Finally, it's closing time
With enrollments still falling and no money to spare, the District looks ready to make hard decisions.
by Dale Mezzacappa
There is no easy way to close schools. Embedded in neighborhood history, these buildings hold memories for thousands. They are the source of pride, loyalty and identity – no matter how deteriorated the building, how inadequate the academics, and how empty the hallways.
For decades, Philadelphia school officials have repeatedly put off any hard look at what to do in the face of departing students, aging buildings, and stretched resources.
Enrollment in District schools is now barely 160,000 students, just more than half of what it was at its peak in 1970 of nearly 300,000. There was a brief uptick in the early 1990s, but the decline has been steady over the past 15 years, especially with the rise of charter schools, which now educate more than 40,000 students.
Although various administrations did studies of school facilities, they never resulted in many closings – even though the District couldn't afford to maintain all its buildings.
As a result, it finds itself today with an estimated 70,000 empty seats in more than 280 structures, at the same time it is facing a major funding shortfall.
Now, the administration of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is compiling a comprehensive facilities master plan designed to "right-size" its physical plant, and the School Reform Commission is promising action.
"This SRC is not going to kick the can down the street and leave the tough issues to somebody else," said Commissioner David Girard-diCarlo.
The goal, officials say, is to maximize educational availability, quality, and equity around the city for a dwindling student population that is also growing increasingly disadvantaged. Actions going forward, they say, will include downsizing, dealing with surplus property, and thinking about capital needs, all in the context of improving academic programs.
While public input is invited through three rounds of meetings, key aspects of the decision-making process have so far been kept under wraps. Officials have shared 11 factors they are using to evaluate schools, but have not said which will count the most. They declined to give the Notebook up-to-date school capacity and facilities condition data for this edition.
They acknowledge that there could be school closings as early as September. Yet they say that "late spring" is the earliest communities might hear the fate being considered for their schools: closing, consolidation, feeder pattern changes, renovations, a different grade configuration – or even expansion.
When pressed in January, officials were reluctant to say outright that closings are imminent. Asked whether it was "inevitable" that some buildings would close, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery replied, "I don't know if it's inevitable. It's possible."
What is known from information released so far is that schools are underenrolled in most areas of the city.
There are a few overcrowded pockets – mostly in the Northeast, Olney, Kensington, and some of the river wards. On average, elementary schools are at about 82 percent capacity while middle and high schools are at 59 percent capacity, as opposed to an ideal of 85 percent.
And while school utilization generally reflects neighborhood demographics, that's not the whole story. In every part of the city, at least 25 percent of the students transfer out of their neighborhood high school; in most areas it is more than 50 percent.
Six planning regions
For planning purposes, school officials have divided the city into six areas: Southwest, West, South-Central, North-Central, Northwest, and Northeast, the better to deal with their "different challenges," according to Associate Superintendent Penny Nixon.
She said they want to provide options in each region that minimize student travel for high school, but also let parents choose between small schools and larger ones, K-8s and middle schools, and different academic, career and technical programs. They are also considering the impact on special education, early childhood, and athletics, Nixon said.
In August, officials began discussions with charter school operators, politicians, community development organizations, and civic associations. At the same time, URS Corporation and DeJong Richter were conducting a demographic, enrollment, and building analysis.
In late fall, officials held regional meetings that were attended by about 500 people. Rather than talk about closings, the District asked participants to list "must haves" for any school in terms of academic programs, amenities like libraries, and conditions relating to climate.
"We wanted to explain the complex issue that the District is dealing with in regards to empty seats, but also explain that this process was about optimizing educational program options as much as it was about bricks and mortar," said Danielle Floyd, deputy for strategic planning initiatives.
At a second set of 10 meetings in early February in the regions, attendees were to be given a summary of their original feedback, asked what additional data they'd like to see and their concerns about the process, and asked to rank their "must haves," rating art and music against athletics, for instance.