was drowned out by chants and jeers.

“Welcome to North Philly,” parent activist Dawn Hawkins told the superintendent.

Those in attendance questioned nearly everything about the District’s recommendations for their neighborhood, from how it would impact the academic offerings available to students to how students with severe disabilities would be affected.  

Khayriyyah Murray was one of dozens in the crowd who focused on student safety. 

Under the plan, Murray’s son, a 5th grader, would be reassigned from Duckrey Elementary, a block from her house and around the corner from Temple University, to M.H. Stanton Elementary, several blocks away.

“Now, he walks by college students on his way to school. To get to Stanton, he’d be walking by drug dealers and dropouts,” Murray said.

And 15-year-old Nacir Macklin-Collins was part of a large contingent from the Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson. The District wants to relocate that school from its current location at 13th and Susquehanna to Germantown, prompting worries about transportation.

“My mom don’t have a car. My dad don’t have a car. How am I going to get home?” asked Macklin-Collins.

Others focused on the District’s proposal to close Strawberry Mansion High.

Frank Thorne, an alumnus of the school, angrily questioned Hite on why Mansion is being closed, rather than improved: “I’m asking you, man to man, what you are you going to do to fix it?”

But Thorne’s own experience highlights the District’s dilemma.

Though Mansion would be his daughter’s neighborhood school, he sends her to Mastery-Simon Gratz, a former District high school now run by an outside charter operator. Thorne cited the school’s superior curriculum and communication with parents as motivations for his decision.

He’s not alone. 

According to the District, 2,053 students live in Mansion’s geographic boundary, but only 332 of those children attend the school. Nearly 600 attend charters.

The result is that the school has room for more than 1,700 students, but is 75 percent vacant.

“Right now we’re spending a lot of money on maintaining seats that are empty,” Hite said. “We would much rather have those monies go to offering students a better curriculum, more technology, more individuals that can help with safety, more music, more art, more opportunities for many of our students.”

In the short term, any savings from school closings would go toward helping plug the District’s massive budget deficit, projected to balloon to a cumulative $1 billion by 2017-18 if action isn’t taken now. 

But Hite was adamant that the downsizing would allow the District to better compete over the long haul.

“We are trying to make our schools better so that when people are making choices about schools, they’re choosing District schools,” he said.

“But we cannot do that if we’re carrying 53,000 empty seats.”

On this night in North Philadelphia, however, that message did not go over well. 

Council President Clarke called some of the recommendations “flawed” and said he intends to sit down with Hite to “see if there is a willingness to make changes.”

Also unhappy were State Sen. Shirley Kitchen, who called the District’s plan “disrespectful,” and State Rep. J.P. Miranda, who called it “disgusting.”

And representatives from Action United, Youth United for Change, and the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) also denounced the plan.

“We have a recommendation for you: a one-year moratorium on all school closings,” Ron Whitehorne, a PCAPS leader, told District staff.

The next community forum on the school-closings plan is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Edison High School, 151 W. Luzerne St.

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Comments (37)

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 9, 2013 1:02 am
Two things from this article stick out: Frank Thorne, an alumnus of the school, angrily questioned Hite on why Mansion is being closed, rather than improved. “I’m asking you, man to man, what you are you going to do to fix it?” said Thorne. But Thorne’s own experience highlights the District’s dilemma. Though Mansion would be his daughter’s neighborhood school, he sends her to Mastery-Simon Gratz, a former district high school now run by an outside charter operator. Thorne cited the school’s superior curriculum and communication with parents as motivations for his decision. He’s not alone. According to the district, 2,053 students live in Mansion’s geographic boundary, but only 332 of those children attend the school. Nearly 600 attend charters. The result is that the school has room for more than 1,700 students, but is 75 percent vacant." It's an interesting contradiction because Mr. Thorne wants SMHS to stay open, but he won't send his own child there. In terms of Vaux HS, it's a Promise Academy but the District wants to close it. Would the District close a Renaissance high school run by a charter operator?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 8:40 am
Mr. Thorne makes no sense at all. His daughter should be attending SMHS, yet he sends her to a charter ran school - Mastery-Simon Gratz. When Mr. Thorne attended SMHS I'm should it was nothing like it is today.How do you justify your decision? Just like Mr. Thorne, parents have choosen to sent their children elsewhere inorder to receive a better education.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 9, 2013 1:50 am
Two things from this article stick out: Frank Thorne, an alumnus of the school, angrily questioned Hite on why Mansion is being closed, rather than improved. But Thorne’s own experience highlights the District’s dilemma. Though Mansion would be his daughter’s neighborhood school, he sends her to Mastery-Simon Gratz, a former district high school now run by an outside charter operator. Thorne cited the school’s superior curriculum and communication with parents as motivations for his decision. It's an interesting contradiction because Mr. Thorne wants SMHS to stay open, but he won't send his own child there. In terms of Vaux HS, it's a Promise Academy but the District wants to close it. Would the District close a Renaissance high school run by a charter operator? EGS
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on January 9, 2013 4:14 am
Mr. Thorne's point about communication with parents is important. How many School District schools have a web site that is updated monthly? (There are magnet schools that don't even have this simple method of communicating with parents). It is also complicated for parents to access a student's daily attendance and grades. (The SDP grade book is inadequate and a bit tricky to access.) How often does a school send phone messages to parents? (Granted, not everyone's phone is working but it still should be used.) What about text messages? District schools need to expand communication with parents/guardians, including the "old" paper method. Monthly calendars should be sent home to highlight what is happening at the school. I've experienced both charter and District schools. By far, the charter provides much better home communication. This is not true of all charters but District schools should be required to at least update their web site, send home a calendar, all teachers should use an on-line grade book, etc.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 7:57 am
I think the district could do a better job of 'advertising' parental access to grade book but I tell my parents about it but few access it. I don't see much point in assigning blame on either side but it exists, most teachers use it (at my school you have to), but few parents access it. Obviously there's a problem somewhere.
Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on January 9, 2013 8:47 pm
thank you...I thought I was the only one...perhaps at the parent teacher meetings an assembly could be held to demonstrate how to access the grades....or a letter home...something...I am tired of angry parents who only know the grades when I send letters home every three weeks and then show up to conferences demanding I change the grade.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 9, 2013 7:30 am
It's good to finally see the City Reps from Council speaking up. O.K. now how about some alternate solutions along with the anger? Dr. Hite could've said, "In order to keep these buildings open, you will need to pay $___ more each in taxes. Would you be willing to do this?" Come on City Council, how about proposing a tax break for any business that can come up with a viable plan to share a building and is willing to contribute to the upkeep costs; Preference given for one that can create a supplementary vocational component to add to the educational program? Seems we're not against private partnerships at the PSD, and it would be an income stream (the maintenance support) rather than a one time cash infusion (as in a sale). It would offer a better option, if the enrollment should ever increase in the future, than having to reinvest in new capital structures. Finally, it might encourage new businesses to locate in Philly, and attract grant money also. In the shorter term, perhaps sharing teachers at low enrollment schools might save enough considering new District transportation costs would be avoided. Teachers would be teaching several low enrollment classes rather than one overcrowded one (result of consolidation). Technology would have to be incorporated for part of the time to enable this. Other ideas?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 7:15 am
I'm a teacher who doesn't have all that much to say about this plan. The one thing I think is clear is that this is a big short-term disruption and has little chance of improving student outcomes. The overall plan may or may not be a good idea in the mid-to-long-term. What I think the District and State need to focus on is 1) tiered classes so that high-performing students aren't held back and low-performing students aren't left behind and 2) resources for poorer students especially early childhood education. I think inclusion has failed most of our students. I can see the boredom on the faces of my best students during lectures even as I try to give them extra work. It is impossible to practice effective differentiation in a classroom where students range from a third grade to a high school reading level. We need the resources to provide interventions for low-performing students and the ability to elevate the class level for the best students. I've seen far too many really bright students held back by being in a bad school. As a result they are not prepared for college. We need to fix that and give them a chance.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 8:45 am
best advice as of yet on how to improve the outcomes of the PSD. I to am a teacher and have witnessed the same boredom and lack of rigor negatively affecting promising students. When you try to challenge promising students, you leave behind the majority of your class. When you leave behind the majority of your class, you are called into an administrative conference where you have to justify failing such a large number of students. In addition, you also punish yourself by having to complete onerous paperwork such as RTII or CSAP in order to fail an individual. So take a moment to ponder that, If you teach your classes and challenge the students with grade appropriate assignments and many fail, you as an educator are punished for challenging students. "Rigor" & "raising the bar" are in complete conflict with differentiated instruction. Sounds like the PSD is "throwing away the babies with the bath water"
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 9, 2013 9:00 am
And there you have it, the justification for special admission schools. Some of the "fixes" that helped at my neighborhood school, were letting the few bored kids actually take some of the higher level classes. This requires cooperation between grade level teachers. Our neighborhood high school was 11 minutes walking distance from the elementary/middle school. Sometimes the kids that are advanced academically could benefit from other skill building... for example using drama around curriculum allows them to continue to interact with their age group peers while developing social skills and challenging their creativity to use what they are learning in class. I stubbornly support neighborhood schools for younger kids (elementary and middle school). The community involvement possible is irreplaceable, and the value of sleep, especially to growth and development, has been proven greater than popularly acknowledged, through scientific research.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 11, 2013 12:22 am
Ms. Cheng, Just food for thought, special education students have to be in the least restrictive environment. This has created a push toward inclusion. Why isn't there a push toward inclusion with gifted students, having them be in the same school with other children instead of segregated in different schools? There's nothing wrong with having different classes, e.g. honors classes, regular, and remedial, but why is it okay to segregate gifted students but not special ed students? EGS
Submitted by Joan Taylor on January 9, 2013 9:22 am
The problem with inclusion is that it's not a cost-cutter if it is run effectively--which it hasn't been in the SDP. To use inclusion properly, more personnel--trained teachers as well as teaching aides--are needed. In the SDP, we have a lot of dumping, but very little actual inclusion. If we did, I would bet it would not hamper higher performing children. We'd be able to individualize and differentiate instruction, which is at best a constant struggle as we currently operate.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on January 9, 2013 11:24 am
The issue is really the ages old debate of heterogeneous grouping vs. homogeneous grouping. Over the years I have read several studies about what actually happens in heterogeneous classrooms. Most teachers end up teaching to the top students. The others almost always taught to the mean. I have never read any study which found that teachers in heterogeneous classrooms teach to the bottom of the class. I have taught reading in high school in both heterogeneous classes and homogeneous classes. I have taught reading as a high school English teacher in a completely heterogeneous setting and I have taught reading in a content area as a high school law teacher. During all of those years, I gave pre and post reading level assessments, usually the MAT 6. What I learned is that it is impossible to remediate serious reading disability in heterogeneous classrooms. Disabled readers carry emotional and psychological defenses with them. They more often hide their deficiencies in an effort to "not be found out." Defiance is one of them. The mantra the school district has followed in the past ten years of, teachers need to "differentiate instruction" on their own, has not worked and can not work to meet the needs of disabled students. The proof is in our test scores and the need to cheat on the tests. To succeed with disabled students, they need instruction at their instructional level every day delivered by a highly skilled "teacher." As students move upward in grades, the range of levels among students increases. A more realistic and practical approach is to "differentiate curriculum" and "differentiate course offerings." The most proferred argument against homogeneous grouping, which is a lightening rod, is the history of "tracking." However, the "academic stratification" of students at the high school level because of our "special admissions" processes in our district is "academic segregation" which is, of course, "tracking by another name." The answer is that all schools should offer a "rich variety of classes and offerings designed to meet specific needs of individual students." Students then could take a course or two which meet their "appropriate level of challenge" and their individual needs. You know, like we used to do before the state takeover of our schools and the test preparation, "one size fits all" curriculum was imposed upon us.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 9, 2013 4:58 pm
Rich, I 100% agree with your point: What I learned is that it is impossible to remediate serious reading disability in heterogeneous classrooms. Disabled readers carry emotional and psychological defenses with them. They more often hide their deficiencies in an effort to "not be found out." Defiance is one of them. At the elementary level, even though Trophies provides differentiated worksheets and activities (Extra support, ELL), these only work for students who are at most one year below grade level in reading. Children who are nonreaders need an intervention like Wilson or Reading Mastery to help them build their foundational skills. I worked with a second grader during my student teaching who was a nonreader. I gave him individualized Trophies lessons so that he had exposure to the regular ed curriculum. He was also receiving Reading Mastery instruction in the Learning Support classroom as well as work on building his sight vocabulary. But he needed individualized instruction in the learning support setting. This is the whole point of special ed in the first place -- meet kids where they are and help them progress as best they can. Differentiation of instruction works well for children who aren't too far behind, but kids who are 2 or more years need more than what differentiation can provide. Your comments point out the tension about how to help students who are below grade level in reading. There's the principle of least restrictive environment but then there's the principle of what is best for the kid and what is feasible? During my student teaching, my cooperating teacher and the school were dealing with special ed legal cases. I view LRE as a good thing. If the law didn't say LRE, parents could argue that the best placement for their kid is one-on-one tutoring and they would have legal standing. Imaging how expensive it would be to give every struggling reader one-on-one tutoring. Parents who want one-on-one tutoring either have to pay themselves or use compensatory ed money. Education Grad Student
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 9, 2013 4:29 pm
Differentiation of instruction works well for children who aren't too far behind, but kids who are 2 or more years *behind* need more than what differentiation can provide.
Submitted by Sukey Blanc on January 9, 2013 9:56 am
Good article Ben, but it might be worth clarifying that the District hasn't provided any information to support its claim that closing schools will save $$ in the short run. Last night Dr. Hite again promised that students and schools would receive the support they need to be effective under the plan. Has anyone seen a dollar figure for how much the SDP would need to spend to keep this promise? It would mean new transportation, new school climate and safety measures, professional development for schools with new grade configurations, facilities renovations for merged schools, etc. etc.?
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 9, 2013 9:21 am

Good point, Sukey.   In both Chicago and Washington, the savings from school closings turned out to be grossly exagerated, and it is likely to be the case here as well.   By the time all the costs are figured in the savings will be modest indeed.   Even by the District;s numbers this is less than one percent of the budget and is hardly going to provide a foundation for improving neighborhood schools.

 

That's why PCAPS is calling for a one year moratorium.   Stop this destructive, divisive process.   Take a step back to look at alternatives like community schools.   And, more importantly, address what is really needed to stop falling enrollment.   The District needs to shfit the conversation from living on a subsistence budget to getting what our children need and deserve   And policy changes and legislation are need to make charter schools transparent and equitable.   For more information on PCAPS go to: www.wearePCAPS.org

 

 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 5:19 pm
And the dollar figures we have don't add up. They're closing 37 schools to save $28 million a year. But the deficit adds up to $1 billion over 5 years. And Hite's going to improve the remaining schools by redistributing saved monies? Huh?!
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 1:00 pm
What people on this blog don't seem to get is that it's NOT the District or some wealthy cabal who are closing schools... it's parents. 55,000 of them who have left the District to go to other schools because the District, after years of more chances, hasn't met their needs. Want to know how to keep Strawberry Mansion open? If the parents of the 1,700 children who live there but don't go there were to enroll their kids in SM, it stays open. I feel for the 17,000 kids impact by school closings but THREE times that number have already left because the system wasn't delivering and that is what's driving this, the failure of these schools to produce, despite years of more chances, more resources and since long before charters, testing, or "ed reform."
Submitted by tom-104 on January 9, 2013 2:17 pm
The School District has been run by the state for ten years. Has it ever occurred to you, given that our legislature in controlled by friends of ALEC, that the starving of public schools has been deliberate to force parents to move their children to charters.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 1:16 pm
It all fell on deaf ears.....Hite and others could not answer the questions. Public school is here to stay! We need to keep fighting and stop taking away the peoples right to a free education. It makes me sick!!!!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 2:48 pm
Does anyone really think that all of these schools will indeed close? Thanks.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on January 9, 2013 5:26 pm
They will likely be happy with 25 school closings not 37. The point is no money will be saved and they already know that. It's the old dark ages strategy of starving out the fort while little by little breaking the main structures holding it together like the outside walls. The SRC has destroyed the schools from the inside and by design, by friendly fire.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 4:20 pm
For five years under Vallas and three years under Ackerman, the District budget swelled by almost $1.5 bil. Nobody was starving. Wasting, but not starving.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 9, 2013 4:27 pm
But pension costs weren't as much 5 to 10 years ago as they are today. This is not to say that pension costs are the main problem. Yes, pension costs are a factor, but Corbett also won't raise taxes. Corbett's unwillingness to raise taxes on high earners and natural gas drilling is a big part of the problem. If Rendell was still in office, Philadelphia wouldn't be in this predicament.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 4:48 pm
Teachers have been paying the required pension contributions. School Districts were left "off the hook" and now have to pay. It is the fault of the Dept. of Ed - not the teachers.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 9, 2013 5:11 pm
And what did I say...the reason pensions are a problem is that CORBETT WON'T RAISE TAXES on rich people and natural gas companies!
Submitted by tom-104 on January 9, 2013 4:40 pm
The public schools were starving. Ackerman poured all of the funding during the Ackerman years in to Promise Academies, Renaissance Schools, and charters. Vallas had a massive capital budget to build new schools some of which, such as Audienried (which Universal did not have to pay rent or custodial costs for in the first year), immediately after being built were turned over to charters.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 4:24 pm
Yes the pensions are a big part of the problem. And Ackerman didn't authorize one new charter in her time here. She did renaissance schools, but no new charters.
Submitted by tom-104 on January 9, 2013 5:11 pm
Anyone who worked in the school district during the Ackerman years knows the public schools were being systematically starved. Each year the operating budgets were reduced In the spring of 2011 Finance Director Masch was holding community meetings around the city. He did a Power Point presentation which showed the proposed budget. Allocations, when compared with previous years, were down, down, down. Allocations for charters were up, up, up. I wondered at the time why they would make such a presentation to parents. Then it occurred to me, he was telling the parents to get out of public school now!
Submitted by diraj (not verified) on January 9, 2013 7:10 pm
They tell us public schools are the cause what do you expect in phila. they only hire puppets or people of greed. Hite found out phila is a gold mine for charter and cyber schools. doesnt matter that the city controller and the state auditor proved that the state would save 395 million dollars a year if they stop paying charter and cyber schools massive funds and pay them the same rate as public schools. and charge them the same rent as public schoolsOr the real reason why Corbett stop giving Phila school because of the 60 million dollars giving to the charter that took over MLK. Corbett said if Phila has that much money to give away. we are not in need. how the school district was considered a personal ATM machine since 1997 for the ones in charge. But we are to stupid to know this.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 7:42 pm
Many of you are smart people so you should all understand that the district is broke. People that talk like us and look like us! We should support our schools! I agree 100%! Pay your taxes and take responsibility for the education of your children! They are talking about closing Germantown and sending the students to roxborough! How about closing rox instead. None of this kids live in our neighborhood, yet we have to deal with the problems these hoodlums cause
Submitted by diraj (not verified) on January 9, 2013 7:28 pm
I remeber one parent bragging about his kids charter school how they built a brand new gym for their students. I wonder how much cost the tax payers had to pay for that.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 9:23 pm
All I know is that the entire system is screwed up. Greenwoods Charter is building a brand new school because they couldn't find a suitable building to grow. This Year Lankenau HS right us the street from greenwoods old location is set to close. They couldn't forsee that and make a savings there? Just turn these inner city schools into prisons and get it over with. When you have children having children sooner or later the moral structure of the community is going to break down. "People that look like us, and talk like us." pathetic statement from a parent who I am going to guess doesn't pay into the system only takes away from it.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 10, 2013 8:51 am
i can tell you that the charter construction costs are far less than anything the district builds. the cost of a district schools is always in the $60 mil range or higher. no charter buildings cost anywhere near that amount.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 10, 2013 8:54 am
i can tell you that the charter construction costs are far less than anything the district builds. the cost of a district schools is always in the $60 mil range or higher. no charter buildings cost anywhere near that amount.
Submitted by J (not verified) on January 10, 2013 11:50 am
Ms. Cheng's suggestion that "...how about proposing a tax break for any business that can come up with a viable plan to share a building and is willing to contribute to the upkeep costs..." inconsistent with IRS regulations. Since District issued tax-free municipal bonds, guaranteed by the state, to build/ improve schools only 5% of any school building can be leased to a for-profit company. Better alternative would be to lease space to charter schools at market rates, sell building outright, or lease space to city/state or other nonprofit entity. Problem is few buildings are in locations a third-party might want or require too much expense to rehab.

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