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A message on repeat: Closings are painful but will pay off, Hite says

By the Notebook on Jan 17, 2013 11:04 AM
Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.

The auditorium at John Bartram High School.

by Bill Hangley Jr.

The pattern of the District’s regional school-closing hearings is now clear: After parents and students share worries, fears, and even angry accusations, District officials respond with calm assurances that a painful but necessary process will pay off in the end.

Wednesday night’s Southwest region session, the fourth of nine planned meetings, was no different. About 200 people attended the meeting in the cavernous, Art Deco-style auditorium at Bartram High to learn more about a reorganization plan that proposes three closures in the area: Communications Technology High School, Pepper Middle School, and Shaw Middle School.

The frustrations voiced by many in attendance were familiar to anyone who had been to similar sessions at Dobbins High and Martin Luther King High. Students worried about safety, the loss of valued teachers and programs, and the challenge of being uprooted from familiar territory. Meanwhile, adults questioned  the District’s budget decisions  and motivations, offered alternative plans, and suggested that the closure decisions were made without their communities’ needs in mind.

Naeemah Felder, a local parent who sent three children to Pepper, shared a typical reaction to the District’s closure plan: “You didn’t ask me. You didn’t ask none of the communities that pay taxes to support this,” she said. “You’re targeting our areas. You’re targeting us.”

Superintendent William Hite, a steady, unflappable presence throughout the closure meetings, responded with his now-familiar assertion that budget pressures mean closures must happen, but that the District will be flexible where it can.

“We will not be stubborn about the recommendations,” Hite told the audience. The District will be glad to consider community suggestions, he said -- as long as they deliver the same kinds of savings as the existing plans.

Hite also repeated his promise that, in the end, consolidated schools will be able to offer more options to students. As things stand, he said, “one school may offer art. Another school may offer languages. When we’re able to combine schools, we can combine all of those programs so that all students can have those types of offerings.”

The goal, Hite said, was to stem the tide of students leaving District schools. “We’re trying to stop individuals selecting out of the District schools, into other options,” like charters, he said.

The crowd at Bartram included vocal contingents from Communications Technology (or Comm Tech, for short) and Pepper. The District’s proposal for Comm Tech, a special admissions school of about 400 students, is to move it into Bartram High, making it a special academy within the larger school.

Mikeya Sills, a Comm Tech junior, told Hite that she worried about fights and violence when the two student bodies mix. “How can students dedicate their entire focus on education when they’re so worried about what’s going to happen to them when the bell rings?” she asked. “How are we going to be safe?”

“Every school is going to have a plan for engagement,” answered Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student services. “In some of our schools, we’re going to use restorative practice techniques. … There are a variety of efforts that we’re going to use to make sure that students are working well together.”

Much will depend on principals, Lynch said. “Every school has rules, every principal establishes the climate and safety environment for those schools, and that’s what we expect to happen moving forward.”

Comm Tech junior Micia McBurnette said she feared the program will lose students by moving. “No offense to Bartram, but a lot of students told us that they don’t want to go to Bartram, and that just kills their dream of being in the CTE [Career & Technical Education] program. A lot of our students came to Comm Tech to get away from Bartram. … You can’t change how people’s minds are.”

Nor is she confident that the District will make good on its promise to smooth the transition. “They say they’re going to work with the kids, but never came to our school and talked to us [about the closure],” McBurnette said. “They just gave us a piece of paper -- our principal handed it out -- and that was it.”

Micia McBurnette (left) and Mikeya Sills, juniors at Communications Technology High School.

District officials, however, said Comm Tech could actually improve as a result of the proposed move. David Kipphut, a deputy administrator in charge of the District’s CTE programs, says that Comm Tech’s current space is small and outdated and that the move into the massive Bartram building could help it expand significantly.

“We’ve already looked at spaces here in the building where we could retrofit and actually create new studios,” Kipphut said. “They’re operating right now in a former elementary school -- it’s cramped. The design classes could be double what they are now. We’ve actually hired an architect to design and build the [broadcast] studio so that it’s state of the art. … We want to make sure all our programs have industry standard opportunities.

“The program is excellent at Comm Tech -- it’s the facility that’s bad.”

An equally animated contingent from Pepper called on Hite to spare their 700-student school. Among Pepper’s supporters was Debbie Beer, a staffer at the nearby John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, which runs a series of science programs for students that she fears will be lost with the closure.

“The proximity of the school to the refuge is very important -- the students can walk,” Beer said. “Heinz Refuge serves students from all over the city, and other districts, and always, busing is a challenge. The teachers can’t get their students to Heinz. Pepper’s students walk over twice a month -- we have programs, we’re following the curriculum closely -- it’s wonderful. They’re drawing, they’re learning, they’re doing a bird census. You see their eyes light up in a way that rarely happens inside four walls.”

Heinz is part of a collaboration among local community groups and nonprofits -- including the University of Pennsylvania and the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition -- that is trying to build an endowment for the school and sharpen its focus.

“We would love to see Pepper become a STEM [Science, Technology and Math] magnet school,” Beer said. “A lot of people are helping us build the program and partnerships and run with it.”

Hite and his staff listened politely to dozens of speakers, sympathizing with their concerns but returning consistently to two themes: closures must happen, but the resulting schools will be stronger.

Still, the disappointment was palpable among those who believe their schools are being unnecessarily shuttered. In the crowd was City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who said her West Philadelphia constituents aren’t happy about the situation at all.

“They’re very upset,” Blackwell said. “They feel left out of the discussion, left out of being part of the solution. They just don’t know what to do.

“At all the meetings I’ve been to, [residents] agree that they’re willing to consider some, but not all of these closings,” said Blackwell, adding that City Council plans hearings on the subject in February. “There seems to be no rhyme or reason [to the District’s choices]. And no matter what happens, when you go to these meetings, you don’t really get answers,” she said. “Everybody believes Dr. Hite is a good man. But everybody believes he’s just here to deliver a message.”


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Comments (34)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 17, 2013 12:27 pm
I am a teacher and understand people's frustration. I was "banished" from King HS when they became a Renaissance school. HOWEVER.... if a school is closing, such as Germantown, parents either need to PUT UP or be quiet. Are they paying the taxes that will fund these under utilized schools? What phenomenal plan of action have the parents put forth so the District doesn't keep sinking into debt? Nothing -- except loud voices.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 17, 2013 12:23 pm
I don't want to especially add fuel to this fire, but if you hit the icon to the right about Mastery now hiring for next year, they are adding a whole bunch of new job advertisements for next year! It certainly does look like the "fix is in", and "the real plan" is being "rolled out to us from behind closed doors." While closing real public schools, Mastery will be getting more"'seats" and more money at the expense of "other peoples' children." All of this without any transparency at all. Does any of this pass the "sniff test?"
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 17, 2013 1:32 pm
Mama Gail has put forth an interesting plan (one of the ones posted on the SDP's website). It has merit, take a look if you have time. What she doesn't take into account and that I believe is in the FMP is the trend of declining enrollment at the proposed closures. It would be far more illuminating for us all to hear the voices of those caregivers who have opted not to enroll their children in these schools. (The explanation (outside of a conspiracy) for expanding the seats at charters is that they have a waiting list, while these schools do not.)Those who are currently enrolled at these schools will of course have the very same thing(s) to say, so of course despite their genuine anguish, it will sound repetitious to Dr. Hite. Finally, in regards to Councilwoman Blackwell's comments: Council needs to realize that what is required is more than just a mere review. When we say the population of Philadelphia has stabilized, are we talking middle class families interested in raising children, or just Hipsters escaping from the Suburbs? Are we serious about attracting such businesses as start-up and high tech to locate in Philly? Like all the neighborhood family caregivers in the schools slated for closure, Council has a responsibility and the ability to be an integral player, not just a spectator.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 17, 2013 4:38 pm
Ms. Cheng, What exactly was Mama Gail's plan? From watching SRC and other meetings, Mama Gail doesn't have a lot of credibility with me. She often rambles on and on. She didn't even introduce herself at the mic last night; she just started on her tirade. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 17, 2013 4:41 pm She wants to make all the K-8s into K-6s so that everyone (in theory) will utilize middle schools which will be 7-9 and the high schools will be 10-12 except for the CTE/performing arts programs which will be 9-12. Shove SLA, Parkway West, Motivation and Constitution High into University City High (boasting university partnerships that she railed against as exploitive at Monday's meeting). Close Lea and move its students into PAS. Close Blankenberg and move its students into Leidy. Close Anderson and move its students into Bryant. Close Martha Washington and move its students into Locke. Close OEC and move its students into Cassidy. Close Powel and move its students into McMichael. Close Tilden and move its students into Bartram. Close CommTech and move its students into Pepper. Gompers, Pepper and Wilson are preserved as "Goodwill" schools since they're located in "remote" areas. Curious as I would only describe Pepper as being somewhat remote. Basically, it could have "merit" if one is completely unfamiliar with West and Southwest Philadelphia as well as Mama Gail and her spiteful tendencies.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 17, 2013 8:50 pm
O.K. I only lived in University City for about 4 years, and am certainly not familiar with Southwest Philly. So lunacy aside, you have to admit the plan is creative. Here is what I like about it. She is making utilization and safety the main drivers/criteria for the plan. Is there spitefulness there (did I miss something)? Of course when you "merge" programs, you must choose one administration over the other; and this which is factored into enrollment trend and academic achievement, both not considered (along with those other factors that nonresidents would not be aware of), would likely bring more opposition than the current FMP.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 17, 2013 9:45 pm
Ms. Cheng, you're thoughtful contributions as a commenter on The Notebook are admirable but you have just shown that you've never been to an SRC meeting held hostage by Gail Clouden and her rantings. All that motivates this woman is a deep and blatant hatred for everyone who does not look like her, a desire to hear her own voice and the hope that someday someone at the district will start giving her contracts again as Ackerman did.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 18, 2013 7:15 am
This is true, I have not been able to make it to one of these meetings. Why isn't she on a timer? Anyway, I do my best to look at ideas and not the people they come from. Good ideas can come from unexpected sources. Judging an idea by judging a person can be misleading. For example it was apparent that Ms. Ackerman's ideas were full of flaws far before we discovered her ethics were, yet people were afraid to speak up because they were so awed by her.
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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2013 9:55 pm
While it may seem she is rambling, she HAS put forth an alternative plan that is reasonable and sensible. Perhaps you should demand the SRC present to the public the alternative plans, yes I did say plans, that have been presented to them. The question is do they really care what the public thinks? Will they give serious consideration to the concerns and the plans presented to them? Finally, what have YOU done to forward the cause, or are you supporting the SRC?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 17, 2013 2:51 pm
Mastery hires hundreds of people every year because of such a high turnover rate. I'm not saying they wouldn't be taking over some of these closed down schools, but Mastery hiring that amount of people shouldn't alarm you that much. I worked for them last year and the amount of teachers that leave is a lot.
Submitted by Trace (not verified) on January 17, 2013 10:21 pm
However, I think it is quite alarming that so many teachers leave Mastery each year. That kind of turnover is detrimental to school climate and students' learning.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 18, 2013 9:18 am
Schools that thrive on teacher burn out - Mastery, KIPP, etc. - do not seem to care that they can not retain teachers. There are always more TFA to fill the slots. It is part of the de-professionalization of teaching. Teachers are wig-gits in the hands of leadership at Mastery, Kipp, etc.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 18, 2013 1:06 pm
Just sit back and watch what happens. Mastery will get a whole lot of new "seats" for next year. They are even advertising for a "regional superintendent." It is already in the works that they will get more students. And that is notwithstanding the exodus of teachers. Don't you see what is really happening? The SRC is rolling out the privatization plan which is being implemented from behind closed doors. The arrogance and dishonesty of it all is alarming.
Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on January 17, 2013 1:33 pm
Do reporters attend these meetings and ask questions? Are they allowed to ask questions? Has anyone asked Hite if he had any say in these closures? Has he himself visited all of the schools on the list? Some simple questions that I have not heard any discussion around.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 17, 2013 1:38 pm
Indeed, I am waiting for someone to ask Dr. Hite where the money is coming from for the raises he just o.k.'d for many of the administrators; and why he thinks these are appropriate at this time when there are some serious sacrifices being asked of families and other District employees.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 17, 2013 2:43 pm
Has anyone asked Dr. Hite for a full accounting of how much money it is costins to send "seats" to charter schools?
Submitted by tom-104 on January 17, 2013 4:31 pm
The SRC allocated $139 million this summer to add 5,416 new seats across 14 charters. According this article in the Notebook each seat will cost $7000 per student per year. A few months later the SRC announced their intention to close 37 public schools to "save" $28 million. This follows a pattern, which has accelerated each year since the state take over tens years ago, of shifting taxpayers money from public schools to charter schools. Why wasn't the $138 million put towards repairing the long neglected public schools? The SRC and state government are in open violation of the state constitution which they took an oath to uphold. It says: Article III, Section 14 The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth. Article III, Section 15 No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.
Submitted by Trace (not verified) on January 17, 2013 10:31 pm
Great posting. So the question arises: why are the PFT and other stakeholders not suing the state? I think it's because this is what the politicians want. And very few people care.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 18, 2013 10:31 am
The District would have to pay the charter what it spends per child for instruction costs only (it must subtract building maintenance, transportation, adult education programs). (see Section 1725-A (PDF) link on Even minus the funding for capital costs, it looks like charters spend approximately $1,500 per child less (per this source: It does not look good for the SDP, when in many instances it can't do significantly better with more spending. What percentage of this may be due to a higher percentage of Special Ed kids attending District schools is not clear. Perhaps someone has access to the total percentage of Special Ed kids (minus gifted) in SDP vs charters? I'm not sure that limited admission is the same as sectarianism. I do agree that charters as their own LEA should not be able to have any special admission requirements, and this in fact is stated on the State's website. It is a little trickier to prove discrimination if a child can't meet a school's behavior standards and subsequently is pressured to transfer. SDP special admission schools are guilty of this practice too. To make applications more fair and accessible, Governor Markel of Delaware, proposed a single application which can be used to apply for multiple charters. The SDP already does this for high school admissions, so it shouldn't be too hard to create one for all the charters as well.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 19, 2013 7:27 pm
Recently ran into a boy attending Universal Creighton - newest public school sold to charters.. I quote" Our school is going to become a real charter now.. many are getting paper-workded" I asked what paper-worked meant and he responded. " They are getting rid of all the kids with problems - now we will be a real charter".... out of the mouths of babes! And my tax dollars pay for that! It is criminal!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 28, 2013 7:17 pm
Tom 104----Please stop with truth and fact finding. The facts just get in the way of their agenda and they just swat them away like flies. The sooner the public at large begins to raise holy hell in a big way, the better we shall all be----Underline BIG WAY. The posters here who STILL buy into the SRC lies are making me pull out what little hair I have left.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 18, 2013 12:17 pm
Is Ed Williams still running around pretending to be a "Consultant" in the District? I'm curious how many others there are like him who eat up tax payer money!! (An Ex King HS Teacher Who Saw First hand What A Trouble Maker He Is)
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When I was a mere lad, Ed Williams seemed about 100 years old. I am now 62 so how old is this guy????????????????
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