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Protesting ... mostly in vain

By the Notebook on Mar 8, 2013 12:52 AM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

At Thursday's School Reform Commission meeting, the room was filled with critics of the District's massive closings plan

by Bill Hangley Jr. 

A day that began with big crowds, high spirits, and defiant speeches ended with disappointment for most opponents of Philadelphia’s school-closings plan.

“I’m totally numb,” said veteran activist “Mama” Gail Clouden as the crowd filed out of the auditorium at School District headquarters after a series of votes that closed 23 schools and spared just four. “This is unbelievable to me.”

“There’s a way to do this, and do it right, and they chose to do it wrong,” said the Rev. Dr. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. “This was not just emotional talk. We’ve given them facts, we’ve given them other proposals, and it is clear – they just did not consider them.”

“This plan was driven by private interests,” said Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, which recently filed an ethics complaint alleging that the District’s privately funded reorganization plan violated the city’s lobbying rules. “They bought their vote, and that’s what we’re looking at.”

“Ugly, man. An ugly night,” said J. Whyatt Mondesire, head of the Philadelphia NAACP,  which also supported the ethics complaint.

Mondesire and Gym both said they were disappointed that Mayor Michael Nutter’s two SRC appointees -- Commissioners Sylvia Simms and Wendell Pritchett -- didn’t fight harder to slow or stop the closures.

“I think Michael doesn’t give a damn any more,” Mondesire said.

Mondesire said the NAACP would be investigating a possible federal civil rights lawsuit in the coming months.

“We have a narrow window for a lawsuit, based on how they’re going to treat children of color, particularly of special needs,” he said. “The government has certain rules and regulations. You just can’t move those kids around. If we find they violated any of those rules, we’re going to pounce.”

After a large, lively and at times raucous outdoor demonstration, 19 opponents of the closure plan were arrested inside District headquarters as they attempted to block the doors to the auditorium, preventing SRC members from entering. Among those arrested was Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of  Teachers.

But the disruption delayed the meeting only momentarily, and SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos began the session only a few minutes after its scheduled start time, moving the commission briskly through an agenda of testimony and voting marked by passionate presentations from registered speakers and occasional angry outbursts of “Shame!” and “Moratorium!” from the audience.

All but a few of the 34 registered speakers testified, speaking on behalf of individual schools and the system as a whole. Most reiterated the longstanding but ultimately fruitless call for a one-year moratorium on closings, and the packed house cheered them loudly.

“Closing Germantown High School is like throwing our students out in the streets,” said Germantown resident Cynthia Geiger.

“The District continues to say that families have been voting with their feet, but when our schools have been starved of their resources … [can] you blame us for being hungry?” asked Northeast Philadelphia parent Tomika Anglin.

Several politicians and labor leaders made appearances. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell called the whole closure process “frightening” and remarked on the large police presence inside and outside the building.  “I never saw so many cops,” she said. “This is the biggest thing I’ve seen since the charter change.”

George Ricchezza, head of the District’s union of blue collar workers (SEIU Local 32BJ, District 1201), called on the District to start looking in earnest for more state funding rather than cutting jobs and salaries.

“Year after year after year, we took what was given to us by Harrisburg,” he said. “We weren’t happy with it, but we did it. What we are saying now is that time is done.”

Speakers included students, teachers, alumni, and community members of all sorts. Strong contingents came out in support of a few schools, including Taylor Elementary and Robeson High, which were ultimately spared, and Germantown High, which was not.

Only one speaker all night, Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership, spoke in support of the District’s plan, praising the success of charter schools like North Philadelphia’s Frederick Douglass and promising to deliver financial support to schools of all kinds. Gleason was booed loudly for his effort.

Once the audience’s testimony was complete, the SRC moved quickly through its votes, slowed mainly by a string of detailed questions from Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky about the logic behind a handful of closures.

The room cheered when Dworetzky questioned the wisdom of moving students from T.M. Peirce to Kenderton Elementary, which he suggested had less to do with academic issues or facilities costs and more to do with boosting Kenderton’s enrollment in order to make it more financially appealing to prospective Renaissance charter providers. Peirce was spared by a unanimous vote.

Dworetzky earned more applause when he defended Promise Academies like Vaux, University City, and Germantown High.

“I don’t think we should lightly close schools that we’ve made Promise Academies,” Dworetzky said. “I would send the District back to the drawing board.”

In those cases, the other commissioners were unconvinced, and voted to close all three schools.

The votes moved quickly and triggered emotional responses. Supporters of Taylor hugged and cried when their school was left open, and students and supporters of University City High burst into tears when theirs was closed. West Philadelphia activist Pamela Williams was infuriated, shouting at the top of her lungs that the decision was “racist” and vowing to "shut the city down."

And the room grew noticeably frustrated when commissioners became bogged down in a discussion about the future of Robeson, whose supporters argued that it made no sense to close a school with a 90 percent graduation rate and send its students to another, Sayre High, with a 53 percent graduation rate.

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett sympathized with the argument that Robeson students wouldn’t move to Sayre, but his unsuccessful attempt to rework the resolution so that the school could be closed without a defined new home for its programs irked many.

“What’s wrong with you?” shouted one attendee as commissioners struggled to find a way to reword the resolution.

“They’re just making this up as they go along,” said another.

The evening’s events left the roomful of protesters disappointed and often suspicious of the SRC’s motives. Enon's Waller was sorry that Germantown High’s proposal was rejected – and he suspects there’s more to the story.

“What would be the reason for closing that school except that there’s something else to use that building for? You can’t keep that type of building shut down in the middle of an already frustrated neighborhood,” he said.

Gym said she worried that without clear plans to improve conditions in the District’s remaining schools, the cycle of academic failure and flight to charters is set to continue.

“This is the spiral that we’ve been talking about – we’ve seen it in other cities across the country,” she said. “We know what happens with mass school closings, and we know the impact it has on families and communities.”

Gym vowed to keep pressing for support for public education, particularly in City Hall. “The fight is here,” she said. “It’s not just in Harrisburg.”

But for many, the final mood was simply glum. “Irritated and very pissed off,” is how Orlando Acosta, a parent and activist who spoke at numerous meetings, described his feelings in the aftermath of the vote. “They have an agenda, and it didn’t involve anything about the community. Now I have to wonder, what is this going to mean for my sons, for my daughter? Next year, what is this whole thing going to look like?”

Nonetheless, Acosta said, he had no regrets. “When it’s for the children,” Acosta said, “it’s always worth it.”

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Comments (28)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2013 1:07 am
I'm not sure if having your voice heard is done in vain. We didn't get the results we wanted tonight. We may not get them tomorrow. We will continue to fight for what is right.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2013 5:01 am
The time has come. We do not need a leader/movement led in the way MLK led. We need a Malcom X inspired movement. BY ANY MEANS...
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 8, 2013 7:05 am
I was so proud of the "People of Philadelphia" last night who spoke up for themselves, the children, their families, and their communities. I loved the young lady who spoke first who was from Robeson. I will never forget her -- so inspirational she was. The silver lining in all of this is that it is going to start a backlash that reawakens Philadelphians and Americans as to their civil rights under the Constitution and the Civli Rights Act. The best thing is that Mr. Mondeshire is becoming active and sees what is really happening here. Where is the NAACP in this? I saw the movie Lincoln last week and it inspired me so much as I study what is happening right before my eyes. Lincoln, as so did many Americans, gave his life to abolish slavery. That was the passing of the 13th Amendment. The next step "in our civil rights growth" in America was the passing of the 14th Amendment which gave Constitutional rights to all Americans and guaranteed every citizen those rights in every state. Now I watch and see those rights being ripped away from Philadelphians in an effort to turn our public schools into private businesses for the profit of the wealthy. By doing so, the rights of the people of Philadelphia to a Free Appropriate Public Education are being intentionally eroded and ripped from them. Every Philadelphian and every American should be seriously concerned about what is happening here. When schools are closed, communities are being ripped apart. When schools are turned over to "charter operators," students, parents, teachers and the general public lose their rights in schools. When are we going to return to doing things for the best interests of students, their families and their communities, and stop doing things for the interests of those who want to turn public schools into private businesses for profit?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2013 9:37 am
The ultimate right is the right to leave a failing system. Some of us, those with money, always have had that right. And we left the sdp in the hundreds of thousands. Now others have this right. Make no mistake- the only solution to satisfy the status quo interests is to take this right away. To solve undercapacity by filling bad schools by coercion. the parents of these 45k children weren't screaming in this room. But they would be if you really gave the protest leaders here what they really wanted. Speaking of rights, it is laughable Lincoln would be towing the AFT line here. He was a supporter of freedom above allow else and smart enough to read people's real motivations.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 8, 2013 9:56 am
Lincoln would be fighting for the rights of all citizens to have well functioning public schools in all neighborhoods. Lincoln would be fighting for all citizens to have democratic rights under the Constitution to vote for the leaders of their publicly run school district. Lincoln would not to be for a band of unelected rich people driving public policy from behind closed doors in circumvention of the Sunshine Act. The Sunshine Act embodies "due process rights" embodied in our 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Lincoln would be in favor of operating all public schools by the principles set forth in our Constitution. Lincoln, in case you haven't read his Gettysburg address believed this: "That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." It is obviously perishing from Philadelphia -- the birthplace of American democracy.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on March 8, 2013 10:52 am
Rich--This is Joe. You don't have to ask twice what is needed to remedy this extortion of the poor by the rich. Kumbaya ain't the answer. It's another case of ,"We have met the enemy and it is we." Read "First They Came" and tell me we're not heading in that overall direction again. Divide and conquer "ain't nothing new" as they say in South Philly.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 8, 2013 10:03 am
I know, that you know, how we have always struggled and had to fight for the rights we have demanded and earned. But watching Lincoln and thinking about what is really going on -- really was inspirational.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on March 8, 2013 11:49 am
Protecting our rights was once compared with fighting Roberto Duran 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 8, 2013 7:07 pm
Protecting our rights granted to us by our Constitution was what our forefathers fought and died for and what our youth are dying to protect still today. Those rights do not stop at the schoolhouse door.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on March 8, 2013 7:17 pm
Rich--your post was like a 3 run homer in the 9th. Thank You.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2013 8:04 am
The fact that this is happening in so many cities with not a word from the White House or Arne Duncan speaks volumes to me. Think about it.
Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on March 8, 2013 9:22 am
The absolute fact that most of the people that attended that meeting acted like thugs is an absolute disgrace. They lost all credibility with the public when they started threatening the citizens of this city. Good luck getting any support now, expecially when most teachers WON'T strike because they have families to support and mortgages to pay. Those that do strike will be waving to lots of others as they cross the picket line.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on March 8, 2013 10:01 am
Anybody who crosses the picket line is a boob, a non serious person and why you don't understand that is beyond my comprehension. This is the USA, my friend and allegedly a democracy. Destroying worker and kids' rights ain't American my friend.
Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on March 8, 2013 11:34 am
I don't see this as destroying but TRYING TO FIX. No matter what anyone says, it is a business and a business cannot run in a deficit, that is common economics. My 4th grader figured that one out. Additionally, people will cross the picket line because just like everyone else they have to feed their families and pay their mortgages - again simple economics. How many teachers are going to be willing to lose their certs? Not as many as you think.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on March 8, 2013 12:02 pm
I think you are wrong but who knows????
Submitted by Frank Murphy on March 8, 2013 10:28 am

Who exactly was threatening anyone yesterday?  I was there and observed an orderly, passionate demonstration involving thousands of concerned citizens.  The people who participated deeply believe in the value of a robust and well-funded public education system.   The use of the pejorative term “thugs” to describe the participants at yesterday’s demonstration is inflammatory and patently untrue. 

Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on March 8, 2013 12:30 pm
Really? Did you actually get into the room during the vore? Many of the people that spoke threatened fights because "I ain't goin to that school" "I will start fights if I have to go to that school" A so called pastor threatening the citizens by threatening to "Shut the City down". Those are the words of thugs!
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 8, 2013 12:53 pm
Pastor Pamela Williams was absolutely justified in what she said. Do not call her a thug. Her words were words of frustration. She was advocating for transparency, with her remarks about the need for financial disclosure of the District's expenses and contracts. The truth is that the people in this city have very little say in what is happening in the District because organizations like the Broad Foundation, the BCG, and the Gate Foundation have so much influence in this District.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 8, 2013 12:49 pm
Submitted by tom-104 on March 8, 2013 2:24 pm
I have attended all of the community meetings and last night. NEVER have I heard anyone threatening violence. They said they are concerned about the violence at the schools they are going to because their school that is being closed is safe. What I saw from the students was a lot of shock and crying. Everything you stated is coming from your own imagination. As for the pastor threatening to use civil disobedience to "shut the city down", I suppose you also thought Martin Luther King was a "thug"!
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 8, 2013 9:28 pm
Last week at one of the SRC meetings, this man Dr. Carl Jones, I think, did threaten violence. His grandson goes to Leidy. However, he is the only one who has threatened violence, as I recall.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 11, 2013 12:21 pm
Wow this takes guts, the people you're calling "thugs" are Philadephia residents. We con't lose credibilty with ourselves.
Submitted by Katie (not verified) on March 8, 2013 9:30 am
I am so utterly disheartened. The SRC had years to get a plan together for the failing Philadelphia public school system. Instead of doing site visits to the schools and soliciting ideas from the communities, they hired the Boston Consulting Group for a million dollars in a cover-your-own-ass maneuver. BCG did not do site visits. They did not speak with the communities. They relied on 'expertise' and 'numbers' to feed public officials a plan that the public officials found palatable and could in turn make valid with the 'expertise' and 'numbers' provided by BCG. Communites had no say in these top-down mechanisms. In the span of a few short months (1? 2?) the SCR released this atrocious plan and held mock hearings. Communities scrambled to come to last minute meetings which changed dates constantly- and form plans of their own in response to the BCG plan and in response to the failing public school system. The respectful dialog was carried out entirely on the SRC's terms. In the end- the resulting plan is going to be executed on the SRC's terms... not on the communities' terms. If anyone bothered to listen- none of these communities want their neighborhood school closed. They have devoted time, energy, money, law suits to fighting the SRC and the powers-that-be who sanctioned this group. Neighborhoods truly have banned together to try and fight a system of oppression- it is clear as day. It is frustrating to be so blatantly disrespected by our 'elected' public officials. Where is Mayor Nutter? (pretending he has nothing to do with this?). Where is President Obama (ignoring that most major US cities are selling their public school systems for parts?) Where is Corbett (not answering to his constituents?) If the community is not heard- and peaceful protests are in vain- what options do we have to fight a system that most of us do not feel we even put in place to begin with. During the hearings, the SRC implored that we be respectful in our discourse while they politely disrespected our neighborhoods and dis-invested in the future of our youth. We were allowed to voice our opinions- but they did not even do parents, teachers, or community leaders the honor of responding to their pleas and concerns as they were individually presented. If only one-third of the charter schools are better than our neighborhood schools, two-thirds of them are worse. Turning public education over to charters is not an option. If property values are tied to good neighborhood school catchments- then wouldn't a vast system of popular public schools be an investment strategy for the city? If well-educated youth turn into well-educated and prosperous adults for our communities- then wouldn't the public schools system be the top priority of any official? We need to invest in our communities... and the communities are willing to work together to make good on these investments. We have screamed it at the top of our lungs We have spent nights and weekends and work days coming together to figure out alternatives while the ground underneath our feet shifted and lurched with SRC rumors about closings and changed hearing dates, and cancelled meetings. What are we supposed to do now that we are being so arrogantly ignored?????
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on March 8, 2013 10:04 am
Nutter cares plenty, unfortunately, he cares exclusively about Nutter and his future.This is nothing short of cold blooded extortion and not a peep from The White House. All the inner cities voted for "hope" and got "hopeless" instead. Worst part is if Mutter ran for mayor today, he'd be reelected and so would Obama, of course. People with sense, see the clock being turned back and George Wallace and Bull Connor are snickering in hell.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on March 8, 2013 2:21 pm

Last night's actions, along with almost a year of organizing and protest, have not been in vain.   While we did not win our demand for a one year moratorium, some schools were saved and,more importantly,  the foundation has been laid to continue and intensify the struggle against the whole privatization, austerity agenda.  Both nationally and locally an anti-austerity front of labor, civil rights forces and community organizations is emerging.  Hundreds of people....students, parents,and union members, have been drawn into poltical activity.   A new level of militancy was evident as people moved beyond politely voicing their concerns to an indifferent and unaccountable SRC, to challeging their legitmacy and their policies in the streets and, last night, with civil disobedience.    While we mourn the loss of these schools, we can take heart in the growth of resistance.    

Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 8, 2013 10:33 pm
You're right, Ron. What needs to happen is that advocacy for individual schools needs to coalesce into a more broad-based movement to defend public schools. Some schools have had to pit themselves against one another. Others, like those in Germantown, joined together to form a united coalition. There needs to be more involvement from City Council, clergy, parents, students, community members, and teachers and other staff. Civil disobedience is a must, but it's important to be aware that some people are more able to be civilly disobedient than others. The one thing that heartens me is that there appears to be strong support from a number of members of City Council and state legislators to defend public schools. I'd like to see a more unified effort on the part of these elected officials. There is still fighting to do. I see issues with the proposal to make Roosevelt into a K-12 school because it wouldn't be able to accommodate all students from Germantown HS, Fulton, and Roosevelt. People need to keep fighting for Germantown HS because that is what the community wants and they deserve to have their voices heard. Also, there needs to be more momentum behind the proposals that Rev. Pamela Williams proposed with regard to financial oversight and transparency. EGS
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 8, 2013 10:53 pm
One more thing Ron. Is Beeber going to have a closing hearing the way that other schools have? I know that M. H. Stanton had there's but when will Beeber's be?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 21, 2013 11:22 pm
Stanton had a community meeting with Dr. Hite on March 5th. The src has not yet named a date for a specific school closure meeting as of yet. M hall stanton supporters were scheduled to speak tonight at the src but respectfully withdrew on the grounds that we feel we deserve a specific school closure meetings as the other schools had. Tonight was just a general meeting.I am someone who has a very vested interest in keeping stanton open next year. I can tell you that the staff, parents, community members and elected officials of stanton community have been working very hard together since stanton was unjustly nominated for closure. We have spent hours researching, data analyzing, reading proposals of the formerly nominated schools that was submitted to dr. Hite... we were more than hurt and saddened especially upon reading duckerys proposal. They individuals responsible for creating this document by referring to the stanton community as a "drug ridden crime infested area" several times. It claimed they were the better performing school and submitted documents showing that they havent made AYP in 10 years, they are listed as corrective action 2 school and they only met 8 out of 23 indicators. Stanton has made AYP 4 in the last 10 years, are only corrective action 1 and made 14 out of 23 indicators. Whats more they made blantant lies about the state of the facility that could have surely been proven wrong had ANY proper fact checks been involved in the decision to add stanton. ALSO interesting is the fact that a sister of a member of the src also submitted a proposal that stanton be closed instead of dukery. This document listed several elected officials as suppoters in favor of stanton closing. When we contacted them for verification they had NO IDEA their names were listed and were honestly quite shocked. Did dr. Hite read these unprofessional proposals, one of them from a SISTER of an src member and change his mind based on the lies and propoganda in them?. We have reached out to several local news stations, reporters including from the notebook, etc to bring attention to the concerns we have and hopefully will have a favorable response from them soon. The whole process is beyond unfair, undemocratic, and clearly lacks the level of decision making process that should be involved when making a school closure reccomendation, ESPECIALLY an AMENDED school closure reccomendation. Thank you to everyone who has kept this community in your thoughts and prayers..

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