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How much do we understand about school closings?

By Timothy Boyle on Jan 25, 2013 01:25 PM

Schools must close. Some buildings in Philadelphia are just too expensive to maintain. The process will be painful -- this much we can all agree on.

As I listen to the public discourse and read different editorials supporting or opposing school closings, I am disappointed by the lack of knowledge as to the specifics of recommended closures. Those who call for no school closings at all, as well as those who agree with all proposed closings, have not dug deeply enough into the School District's plan. I support closing schools that are poorly utilized, are in poor condition, and have high operational costs. It is what school districts do, both in times of fiscal security and insecurity. Some of the recommendations in the District's Facilities Master Plan meet these criteria, and some do not.

Reviewing all of the data has been no easy task. You can see most of the data on the School District’s website. Recently, at a series of ongoing public forums, the District has been using PowerPoint presentations to give some explanations for why individual schools were recommended for closure. I wish that the District had, and would, include all the schools' profile data in those presentations. Doing so would afford families a better understanding of the reasons why a school should close.

The Great Unknown up till now has been how schools rank in each of the four factors (academic performance, utilization, building quality, and costs) that the District used to make school-closure assessments and how schools would compare to each other in these rankings. Yet despite not having all the facts that the District does, we can still ascertain that some of the recommendations make sense, while others don't.

For instance, the recommendation to relocate the Carnell Middle Years program and Lawton's 6th grade to underutilized Harding Middle School is a reasonable one. Moving the Middle Years program (grades 7-8) to Harding is a necessity: The old Fels building that housed the program is structurally unsound and unusable, with the District renting space at St. Bernard's for the remainder of the school year. Moving Lawton's 6th graders makes sense, because the school is above optimal capacity at 96 percent. (The District’s stated goal is for schools to be around 85 percent utilization.) Although these actions will decrease the budgets of Lawton and Carnell, they will greatly expand the academic possibilities at Harding. Planning on what can be done with the additional funds going to Harding is something the District officials should be articulating now in order to make their case.

One clear example of a decision that does not meet the criteria is the recommendation to move 6th graders from Pennell and Logan Elementaries to Wagner Middle School. Adding these students to Wagner, which is below half capacity, will get the school’s utilization rate closer to 60 percent than the District's target of 85 percent. Both Pennell and Logan are located in buildings that are in better physical shape than Wagner's, according to the District's assessment of the facilities' condition and costs. With 6th-grade enrollments at Pennell and Logan trending down, the likelihood of achieving long-term, optimal utilization at a bad building is unlikely as well as cost-prohibitive.

A better deployment of resources would be to close underutilized Wagner and add students to nearby schools like Rowen and Ellwood. This improves utilization of the “better” buildings throughout the feeder pattern. Creating programs to attract students to Howe, Logan, and Pennell, and turning them into K-8 grade span schools would be better than shifting 100 students around the eastern part of Northwest Philadelphia. Moving forward with the current relocation proposal would not achieve any of the District's stated goals of the Facilities Master Plan.

Here's another head-scratcher: shifting the 6th grade out of Cramp Elementary and into Stetson Middle School, which was taken over by Aspira, an education management organization, during the Rennaissance process. The District has made it a priority to standardize grade spans across the system. But schools like Mastery-Smedley, Tilden, and Feltonville will still not be in the K-5, 6-8, 9-12 grade spans, even if the plan is implemented in its entirety. So, it would appear, grade-span standardization is a priority, but not a necessity.

There are 95 5th graders at Cramp this year. Moving them from a District-operated school to a Renaissance charter will cost about $665,000. (The cost of a new charter seat is about $7,000, according to District officials.) Cramp students already feed into Stetson Middle School for 7th grade. Is decreasing the resources at Cramp and spending even more money on charter seats with the same AYP status really worth the trouble in the name of grade-span standardization?

I agree with the education interest groups that we Philadelphians need to rally behind Superintendent William Hite’s plan and do the work that must be done to improve schools. But these decisions are too important to be made before the choices are thoroughly understood. I sincerely hope that those who call for blind support of all Facilities Master Plan options, or refuse to accept that buildings outlive their usefulness, take the time to review all the relevant documents and refine their positions.

Timothy Boyle teaches at the Academy for the Middle Years Northwest and is the operations director for Teachers Lead Philly.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (67)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2013 2:40 pm
Great article but what is your solution to the problem? Moratorium on school closings until the right solutions are found? This could take a long time and the school dsitrict is losing money at an astronomical rate.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2013 2:03 pm
Stop pouring money into charters and fix the public schools that can be fixed!
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on January 25, 2013 2:08 pm
charters are working better than district schools. not many district schools are fixable.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2013 4:44 pm
Where are your facts? Stop spreading lies.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 27, 2013 1:30 pm
Total lies. Cite your proof that charters are performing better. Charters benefit business men and their political sponsors. If they are truly so great why don't public schools get to do the same things that charters do: counsel out failing students, screen out behavior problems.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2013 2:09 pm
@reformer...where is your data to back that statement....most of the data I have seen says clearly that the charters are not much better than district schools...Yes, 28% of charters in Philadelphia made AYP as compared to 13% of regular SDP schools but that is still a measly amount compared to the state...if SDP schools had the ability to get rid of disruptive and disorderly students, as well as improved resources you would see our test scores rise as well. District schools are fixable, the district just doesn't care to do the fixing.
Submitted by Concerned Parent (not verified) on January 25, 2013 3:02 pm
The district is B-R-O-K-E. What resources are you talking about. Oh, ask the state for more money!!?? Ain't gonna happen, so what's your plan now.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2013 3:09 pm
First resources doesn't always have to mean money.. Next the district has the ability to reconfigure from with in... If the district would simply follow some of its own policies and stop putting all of the blame on teachers who do the best they can with what they have to work with we could see improvement.. i know the district is B R O K E but That doesn't mean we can't use what we have to the maximum. Charters are part of the reason that the district is broke And closing schools to send more students to them will make the situation even worse.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2013 4:26 pm
Stop drinking the Kool Aid.
Submitted by LeRoi (not verified) on February 2, 2013 5:47 pm
The SDP did have the ability the remove disruptive student but opted to waste millions on CEP schools with very little oversight. They paid for empty seats and signed contracts that didn't allow inspections of the schools. A child returned from CEP Boone, (after only six months there for assault Lon a teacher), was partially responsible for a teacher's neck being broken at the next school. The PSD response was to remove 48 students the next day, most of which had no involvement in the assault. Both will remove problem students and have to follow state regs while doing it. Our fight is not Charter vs SDP operated schools but with an educational system that is failing many of our children. We struggle with reduced financial support from the state and missmanagement of the funds we have.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 25, 2013 5:55 pm
Thank you for taking the time to point out the inconsistencies in the FMP. Hope you have emailed it to Dr. Hite and the SRC already. On the information that it costs the District about $7000 per new charter seat: Apparently (from the State's website), what the District must pay to a charter is what the District spends per child minus building maintenance, transportation, and such as adult education programs; or in other words only instructional costs. If this is $7000, then the implication is the cost of the buildings, transportation, etc. with an amount spent over $14,000, would be over $7000 per child right now. This only underlines the urgency of "rightsizing" if over half of what is spent now is on maintenance and transportation and other non instructional items. In individual school budgets, I have seen a range of between $5,500 per child to almost $13,000 per child spent. The latter figure is in schools that tend to have lower utilization. Some "food for thought" for those who "dislike" charters: If the District is able to drop its average instructional costs through better utilization, it will have to pay charters less per child than it is currently. Again the urgency to "rightsize".
Submitted by Paul Socolar on January 26, 2013 12:20 am

Hi, Ms. Cheng - You're getting into some important issues, but you're misinterpreting a couple of the numbers. The $7,000 figure is not how much the District pays charter schools. It's the District's estimate of how much its overall budget must go up for each student that transfers into a charter. In other words, it's the portion of the payment to the charter school that they aren't able to recapture by reducing their costs (remember they can't lay off 1/30 of a teacher).

The way the payments to charters works is laid out in some detail on p 27 of the District's budget in brief ... though you must wade through the jargon

In 2012-13, they pay charters about $8,000 for each regular ed student and $18,000 for each special ed student. I believe the blended average of the two ends up close to $10,000 per student. The $4,000 difference between the $10,000 per student and the $14,000 average expenditure per pupil that you cite for the District is accounted for by things charters don't have to pay for (preK, transportation), or money they get in some other way (the District doesn't have to share its federal aid because charters get that directly). A chunk of that money - federal aid, preK - is in fact going toward instruction and classrooms.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 26, 2013 12:34 pm
Paul, what about her idea that to get the per-pupil spending down overall so that charters will also have less money to play with? The significant flaw in that line of thinking I see is that charters are a year behind any budget changes. There are many parents who, as they saw their district schools being cut, cut, cut these last few years, switched over to a seemingly better-amenitied charter school only to have the cuts hit them this year in the charter school but, having made the switch, feel they have interrupted their child's education enough and are stuck. I am not seeing a way out of that vicious cycle in the five year plan.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 26, 2013 11:49 pm
You have a good point which ties in to Mr. Boyle's comment below. Pushing for the efficient 30 children per class with children who aren't able to focus in classes much smaller, will likely lead to incidents that will lead parents/caregivers to transfer their children to a charter. This will in turn prevent the better utilization which the District desperately needs to remain financially sound.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 26, 2013 11:16 pm
Thank you Paul for the correction and explanations -you don't know how very much a sane reply is appreciated. Here are some additional thoughts. Doesn't the fact that the loss of one student currently costs an estimated $7,000 for a loss of utilization, attest to the high level of inefficiency in this system? There is another item included in that roughly $4,000 per child the District is spending on capital expenditures, transportation, preK, and other Federal grant money programs. That would be debt service. Clearly better utilization/efficiency is extremely urgent in order to keep the District financially viable. Can those opposed to school closings propose another way to achieve this? Even Mama Gail's proposal includes school closings. Since personnel costs are the greatest expenditure in the District, perhaps splitting administration and teachers between schools with small populations combined with "time sharing" of technology resources could achieve this greater utilization without closing buildings?
Submitted by Timothy Boyle on January 26, 2013 6:00 pm

There is some magical thinking around rightsizing. Reducing the number of schools does not mean that all of the students from a closed school will stay in the District. Next year there will be 1,600 more charter seats. Last year's renewal/modification process is costing $13 million this year. That's almost half of the savings hoped to be achieved by right-sizing. How do you tell the families of McCloskey (76% utilized, FCI of .3687, seven straight years of AYP until last year) that the District could afford all of those seats, but not your school? Students from closed District schools will certainly fill some of those slots. Not to mention families who decide on cyber-charters, home-schooling, private, or moving out of the District entirely. The utilization rate the District is planning for after the closings could fall far shorter than hoped.

If closing buildings is your cost saving plan, then you need a better plan. This has been empirically proven in other cities mentioned in the Pew report, Chicago in particular.  The District has stated this much itseIf. "One of the things we were careful to do was not to say that reason we need to right-size is for budget purpose" Danielle Floyd 10/21. So when Pedro Ramos says "I'd be lying if I said a moratorium is in any way feasible" this goes against the stated purpose of the process. If SRC can't secure $28 million dollars without closing buildings that are in fine working order, then I don't believe they have any value to the city of Philadelphia, nor are taking their stewardship of the District seriously. 

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 27, 2013 12:13 am
It's true what you say. Attempting to increase utilization by packing children into classes of 30 will only encourage transfers out of that school, and make the better efficiency nonachievable, or worse. The PSD is too far from making cyber instruction or "blended" instruction a reality in the short term. I'm wondering if it would be possible, being careful to honor the max of 30 students per teacher and required prep time, to share administrators and teachers with schools that have class sizes (as we did, our program now closed) as small as 10? There would have to be either cyber instruction or perhaps SSA supervised work, to fill in the missing physical teacher time. The unions would likely block this option as it would mean a definite loss of jobs. Building closings would equal job losses too, but would, as you and another commenter above point out, put the District into a losing "vicious cycle".
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 27, 2013 11:48 pm
Why should the District be promoting cyber instruction when none of the cyber charters made AYP? (Only 1 made AYP under the inflated adjustments that Secretary Tomalis made). Where is the research base supporting cyber instruction? Do children learn social or personal skills via cyber instruction?
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 28, 2013 6:18 am
EGS you have misunderstood my comment. It is about being able to keep these underutilized schools open. If instead of trying to bring up utilization by moving the kids unsafely to another building where they will be put into a larger class size, you instead split a teacher's (or more importantly because they are so much more expensive, an administrator's) time to cover twice (for example) the locations, to achieve the same utilization; you will have classroom time (with the smaller classes) where there will be no teacher to cover. This time can be filled with cyber instruction, or in the case of high schools, much needed vocational instruction. The time could even be used to provide the much needed enrichment that Title I was supposed to fund. The result is a "blended" system, not what is being used by the cyber schools right now. The PSD does not have the flexibility to establish a competitive "stand alone" cyber school without expensive outsourcing.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 28, 2013 5:25 pm
Ms.Cheng, Your additional detail shows that I did misunderstand your comment. Thank you for the clarification. EGS
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Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 27, 2013 6:54 pm
The best solution is to close as many middle schools as possible and convert as many schools as possible to either K-8 or 7-12. The separate middle school is an outdated model. From what I have seen based on attending school closure meetings and watching the meetings on TV, people seem to be more attached to the elementary schools and high schools. Also, it is most common to have certification for elementary (PK-6 or K-8) or secondary (7-12). Thus,. there isn't as much specialization for teaching middle school specifically. Another option would be to consolidate middle schools within high school buildings. For example, make one floor for middle school students or one part of the building for 7-9 and the other part for 10-12. At K-8 schools, put the students in grades 6-8 on a separate floor to make a middle school within the elementary school. The middle school within another school would account for the needs of kids in grades 6-8.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 28, 2013 7:35 am
You have a valid suggestion; however, it subordinates current performance of a school. I don't know if this applies to middle schools across the board, but many are well above average. For example, Hill Freedman and AMY NW. Can you match them to equally high performing high or elementary schools without having to move them excessively far?
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 28, 2013 2:21 pm
Ms. Cheng, You make a valid point about school performance. My issue is, By what measures do the District and state measure school performance? Until recently, the measure was the School Performance Index. Since Dr. Hite considers the SPI to be a broken measurement, what is the measurement of school performance? AYP? Scores on the PSSAs? After the cheating scandal, can anyone trust the test scores? I personally believe that it is not a best practice for a one-size-fits-all test like the PSSA to measure the performance of a school. It is easy to manipulate data. A principal can just not report certain incidents, and then a school looks safer. How much do the walk-throughs mean if the staff knows when the walk-throughs will occur? What about components like classroom management and how well teachers relate with students? What kind of expectations do teachers have of the students? How do staff members communicate and interact with parents? These components can be hard to measure, but contribute to a school being a "good school." In sum, there has to be VALIDITY and RELIABILITY to the measures which assess schools and classrooms. Right now, there is a lack of validity and reliability to the instruments measuring school performance. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 28, 2013 2:44 pm
EGS, I'm glad that you brought up measures of performance. I haven't seen any updates on the cheating scandal. Does anyone have updates on the investigations? Thanks.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 28, 2013 8:52 pm
EGS, the SPI is an attempt, though far from complete (it is a work in progress), to add other measures to test scores in evaluating a school. It is a move in the right direction, but, as recognized, contains ambiguities and flawed interpretations. I believe that test scores were the greatest weight in the final number for the SPI. When you decide to close a school or merge a program, you should consider the compatibility of the new location/program with the old. One administration will have to be dissolved or assimilated. This was (sensibly) one of the factors used to create the recommendations found in the FMP. Test scores as imperfect as they are, are an indication of the level of difficulty at which the students work. Hill Freedman students work at the level of Masterman students. AMY Northwest's students also have good test scores. Would we want to relocate Hill Freedman to Germantown H.S., or AMY Northwest to Roxborough H.S. or Shawmont Elementary? Likely, as Mr. Boyle points out in his comments, their caregivers would find a charter or another option to transfer their children to if this were done; So instead of an increase in utilization lowering per child cost, the PSD would end up with fewer children, no to negative improvement in utilization, and a greater monetary obligation to charters through (the already high or higher) reimbursement caused by (this or lower) low utilization, as well as increased transportation costs to these charters. The savings in building maintenance might not even cover the increase in cost.
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