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With school-closures pitch, District needs to improve its art of persuasion

By Samuel Reed III on Jan 18, 2013 01:03 PM
Photo: Flickr/Brett Jordan

I have attended several of the community forums where the public has weighed in on the Philadelphia School District's facilities master plan. The comments and counterproposals regarding the closing of 37 schools and relocation of others have been passionate, provocative, and persuasive.

The District, on the other hand, needs to study up on the art of persuasion.

There's a language problem with the way the District discusses underutilized school buildings. The language of "empty seats" is just that -- empty.

Seats are inanimate objects, which mean nothing to affected parents and students. As this tweet from the Philadelphia Student Union noted, “Students aren't good seats or bad seats. They are people who have the right to a quality education.”

The language of empty seats is not persuading the public that the District's closings and relocation plan will improve the fiscal or educational outcomes for the District.

I teach my middle school students to read, write, and think critically. One of my favorite lessons is modeling for my students the effective use of their natural rhetorical skills to win arguments in both academic settings and in real life. At first they struggle, as I teach to them the Aristotelian vocabulary of logos, pathos, ethos. But once they learn to use these persuasive tools, I regret it. Now, I rarely win arguments with my students.

District officials should themselves revisit these rhetorical tools if they want to win public support for the plan to retool where and how students are taught.

Logos: Arguments by logic

As Helen Gym noted in her blog post "The numbers don't seem to add up," the District has not persuaded the public that closing schools will save money. According to Gym, and many others who have spoken at the community meetings, the $28 million in savings from closing schools does not account for the transition costs and other hidden expenses associated with restructuring the District.

The District has tried to invoke the logic that there is no other choice. Officials repeat that the economies achieved by closing and combining schools with excess capacity will allow the District to fund more programs that improve the quality of education for a greater number of students.

Instead of using the argument, We want to improve the quality of education for all students, but we can't because there is no money, District leaders and officials should say, We will improve the quality of education, and we can do it by finding the additional resources from stakeholders who have the money -- namely the state government, foundations, and the organizations that generate substantial revenues but don't pay their fair share of taxes.

There is no money but we can close schools is an argument that denotes subtractions. Rather, the District needs to envision a way to communicate, Yes, we can keep schools open AND we can find alternative sources of funds to make it happen.

Pathos: Argument by emotional appeal

Members of the community have passionately offered reasoned and emotional appeals to keep schools in their neighborhoods open. Often the most effective use of pathos has been waged not by the loudest or most seasoned activists, but by students.

Sharee Miller, a student at Beeber Middle School, where I teach, has prepared a statement for the upcoming community meeting at Overbook High School on Jan. 22. Sharee plans to ask Superintendent William Hite, "If you had a kid living in this neighborhood, would you want your child to attend a school that is not set up for younger students?"

Some students have talked about how closing schools would be akin to separating them from their family. Others say that the District's decision to shutter schools will result in "post-school closure trauma" for many young people.

The District needs to find a way to win its argument by demonstrating that it empathizes with the affected communities, which are disproportionately in communities of lower social economic status; i.e., the wrong zip codes.

At the community forums, Hite and his leadership team have not been able to change the mood of the crowd. In part, this is because they have not registered the concerns of students, parents and teachers and the crowds have been unwieldy. A lesson I have learned from my students is that if I let mob psychology take over, forget it. I am not going to win any argument that day.

Ethos: Argument by character

I tell my students that ethos is often the most effective tool of persuasion. Young people understand that actions speak louder than words, and if you don't have "cred," no one is going to be easily swayed by your argument.

Hite comes with considerable "cred" from running the school district in Prince George's County, Md. But he needs to garner substantial goodwill in Philadelphia to be successful in this town. (Andy Reid knows a lot about how tough this town can be.)

Because Hite is new in the city, he has an advantage and could win public trust by taking more risks -- veering the train that was already moving when he arrived. And instead of shuttering schools, he could work with PCAPS and other stakeholders to find alternatives. This bold move would shift the ethos of the maligned District and persuade the public to focus on Hite's vision and his "Action Plan v1.0" to meet the needs of 21st-century learners.

To retool its art of persuasion, the District should agree with the one-year moratorium on school closures that PCAPS has proposed. And come, watch and learn from some the best rhetorical experts sitting in classrooms across the city.

Samuel Reed III, a teacher consultant with the Philadelphia Writing Project, is an active member of the Teacher Action Group (TAG Philly) and has been teaching middle school literacy for 15 years.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (21)

Submitted by Susan DeJarnatt (not verified) on January 18, 2013 1:52 pm
Thanks Sam for a thoughtful post. For many years, my kids went to our neighborhood school and I can really relate to the parents and kids facing loss of their schools. For all the constant talk of how great and important "choice," it seems like the choice of parents to use the neighborhood school doesn't count. Why aren't our choices just as valid and important as the choice of people who leave the neighborhood?
Submitted by Samuel Reed III on January 18, 2013 4:57 pm


Thank you. Clearly more choice is less choice. I plan to write a commentary piece on how school choice complicates providing a quality public education  for a greater number of families. I would love to hear what others think about school choice. 

Submitted by Susan DeJarnatt (not verified) on January 18, 2013 4:16 pm
I've written two academic articles about these issues--not to push them on you but you might find them interesting. The short version is that school choice is too often the schools choosing the students and not the other way around--and the destructive effect that has on the democratic value of a public school system that serves all students, an ideal I know we haven't achieved but I haven't given up on yet! If you are interested, email me at and I can send you the links.
Submitted by tom-104 on January 18, 2013 6:13 pm
It's not only less choice Sam, there is no choice in the SRC closure plan. They're just spin doctors!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 18, 2013 4:40 pm
While it would be ideal for everyone to attend their neighborhood school - including high school - the reality of the disparity in Philadelphia schools makes that unlikely. If someone can afford to live in Queen Village and send their children to Meredith, in University City and send their children to Penn Alexander, in Filter Square and send their children to Greenfield... then it might work but most of us can not afford to live in wealthy sections of Philadelphia. It is more complicated with high schools. Neighborhood high schools - other than a few in the Northeast - have been decimated. If magnet programs were returned to neighborhood high schools (like Northeast and Washington), then, maybe, neighborhood high schools would be rejuvenated. The only thing coming out of the SRC is moving Lankanau to Roxborough. Why not SLA to Univ. City? Palumbo combined with Furness? Masterman HS (not 5 - 8_ to Ben Franklin? GAMP 9 - 12 to Southern? The list goes on....
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 18, 2013 2:23 pm
The cost savings of school closures are questionable. Here are a couple of articles: D.C. school closings won't save District much money, report says Minimal cost savings for closing schools: analysis EGS
Submitted by Mary Beth Hertz (not verified) on January 18, 2013 7:34 pm
Sam, I saw you speak at one of the earlier community forums about the basic fact that high schools were not made to house elementary age students. This is is something that I can speak to from experience and it is something that I think people need to pay attention to. Before Bluford was shuttered and charter-ized, we were relocated to Turner Middle School on Baltimore Avenue. We were a K-6 school housed in a middle school building. Our Kindergarten rooms were in the Home Economics rooms. There were no bathrooms in the classrooms, and there were no bathrooms, period, that were made for little people. There were lockers in the hallways, so no student work could really be displayed, and some of the specialist teachers had to teach in science labs with black tables, sinks and eye wash stations. Our Reading and Math Specialists had a room like this. As Helen Gym and others have stated, there are hidden costs to making a high school like Vaux able to host elementary age students. I hope to catch your student's question next week!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 18, 2013 8:10 pm
Here's the thing Mr.Reed, they don't feel tha they HAVE to convince anyone because they retain the right to do whatever they have planned.They have obligatory meetings to allow the public to "share ideas and strategies," but there is no ethos or pathos because it's all unethical. Retool their language to convince people? This practice is equivalent to a hostile takeover.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on January 19, 2013 10:38 am
BINGO !!!! I totally agree with your sentiments, giving credibility to their actions, is ridiculous and a waste of time and energy. They have no credibility for what they're doing and THEY know it. They simply don't care and we need to deal with them from that frame of reference. I get so frustrated reading posts that deny the facts and rely on feelings. I know Sam personally and nobody is more well intentioned than he but the SRC and the whole "reform" movement, don't deserve respect at any level.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 18, 2013 8:56 pm
"The District needs to find a way to win its argument by demonstrating that it empathizes with the affected communities, " >> I think you may have it backwards,The public needs to win it's argument by demonstrating TO the SRC that these closing have to come to a halt. With all due respect to the wonderful students who have letters prepared, the SRC and TPTB do not care. When my generation says "we walked to school," it means that there were actual brick and mortar schools on all lelvels that were available to us in our neighborhoods, and look what this city has become. The mayor reneged on his promise to return the School District to the city.
Submitted by Madam M (not verified) on January 18, 2013 8:43 pm
Oh, please! They will get over it. They will find another classroom to disrupt, another bulletin board to destroy. I was never more happier when my school closed. I wouldn't have to face these barbarians anymore.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 18, 2013 9:19 pm
If you're really a teacher your attitude shows why you did not get any respect!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 19, 2013 9:45 am
This was a good read. However, does anyone seriously believe that the district will be able to persuade the community to agree with school closings? Also, who are these stakeholders that will give up money to fund the betterment of the schools that will remain open? Can Dr. Hite really come in and "take risks"? The last time I checked this city was no fan of leadership that intend to "go against the grain" so to speak. What's really sad is that the folks who want to come out yelling and screaming should have been yelling and screaming a long time ago. Then maybe some of these schools would be in better condition and not subject to close.
Submitted by Rita (not verified) on January 19, 2013 10:59 am
At our recent meeting with parents, some expressed a feeling that they are being given the "bum's rush." So much to take in - in such a short time. They would like to offer their suggestions and seek alternative plans for a school (Overbrook Elementary) that has been working well. The one year-moratorium on school closures would help them come to understand just how the facts and figures of each particular school played into the criteria and decision for closure. They worry how this will effect their property values and stability of the neighborhood. It might be courteous to share plans for reusing, leasing, selling these empty buildings. Vacant sites still require maintenance and security. Empty buildings do deteriorate a neighborhood. Parents with younger children see moving out of the city as their viable option as the Overbrook neighborhood borders Delaware and Montgomery counties. So much to thing about in such a short time.
Submitted by Gtown_teach (not verified) on January 19, 2013 2:03 pm
I think someone or some group needs to flat out sue the state at this point. The SRC has done nothing to help the district, and has done nothing but tear it down. The state is obligated to provide children with a quality public education, but it is doing the opposite. There is public money at the state level, but it's obvious that the SRC is nothing but a firewall between the governor and the communities that need funding for that right of appropriate and equal education. This has civil rights all over it, but nobody wants to stand up and point out the obvious. Corbett has slashed public education funding by 14%, increased funding to prisons by 11%, and is letting the gas companies take the state's resources with no taxes. We can see what Corbett's vision of PA is.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 19, 2013 4:15 pm
While I agree with most of this the state has been slashing and defunding this District more every year and I don't know about the SRC being a firewall. The mayor declared a short while ago that "we must blur the lines between public and private education." SERIOLUSLY? Neither he nor the SRC is a firewall.
Submitted by Sukey Blanc on January 19, 2013 2:35 pm
Very insightful post. I just looked again at the PewTrusts 2011 recommendations based on school closings in other cities. The report is an interesting preview of the current school closing plan. According to my read, some points made by PEW were: 1) There is no evidence that closing schools will improve student achievement 2) Budget savings are unpredictable. 3) To avoid push-back from the community, use outsiders to manage the process and develop a rubric with a numerical rating system. 4) School closings are a political process that need careful image control. It looks like SDP acted on PEW's recommendations and came up with a plan that is disconnected from real students and communities.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 19, 2013 4:09 pm
I have no doubt whatsoever that this is true, this policy being directed from the top. Once people grasp this they will see that there is a logical pattern to what been going on (here and in other cities).
Submitted by Sukey Blanc on January 19, 2013 7:37 pm
By the way, the District's response to PEW's 2011 report on school closings was "...we were careful not to say that the reason we need to rightsize is for budget purposes." From Ben Herold's blog, Public School Notebook, Oct. 20, 2011
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 19, 2013 8:08 pm
I think that we all need to look at the U.S. Census data for Philadelphia County comparing the years 2000 and 2010. The first figure is for 2000 and the next for 2010 (sorry I couldn't figure out how to insert my table into this comment). Total: 1,517,550; 1,526,006 Under 5: 98,161; 101,053 5 to 9: 112,111; 90,827 10 to 14: 112,726; 90,640 15 to 19: 110,701; 118,297 35 to 39: 110,841; 94,007 40 to 44: 109,069; 94,316 45 to 49: 97,015; 98,086 You will notice a significant decrease in the subgroups "5 to 9" and "10 to 14". There is a corresponding decrease in the subgroups of "35 to 39" and "40 to 44". The City's increase in population can be seen to largely come from an influx of people in the age groups of "20 to 24" and "25 to 29" with some in the older groups, "50 to 54", "55 to 59", and "60 to 64" ; Age groups that typically don't have children in the age groups of "5 to 9" or "10 to 14". 20 to 24: 117,609; 146,717 25 to 29: 114,353; 135,610 30 to 34: 110,511; 110,452 50 to 54: 85,515; 99,884 55 to 59: 67,280; 87,697 60 to 64: 57,936; 73,111 So what does this say? It's NOT completely the fault of any conspiracy that families leave and schools need to be closed. A City that promotes only tourism is not the best place to raise a family.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2015 1:30 am
But Doc," Yosarian repeated over and over, "they are trying to destroy me." Doc Daneeka placed his arm around Yosarian's neck. "I keep trying to tell you son, they are just trying to destroy the opponent," Doc Daneeka consoled. check out

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