The District needs to hit the redesign button
by Samuel Reed III on Feb 13 2013 Posted in Commentary
A version of this testimony was given at the Feb. 12 City Council hearings on school closings.
My name is Samuel Reed III, and I am a proud member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Teacher Action Group, two organizations that are working with PCAPS, a coalition of parents, students, teachers, and community members calling for a one-year moratorium on school closings.
I would like to thank City Council for adopting a non-binding resolution calling for a moratorium on closing 37 schools in September. I would like to echo the sentiments of Councilman Curtis Jones, who notes that people shouldn't make whole decisions on half-information.
I want to counter the current notion that frames the one-year moratorium as hitting the pause button. Instead of hitting the pause button, City Council should use its influence to persuade the District to hit the redesign button.
I have attended some of the Facilities Master Plan community meetings across the city and in the community where I both teach and live. I have even watched a few meetings online via live stream -- I think I need to get a life.
Unfortunately, the public at large is not convinced that the District has engaged in a responsive design process that explores, envisions, and enacts educational principles that balance Superintendent Hite's vision to prepare our students for the world beyond our school doors, and ensures the District's fiscal survivability.
To Dr. Hite's credit, he has publicly noted that the proposed plan to close 37 schools and relocate or reconfigure others is not inflexible. The moratorium on closing schools makes sense because it will allow the District time to defer judgment and consider the community's input.
Any meaningful design process starts with empathy.
Design principles extend beyond empty seats, building utilization or reconfigurations. Winston Churchill said it well: "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." We need school buildings that shape the social, emotional, academic, cultural, and economic fabric of our communities.
If the District imposes its will and closes schools without applying design principles that include the input and alternative proposals from the affected communities, the District's plans will not succeed in meeting the needs of the communities it serves.
The Wynnefield and Overbrook Community Education Proposal represents part of an inclusive community design process. Parents, students, teachers, and community members came together, explored, and envisioned a plan that seeks not just to pause the school-closure plans, but enact and leverage partnerships to expand pre-K and kindergarten offerings at Gompers and Overbrook Elementary and re-imagines Beeber Middle School as a community school, a vital academic, health, and cultural hub.
As a teacher, I have designed and implemented many engaging lessons and learning experiences for my students. Because I believe that my students should have same engaging learning experience as students in more affluent schools and communities, I never let money or the lack of resources get in my way. I write and obtain grants and forge partnerships to ensure my students produce original musicals, plays, dance productions, video documentaries, and a host of other creative projects.
The Wynnefield and Overbrook proposal pushes the redesign button. Instead of allowing constraints to limit the learning possibilities for our students, our community's plan leverages community resources and partnerships to transform and reinvent our neighborhood schools.
I fully understand the District's financial constraints. But the District has failed to persuade the public that closing 37 schools will save any significant money. The projected $28 million in savings from closing schools does not account for the transition costs and other hidden expenses associated with restructuring the District.
The devil is in the details. What are the costs of plans to retrofit middle schools that are being converted to K-8? What about the additional transportation and safety factors? And how about the plans required to shift school cultures to accommodate new students and their families? The Districts says we can't afford not to act. I say the moratorium will allow us to act in the best interest of our students and families.
Accordingly, the District needs to strongly consider a moratorium on its school-closure plan -- not to pause the train, but to put the train on the right track.
Pressing the redesign button will provide the time to put the District on right track, to explore, envision and enact a Facilities Master Plan that is empathic to the needs of the community and equitably serves the students I teach.
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.