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February 2011 Vol. 18. No. 4 Focus on School Closings

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Finally, it's closing time

With enrollments still falling and no money to spare, the District looks ready to make hard decisions.

By by Dale Mezzacappa on Feb 2, 2011 06:32 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

William Penn High School is one school whose future is at stake in the District’s facilities master planning process. The building, in need of millions of dollars in repairs, has been closed since 2010, but no final decision on its status has been made. Shown here is the cluttered lobby at the North Broad Street entrance.

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.

During or after the second rounds of meetings, the District may share data about school utilization and facility conditions. URS has compiled a "facilities condition index" assessing repair and renovation costs for each building. A report to the SRC said that while most schools are in fair condition, the overall cost of capital repairs is in the $4 billion range. At 26 schools, the cost of needed repairs approaches or exceeds the cost of replacement. Most schools, 136, were in the "fair" range, and 124 had relatively good scores, meaning that repair costs would be low.

Leroy Nunery

But the District did not release the ratings for individual schools.

No timeframe was set for the third set of meetings, when, presumably, people will finally be presented specific options.

The school code requires a public hearing at least 90 days before a school is closed. And there could be more than a few.

"If you look at … Kansas City and other places, they did everything in one fell swoop. They took all their hits in one year, and that's an approach that you think about," Nunery said.

Factors considered for closing

While not weighting their importance, the District has outlined a list of factors that will be used in determining each school's future: enrollment vs. capacity; scores on the facility condition index; compliance with requirements relating to building accessibility and classroom size; and amenities such as a cafeteria, gym, and library. Other factors include its suitability for reuse – community or commercial – and whether it is in the special historic district, which qualifies it for a redevelopment tax break.

Student accessibility to other specialized programs, transportation, capacity of area charter schools, "neighborhood dynamics," and plans of city agencies and nearby institutions are also considerations.

Finally, the school's academic performance is a significant factor. Low-occupancy schools that are doing well may be expanded rather than closed.

Danielle Floyd

"If there's 25 percent occupancy, but if you have the right program, the right principal, the right teachers, there's no reason why you can't have more kids go to that school," said Floyd.

Renaissance Schools – those undergoing makeovers as Promise Academies and remaining in the District as opposed to being converted into charters – are not immune from potential closing or consolidation in the future, officials said, but all will open in September. Some schools designated as Promise Academies are way below capacity; Germantown High, for instance, is below 30 percent.

Historical trends

Cities all over the nation have had to deal with vast demographic shifts of people that have resulted in a hollowing out of once vibrant areas. The landscape has been further changed as public and parochial schools lose students to charters.

Michael O'Neill, who founded the Philadelphia School Partnership to identify and duplicate the best schools, whether they be public, parochial, or charter, said he expected that "some, but not a lot" of closed public school buildings might be suited to charters.

Beyond the persistent reluctance to close schools, Philadelphia is reaping the consequences of other decisions.

Many of the schools built between the 1960s and 1980s were poorly constructed, but the District declined to sue the builders, according to a former high-level District official.

"It became such a huge thing to do, the general counsel wouldn't touch it," the official said.

For instance, air conditioning at the Pickett Middle School never worked; Edison High School had a leaky roof for 20 years.

Officials also opted for expensive, state-of-the-art buildings like William Penn High School – now abandoned, with its future uncertain. In 2009, Ackerman dropped a plan to permanently close it.

District leaders had no trouble deciding to build schools like William Penn and University City – plenty of lucrative contracts for construction companies, work for the trade unions, and bond fees for lawyers – but didn't invest in supporting the full educational experience they were designed for. University City, now a Promise Academy, faces expensive asbestos removal.

Plus, routine and preventive maintenance was often neglected, hastening deterioration and driving up capital costs.

In addition, successive superintendents had shifting educational visions.

Former CEO Paul Vallas decided to close middle schools and convert as many elementary schools as possible into K-8. In his six years, he spent much of a $2 billion capital program on creating new small high schools and greatly reducing the number of middle schools.

The Vallas administration also did a facilities study, and it also concluded that the District had too much capacity and should close schools.

Instead, he garnered good will by building more. But those days appear to be over.

"This can get difficult," Girard-diCarlo said. "Communities could get upset. Elected officials could get upset. Some of our constituencies could get upset. We shouldn't be afraid of that, but be open and transparent and listen.

"Then we have to make some decisions."

About the Author

Contact Notebook Contributing Editor Dale Mezzacappa at

Comments (8)

Submitted by Baba Bob Bob Shipman (not verified) on February 6, 2011 5:13 pm

FNG EPIC stakeholders group and a small coalition fought a good fight to keep this school open. As Temple and others we believe had cut deals to grab this facility years ago. It has a million dollar media network on the roof web based strong enough to power a city link. Why is no one talking about that??

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 7, 2011 4:32 pm

I think part of the problem was cited here. IF you are opening up MORE charters for students to attend, and your public school population is declining because of it, then what, you can close more schools and "reorganize"?. It sounds like it was very well thought out, and to our detriment as public school employees and parents.

When are parents and teachers going to speak up for their neighborhood schools to be supported and strenghtened, rather than closed down? These actions are not incidental, they're well planned..

Submitted by JMA (not verified) on February 7, 2011 7:29 pm

I would love to see the extra room we have used to LOWER CLASS SIZE. Currently class size is capped at 30 for K-3 and 33 above that. That's too big! If we capped class size at 25 (or in a dream world 20), we would be able to use some of these empty buildings- but that's never been on the table.

BTW, I am a retired SDP teacher and the parent of 3 SDP graduates and one current student. When it came to decding where to send my kids to kindergarten, the district's class size was the factor that gave me the most pause.

Submitted by Helen Gym on February 9, 2011 10:15 am

It's worth asking the company that determined all the vacancies what numbers they were using to say that schools are under capacity. Was every single room to be used as a classroom. Are there any spaces in schools for say, expanding parent learning centers, community meeting spaces, gyms, auditoriums, cafeterias, etc.  

Further, I find it fascinating that the District would go through the effort to deflect attention away from school closings here:

Only to turn around weeks later and acknowledge that this is a major focus of the facilities plan - as if folks don't know. Their lack of credibility is frankly insulting.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on February 9, 2011 10:23 am

Another critical component of counting "unused space" accurately and fairly (not to mention ethically), is the space provided for Special Education classes and rooms. My school has a very diverse SpEd population. If a classroom is MDS (multiple disabilities), it needs to accommodate wheelchairs, sometimes gurneys, changing tables, and appropriate eating areas--not to mention room for adult teachers and aides. So a room that could hold 20-30 desks can really only contain about five actual students. Some schools have many rooms such as theses. Those rooms ARE NOT being underused nor do they have "empty seats", but is it being counted as a "regular room"?? We really need to keep an eye on this counting and tallying. There is no way that an outside operator could know the proper use and configuration of some of the rooms. Half the time the district does not even know what the rooms are used for.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 23, 2011 7:39 pm

My child has been in 2 different K-8 schools that are 0.65 miles apart from each other and both have whole floors that are unused. One of these schools has enrollment at just over 100 students. I think if they restructured these schools so that one was a K-5 and the other was a 6-8 that the students and neighborhood would benifit. With a higher number of middle school students in one place they could afford to have extra curricular activites. Right now each of these schools has to split the meager amount they get for after school programs, into programs for the younger students and programs for the older students. So everyone is losing right now. That's not even talking about things like science labs that both of these schools need, especially for the middle school students. At least if they restructured maybe they could afford a lab for one school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 20, 2011 11:49 am

PLEASE--Transparency--Is that what you want. Look somewhere else !! Queen Arlene has no intention of being open and honest. Why should she ???????????

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 9, 2011 10:12 am

I am sorry no school should be closed . I also am not happy with the idea of students going to school out of there neighborhood. Tell ackerman to quit her job and that money could keep the school opens and teachers and employees can keep thier jobs. This is just making a big mess not solving problems . I know my neighborhood wont go for what I have seen for Levering School. We do not want a middle and high school on the ridge the neighbors and merchants will fight it as they tried years ago to change it just to a middle school leave levering there and add amy school to them and it will work for you. Just feel Ackerman going a wrong way about all this close charter school and these kids gotta go to there home schools thats why schools lost enrollment to to charter schools . They are no better then any other school. Just know Roxoborough area people stick together when it comes to the neighborhood so expect a good fight.

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