At last school-closings forum, ideas for Northwest Philly's own plan

by on Dec 20 2012

By Connie Langland

Don’t close Germantown High. Reconfigure it as a preK-12 school.

Same with McCloskey Elementary. Don’t disperse students; convert the school to K-8 and, in the process, expand the Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds.

At Wednesday evening’s fourth forum on planned closings, it became clear that parents had done their homework and drawn up plans that would preserve at least some favored neighborhood schools, keep children closer to home and minimize disruptive transfers that could fuel teen-on-teen conflict.

And it appeared that District Superintendent William Hite Jr. and his staff were taking notice.

Karyn Lynch, chief of student services and a close aide to Hite, ventured into the audience several times to jot down names and numbers of parents who pitched alternative plans when they got their two minutes of microphone time.

Hite signaled that he was taking the input seriously. “Some may be acted on, some may be rejected, some may be changed,” he said.

But Hite stood firm on the inevitability of closings, saying the District must “arrive at $28-30 million in savings or we will fail to operate.”

The forum at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in the West Oak Lane section drew about 300 people — the largest audience of the four forums held over five days and possibly the best organized. Supporters of half a dozen or more schools slated for closing organized themselves into cheering sections, with banners, school colors and ideas to put forward. For the record, the event was no less raucous than the others.

Numerous schools had their defenders: Germantown, the military academies, McCloskey, Cooke Elementary, Kinsey Elementary and University City High. (No surprise there: students from University City have proven strong advocates for their school at all four forums.)

Most of the Northwest schools affected by the closings plan, which includes grade reconfigurations and other changes for those staying open, had visible contingents. These included Emlen, Pennypacker, and Edmonds elementaries, and Leeds Middle School.

Cooke parent Melanie Haynesworth and teacher Jenna Silverman argued that their school was being sacrificed to consolidation, forcing students to be transferred to schools with weaker indicators of success.

“Cooke has space, stability and structure,” said Haynesworth.

“Scores are up. Incidents are down. We have a stable staff. And now you’re going to ask my children to walk across Broad Street?” asked Silverman, near tears. “We’re family.”

The plan shows there’s space at Logan and Steel elementaries to absorb Cooke students, noted William Montgomery, planning specialist for the District.

At times, it seemed Hite and his staff were determined to win over skeptics with courtesy. Someone from the District acknowledged nearly every speaker with a standard response: “Thank you for that question,” or “Thank you very much for your question,” or “That is a very good question.”

But the meat of their responses rarely satisfied audience members as comments from Hite and others veered from the specifics of a school’s situation to the general needs of the District.

Montgomery, for one, kept the focus on the particulars of reconfiguration and unused space, prompting one parent to complain that the administration responses “sound like a real estate convention — I’m hearing nothing about the educational benefits.”

Parent Sharron Gaymon made a strong case for the merits of not closing McCloskey, citing multiple indicators, including test scores, attendance and staff stability.

“It took a long time to build parent-principal trust. Now McCloskey is a well-established school. Our children are losing,” she said.

“Yes, McCloskey is doing a good job,” Hite responded. “But we have to think about academic progress for all students. We want all our schools to perform like McCloskey.”

Gaymon was followed to the microphone by parent Leslie Young, who pitched an alternative to closing the school: Make McCloskey K-8, with the school absorbing students from what is now Leeds Middle School. That proposal drew loud applause from the audience.

And grandparent Sharon Mitchell Fulton pitched the idea of preK-12 classes at Germantown High. As she made her way back up the crowded aisle, Lynch, Hite's aide, was there to gather contact information.

Before the question and answer period, State Rep. Cherelle Parker rallied the crowd. And at the end of the meeting, District officials called on Alyn Waller, pastor of the huge and influential Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, to make closing remarks.

Waller, who had previously organized his congregation in opposition to the Boston Consulting Group’s blueprint for reconfiguring  the District, was similarly upset about the closings plan and the lack of input from those affected.

He vowed that the Northwest Philadelphia community would take charge of this process from now on and formulate an alternative to what the District plans to do.


 

Here is a breakdown of the proposed closings and relocations

School to close - Facility to close (28)

Facility to close - School to relocate (6)

Facility to close - School to be absorbed into another (3)

School to relocate - Facility stays in use (2)

 

School to close - Facility stays in use (5)