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February 2013 Vol. 20. No. 4 Focus on A Downsizing District

In our opinion

Change the dynamic

By the Notebook on Jan 30, 2013 04:00 PM

Common sense dictates that the School District should be looking for opportunities to close crumbling schools that are half-empty and underperforming. In a cash-starved system with a shrinking population and aging facilities, we can’t afford not to.

Officials acknowledge that closing schools is painful but say that once we get through it, we’ll all be better off with a streamlined system – and the District will be poised to improve its fortunes. 

Unfortunately, reality does not match that narrative. Many of the schools on the closings list don’t neatly fit the crumbling, half-empty and low-performing profile. A dozen are more than two-thirds full. Several are high performers academically, and others are on an upswing. 

To families faced with losing their schools, officials have been unable to offer concrete examples of what will be gained. The District’s process and plan seem poorly thought out and risk alienating thousands of families and staff. 

The criteria for closing school A instead of school B are still unclear. There is no evidence that a consistent standard was used. Also, with so many schools and so many variables at play, it seems District staff failed to fully consider the complex of factors to ensure that valuable and necessary programs are preserved.  

Perhaps the District’s biggest blunder was in treating the people closest to the schools as potential adversaries who must be kept in the dark rather than as knowledgeable partners in developing recommendations. Staff held numerous rounds of community meetings without discussing plans for specific schools. When such profound changes are drawn up without tapping community wisdom, the resulting hostile response can come as no surprise.

Even though it’s unclear that there will be significant savings in the short run, realistically, there’s no backing away from some action on school closings this year. 

But in its current form, the plan will further deplete scarce public assets in poor and African American communities, and the chaotic process will only accelerate the flight of students into charters and other alternatives. This could well put the system into a death spiral.

To avoid such dire results, the District must quickly and radically revamp this process. Superintendent Hite could change the dynamic by:

  • Affirming public feedback and taking bad ideas off the table right now. For example, scale back the closings in North Philadelphia; no neighborhood should have so many schools wiped out in one blow. Don’t shut McCloskey, a high-performing elementary school that is not far under capacity. Don’t send Gompers and Overbrook elementary students to Beeber, a struggling school that’s also been labeled persistently dangerous. 
  • Making a realistic assessment of how many transitions the District can manage at a time. Last year, staff struggled to oversee six closings. Stagger proposed closings, thereby giving some communities a year or two to come up with alternatives. 
  • Immediately providing detailed transition plans for the closings still on the table for 2013. Get specific on safety, transportation, and academics so families, schools and the SRC can evaluate them before action is taken.
  • Assisting communities like University City High School that are developing counterproposals. Embrace the idea of community schools and collaborate on how to bring other services into underutilized buildings instead of closing them.

Community members are not simply saying “No.” They are crying out for a real voice. The District would be wise not to turn a deaf ear.

Comments (18)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 3, 2013 4:59 pm
I teach at an up-and-coming school that is slated to get some number of other students for a closing school. We have no idea how many (not even a ballpark number), so no real planning can go into next year. Additionally, the students we have been getting, now that we are no longer an empowerment school, have almost exclusively tested below the level of our students that have been in the school for years. What happens when teachers are judged by student test scores and you suddenly double the number of students in the building without giving any way to plan for this in advance? The district has told us nothing at all, so if you look at the number of students and families these closings will impact, it is far greater than the ~17,000 number the district gives.
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on February 3, 2013 4:27 pm
Thank you for reminding us that the proposal closures / upheaval will affect many more than the 17,000 students/families. All neighborhoods other than the Northeast, will feel the affects. Once again, magnet / special admit schools will be able to plan for next year while neighborhood schools, particularly high schools, will have to wait. As you wrote, in 2014 test scores will be included in evaluations. Will the SRC and Dr. Hite continue to brag about the success of schools with admission requirements while not recognizing that the playing field is not level?
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on February 3, 2013 5:35 pm
one other thing we should do is stop acting like the people that have to create or approve this plan have anything to do with the conditions that made it necessary. but necessary it is and any counter proposal must replace any cuts they've eliminated.
Submitted by Peg D (not verified) on February 3, 2013 6:56 pm
"But in its current form, the plan will further deplete scarce public assets in poor and African American communities, and the chaotic process will only accelerate the flight of students into charters and other alternatives. This could well put the system into a death spiral." THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANT. Make no mistake the primary goal here is UNION BUSTING.
Submitted by tom-104 on February 3, 2013 8:23 pm
You got it! This article says: "Common sense dictates that the School District should be looking for opportunities to close crumbling schools that are half-empty and underperforming. In a cash-starved system with a shrinking population and aging facilities, we can’t afford not to." In a "cash starved system" we cannot afford not to close schools? So why is it cash starved? Why haven't funds been put towards fixing the public schools including replacing crumbling buildings? This has been a deliberate policy in effect on already underfunded schools for ten years since the state takeover. There is a profound injustice that has been, is being, and will be done to this city and all urban areas that have a large low income population. Thousands of children from low income families are being herded into a segregated school system to become customers of charter management companies or left behind in inferior public schools. We are going to regret these times and the next generation will suffer the most!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 3, 2013 9:41 pm
Tom, Philadelphia received huge funding increases during the Rendell years. The district management never adjusted for declining enrollment and was not fiscally responsible. Why should poor and minority students have to deal with a sub-standard education? Why can't they have a choice in where their children go to school? The enrollment dropped because parents did not like the education service being given (academic and safety).
Submitted by tom-104 on February 3, 2013 9:02 pm
The vast majority of that funding and the stimulus money was put into charter expansion. A major part of the deficit is due to charter expansion. The enrollment dropped because the parents were given clear signals that the public schools were not going to be supported. Safety dropped because security and support staff were cut to send funds to charter expansion. At the community meetings the parents were virtually unanimous that they did not want their community schools closed. You call this choice? These are the parents who stuck with public schools even though they are underfunded. They said over and over they like their school, they like their teachers. Where is their choice? Why should low income families have to deal with sub-standard education indeed. Why weren't these funds devoted to fixing these schools instead of charter expansion for charter management companies? Many of these children in low income families are going to be left behind in the inferior public schools you have been creating.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 4, 2013 6:36 am
tom-104 your comments that I have read tell me that you are likely a good teacher. I am curious why the (good teachers) at my neighborhood school (now closed) never took the crucial step to work as a team on their own initiative to put into place some improvements that would have been possible/not cost so much. They waited for the principal, who was essentially absent from his duties. There was a sense that things were not their responsibility or out of their control. Surely a principal can't fire an entire team of teachers who are proposing and willing to make positive improvements? I don't think initially school choice/charters was meant to dissolve the PSD. It was likely a legitimate response to frustration expressed by caregivers. With the grossly inefficient spending of the PSD, and the requirement of matching reimbursements for charters, yes, charters would attract profiteers. Surely this mindset that all these things are done intentionally to rob the union or workers is the same mindset that says it is not your responsibility to make things better in some way? I understand that teachers are already contributing from their own pockets for supplies (and I believe they shouldn't have to), but how about working together at schools?
Submitted by Joan Taylor on February 4, 2013 1:55 pm
Good teachers spend time every day outside of school hours prepping for classes. Add in family responsibilities, health issues, and sleep, and you've pretty much used up the hours in a day. In addition, many teachers hesitate to stir the pot in any way because they fear the target that will appear on their backs once they do so. Sometimes I wish that my friends would back off the pro-union comments, and then I think about how much the average American worker's salary has declined with the loss of union jobs, and I consider the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, and I worry that we're not making a pro-union case strongly enough. While we may do better in the future, and I fervently hope so, our socio-economic status has consistently been the best predictor of school success. Doubling the minimum wage would probably be the most effective way to improve education: our parents would have more time at home and more resources to provide for their children. Success for all begins with decent employment. To the extent that unions achieve fair working conditions, their strength is an indicator of a healthier, more balanced society. The anti-union figures in the educational system are creating the strains that persistently dog reform efforts. These people are making a lot of money--a lot, lot, lot of money. They have contempt for unions because they are blinded by conceit and snobbery...and because they are raking it in hand over fist while crowing about their highminded ideals. Not a bad gig, I guess, just not one that helps kids learn.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 4, 2013 2:49 pm
So are you saying working as a team is "stirring the pot" and inviting a target to appear on your back? If so, the PSD is definitely a lost cause, and I can't be sorry to see it go.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 4, 2013 6:31 am
Which are the schools that don't fit the low utilization? The high performers? Thanks for publishing this.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 4, 2013 7:39 am
That is simply not true. The major part of the deficit is due to not adjusting to the enrollment drop caused by parent who left for charters and other options. I'm sure you remember that the district received an additional 30% to 40% for each child enrolled in a charter school until about two or three years ago. This resulted in the district actually making money. The district has been plagued with bad schools for decades. The flight of parents had nothing to do with signals of declining support. Remember, the Rendell years saw unprecedented increases in education funding, especially for Philadelphia. Also, the stimulus money in Philadelphia was used for additional support positions that temporarily assisted schools with programs like test preparation. Stimulus funds were never intended for programs that could not be sustained. Also remember that many of the neighborhood schools on the closure list are in catchments where more than 50% of parents have already chosen to attend other schools. Had the district merged schools, reprogrammed schools or taken any proactive steps, we wouldn't be in this mess. The facts remain that the public education system is broken and needs a tremendous overhaul. Pumping money into a broken system is a waste of time and money. We can no longer blame charters, funding and community issues for a system that has failed to adapt to the 21st century. If you're going to look at finding the cause to this problem in order to seek a solution, you have to start with facts. Continually spouting false misconceptions allows people to feel good, but nothing ever gets better. This has been the district problem for the past twenty years.
Submitted by Ken Derstine on February 4, 2013 8:13 am
A detailed analysis must be done of the School District budget over the last ten years since the state took over and it has it been managed by the SRC, particularly since 2005. I know every classroom teacher can speak from experience about how starved for resources the schools have been for a long time until today many are forced to buy reams of paper because paper is not being supplied by the District. As a computer teacher I had a computer lab that received new computers in 2001. When I retired in 2011 the computer lab still had 11 year old computers. I would go to educator computer conferences and see the fantastic things they were doing in school districts that were being funded and know I had to go back to my Philadelphia public school and make do with aging computers that had no multimedia capability. In 2010, Finance Director Masch was holding community meetings where he would give a Power Point presentation which showed the District budget. Allocations for District schools were cut, cut, cut; allocations for charters were up, up, up. I took it as a clear signal to parents that the District was not supporting public schools and they should transfer their children to charters.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 4, 2013 9:16 am
Per the joint HSA PSD budget workshop I went to, school budget initial allocations work on projections. It would make sense if charter enrollment showed a steep increase, the PSD would project accordingly.. just (dum:) math. It would not necessarily make a statement to a commitment or policy as you are interpreting it. The comment to which you are replying, I believe was an answer to tom-104's comment above. It is a good reply and I would agree with it more than I would with yours and tom-104's. I wonder sometimes that teachers live in a bubble and don't give caregivers the credit they deserve for the decisions they make. Yes many parents are intelligent -surprise! A parent at my school, transferred her child because of the numerous times she had gone to speak to the principal about him being bullied and picked on, and nothing had been done. It was not because the school, like yours, had outdated and unsupported/nonworking equipment. Our school had a school policeman too - a lot of good he did.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 4, 2013 9:45 am
Aren't we all forgetting the state used to reimburse the district for charters? I would like to know more about that, why it was started and the reason given for ending it. If the district thought those payments wouldn't go away, I could see why they would be demotivated to adjust for the increased charter enrollment. There is a lot of blame to go around.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 4, 2013 2:10 pm
I would like to hear more facts about this also. It's not clear what the history of this reimbursement is, or how it may have contributed to the large number of charters here in Philly. Apparently school districts in PA were given a 30% reimbursement for incurred costs (from loss of utilization) for students that transferred to charters. Also, apparently this was a "line item" cut to PSD's budget from Gov. Corbett (see excellent article/blog here on the Notebook: http://thenotebook.org/blog/124984/20-less-solution-problem-not-answer). Still not sure why the City did not sue the State for this. Here's a good study of what students that transfer to charters have cost school districts in PA: http://www.psba.org/issues-advocacy/issues-research/research-resource-ce... . Seems the 30% reimbursement, even if there, does not lessen the impact very much.
Submitted by Wendy Harris on March 20, 2013 10:51 am
The Notebook is gathering comments to put in our section "From our readers". We wanted to ask permission to reprint the following comment you made to our Feb. 2013 edition editorial "Changing the dynamic" Here is the comment:

A detailed analysis must be done of the School District budget over the last ten years since the state took over and it has it been managed by the SRC, particularly since 2005.
I know every classroom teacher can speak from experience about how starved for resources the schools have been for a long time until today many are forced to buy reams of paper because paper is not being supplied by the District.
As a computer teacher I had a computer lab that received new computers in 2001. When I retired in 2011 the computer lab still had 11 year old computers. I would go to educator computer conferences and see the fantastic things they were doing in school districts that were being funded and know I had to go back to my Philadelphia public school and make do with aging computers that had no multimedia capability.
In 2010, Finance Director Masch was holding community meetings where he would give a Power Point presentation which showed the District budget. Allocations for District schools were cut, cut, cut; allocations for charters were up, up, up. I took it as a clear signal to parents that the District was not supporting public schools and they should transfer their children to charters.
Would you grant permission for us to reprint this in the April edition? If so, could you also provide how you would like to be identified in the tag line at the end. Our style is to say:

Ken Derstine
The writer is (you fill in the blank -- a teacher at Bartram H.S., for example, a professor at Drexel, for example)

Thanks. If you could get back to me as soon as possible that would be great as we are putting the paper to bed this week.
Wendy Harris
Submitted by Steve45 (not verified) on May 8, 2013 6:26 am
Now-a-days the method of education is drastically changing. Previously people were more into the methods of changing education system but at first they have to remove the old and crumbling schools which were of no use and also remained empty without students. After changing the education system will definitely help us to know about encourage more students to get better education. Charter School Development

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