Enon Tabernacle seeks to counter 'top-down' approach to Philly school closings
By Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner on Feb 6, 2013 06:33 PM
Add the Rev. Alyn Waller, the influential pastor of the 15,000-member Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Northwest Philadelphia, to the growing chorus of critics questioning the School District's plan to close 37 city schools by next fall.
"I am not in favor of school closings without merit and without data to support such a drastic decision," Waller said.
Waller believes that some "rightsizing" of the city's public school system is necessary. But he doesn't think the District has made its case for many of the specific school closings that have been proposed. He's upset, saying the communities that will be affected by the dramatic changes have not been properly consulted.
So for the last several weeks, volunteers from Enon have hosted "school-based community meetings" at more than two dozen of the 44 Philadelphia schools targeted for closure or relocation.
The goals, said Waller, are to review the District's rationale for each closure, consider information that District officials may have overlooked, solicit the "organic voice of the people," and develop counterproposals.
"A top-down strategy that does not involve real community engagement is not the way [to close schools], and merely saving money [should not be] the only consideration," Waller said.
"We're here to bring the real data."
Located at Cheltenham Avenue and Vernon Road, the 136-year old Enon Tabernacle is a conservative, evangelical, largely African American church. Waller said his team intends to deliver written reports from each of the schools targeted for closure to the School Reform Commission before the formal hearings that begin Feb. 21.
Both Waller and District officials stressed that Enon's outreach efforts are independent and that the church has received no contracts or payment from the District.
"Our support is limited to providing them with locations where they can meet," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard.
Waller and Enon Tabernacle have not formally joined the call for a school closings moratorium, initially put forth by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) and recently backed by Philadelphia's City Council in a non-binding resolution.
"Some groups, they are very passionate and upset," Waller said. "I want to match the data with their passion, so that we're all saying and doing the same thing."
Alternative community meetings
Over the last two months, the District has hosted 14 community meetings of its own to gather input on its school-closings plan. Gallard said more than 4,000 people have attended. To date, more than two dozen community-generated school-closing counterproposals have been submitted to the District via its own process for gathering feedback.
"I think the exchange between the School District and the community has been very successful," Gallard said.
But Waller dismissed the District's meetings as little more than an opportunity for the public to "blow off steam." They have been held at regional locations and typically involved hundreds of people from up to a dozen different school communities, all vying for attention.
"That's where people get to emotionally share their pain," Waller said.
"Our meetings are intended to look at the facts, have a real discussion, and then parse out from the community, 'Well, if not what they're saying, then what do you suggest?'"
On Jan. 24, for example, Enon hosted a school-based community meeting at Bok Technical High School in South Philadelphia.
The District has recommended that Bok be closed and that its 900 students and nine vocational programs be relocated inside nearby South Philadelphia High.
Cassandra Jones led the meeting. Jones is the chair of Enon's education committee and a former chief academic officer in both the Philadelphia and Baltimore school districts.
"Don't approach this like, 'If we have to move...' or 'If we have to close...,'" Jones told a crowd of about 100 students, teachers and parents assembled in Bok's auditorium.
"What we are asking you is, what do you want?"
A parade of speakers took to the microphone. Most focused on the good things about Bok that they feared would be lost with a transition to Southern.
"There's a certain tradition and feel that Bok gives it students, and it's hard to take that feeling and move it to another school," said Frank Natale, a chemistry teacher at Bok who also serves as the school's athletic director, football coach, and baseball coach.
As an example, Natale cited the school restaurant, whose name is a play on one of Philadelphia's posh French eateries.
"The name of the restaurant is Le Bok Fin, and it's run by the students, cooking all the way down," said Natale.
"It's particular to Bok. And I don't know if that is going to transfer over."
Some blasted the District for the lack of details about how exactly it plans to transition students and programs to South Philadelphia High.
"I believe they should have further explained this even before they made the decisions for the schools," said Ernest Graham, a senior at the school.
"I don't think [the transition plan] is very practical. It's far-fetched."
And many said they found the reasoning behind the District's recommendation to close Bok to be a head-scratcher. Though the school is housed in an aging facility, it's operating at 97 percent capacity. And it has a "Facilities Condition Index" that indicates the building is not in terrible shape.
Bok is also higher performing academically than South Philly, where students would be reassigned.
"I'm appalled," said Graham.
Facts and figures
Enon's Jones also maintained that the District overlooked key information before recommending that schools like Bok be closed.
The District's stated criteria for closings schools are the condition of the building, student enrollment, academic performance, and cost.
At its meetings, Enon has distributed handouts with additional data on "impact on community," "student relocation," "racial composition," "educational programs," and "transportation/traffic issues."
At Bok, much of the information on the handout was provided by the school's principal, Barbara McCreery.
An "informal student survey," for example, found that "77 percent of [Bok] students will not move to new location," Southern, due to concerns about things like safety and the quality of vocational programs after relocation.
The sheet also questioned the District's savings projections, saying that the cost of moving equipment from Bok's vocational programs and modifying classroom spaces at Southern have not yet been estimated.
"It's one thing to be emotional, and we understand that," said Jones after the meeting.
"But you need to have the facts and the figures. And that's what I think you heard very clearly today: There are factual reasons people believe this school should remain open."
Not calling for a moratorium ... yet
Spokesman Gallard said the District will welcome the additional feedback.
"What we're expecting from this outreach by Enon is to hear from other folks that we were not able to reach out to," he said.
The School Reform Commission will hold formal hearings Feb. 21-23 on each of the district's school closing recommendations.
Waller said he expects the commissioners to take seriously the reports that his team prepares at each of the targeted schools.
"If we prove that [the District's reasoning] is faulty, or we prove there is another way, we want the SRC to hear that," he said.
But Waller stopped short of calling for a moratorium.
"If we prove that there have been oversights, intentional or not, we would want them to consider ... holding off until the best possible decision can be made for our children," he said.
Through a spokesman, PCAPS issued a statement saying it appreciates "any effort to engage the community in decisions" about school closings. The coalition, however, "believes that rather than depending on an outside organization to do this outreach, the District should institute a moratorium on school closings and embark on a substantive community input effort."