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Notebook NEWSFLASH: June 2011

I. The Main Scoop

      After schools are closed, who decides their fate?

II. At the SRC . . .

III. Upcoming Events


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I. The Main Scoop

After schools are closed, who decides their fate?

by Benjamin Herold

Parent activist Cecelia Thompson
Photo: Benjamin Herold
Parent activist Cecelia Thompson succeeded in getting the SRC to delay its vote on a key policy about school closings.
Since then, the District has moved to be more open about how the future of closed buildings will be decided – but is it enough?

Cecelia Thompson wants neighborhood residents to have a meaningful say in what happens to closed school buildings in their communities.

Take the shuttered Beeber-Wynnefield Annex, just three blocks from her home in West Philadelphia. It’s one of eight buildings the District is putting on the market, aiming to raise $10 million toward its $629 million budget gap.

The neighborhood doesn’t need another charter school, parent activist Thompson argues – Mastery Charter’s Mann Elementary is right up the street. And residents don’t need more retail – there are plenty of nearby stores, and a new Target recently opened on City Line Avenue.  

What’s missing, says Thompson, is a community center within easy walking distance for the hundreds of young children and senior citizens in the neighborhood.

“We know what we want,” said Thompson. “So ask us.”

Beeber AnnexPhoto: Benjamin Herold
Any buyers? The Beeber-Wynnfield Annex at 53rd & Euclid Streets in West Philadelphia will soon be listed for sale.

That, however, is not going to happen – at least not as directly as Thompson would like. 

The School District is developing a new Adaptive Reuse Policy to govern the sale of as many as 50 school buildings set to be closed over the next few years. Officials have stressed that the policy will allow for far more community input into what happens to shuttered buildings than ever before. But they have been reluctant to allow widespread public participation at the beginning of the decision-making process, especially on the key question of how a building should be reused.

“It seems to me disingenuous to ask [the public to weigh in on] something we may or may not be able to deliver on,” said District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd, who is overseeing the District’s facilities master planning process.

The School Reform Commission (SRC) was supposed to vote last month on an earlier version of the Adaptive Reuse Policy. That version called for District staff to internally make this most fundamental decision about what happens to a school – whether it would be slated for educational, public, or private reuse – without any formal public input.

In practical terms, that meant that neighborhood residents would have had no say on whether the Beeber-Wynnefield Annex became, for example, a charter school, a supermarket, or a community center. They would have only been involved in deciding, for instance, which supermarket it became. 

But after Thompson testified that parents needed more time to understand the policy and argued that communities should have more of a role, the SRC, prompted by Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, postponed its decision.

In the three weeks since, District staff have been busy consulting with the SRC and revising the policy.

According to the most recent draft policy, the District now intends to accept proposals from all types of buyers for every property listed for sale. That represents a significant departure from its earlier position. But officials will still retain some ability to steer buildings towards particular types of reuse through internally developed “evaluation rubrics” that will be used to score proposals from potential buyers.   

And the newly proposed version of the Adaptive Reuse Policy will still tightly limit the opportunities for parents and community residents to be involved in real decision-making.

According to officials, that’s because it’s important to strike a balance between inclusiveness and timely decision-making. More community involvement might delay the process and lead properties to languish, they fear. 

“The worst thing for a community is having an empty building sitting there for a substantial period of time,” said Dworetzky. “We’ve all seen examples in Philadelphia of what happens to an abandoned building. That’s something nobody wants.”

Who knows best?

The Beeber-Wynnfield Annex is a prime example of a District facility that has long sat vacant. The facility was closed in 2004 and hasn’t been used since. 

Nevertheless, it still has a presence in the neighborhoods around 53rd and Euclid Streets in West Philadelphia.

On a rainy evening in mid-May, half a dozen teenagers played basketball on the blacktop outside the building. Despite a makeshift hoop that teetered precariously with each shot, Da-Juan Echols, a 9th grader at Boys' Latin, said he and his friends come there to play almost every day.

“It’s closer than the [52nd and] Parkside courts,” which are a 10-minute walk, said Echols.

Asked how they would like to see the property converted, the boys didn’t hesitate.

“They should make it a gym that’s open year-round,” said Khaymir Lowry, a 10th grader at Overbrook.

Cecelia Thompson thinks that would be great.

“There’s really nothing in this end [of town] for the children to do,” she said.

But Thompson is worried that outsiders looking in might not understand that. If they just look on a map, she says, they’ll see that there are other recreation centers within a several block radius. What they may not grasp, however, is that there are no direct bus routes, and walking would require crossing a bridge and a busy intersection.

It’s those details that she believes the District can only learn from genuinely listening to residents from the beginning of the process, before the big decisions start being discussed.

“We can tell you how the neighborhood actually is,” said Thompson. “Unless a person actually lives here, they really don’t know.”

That perspective is echoed strongly by Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century Schools Fund in Washington, DC, and a national expert on school facilities issues.

“If you work with the community in good faith, give them good information, and say, ‘This is a problem we need to solve together,’ people will be creative and cooperative,” said Filardo.

“You will come up with a better idea than you ever could from the central office, with your consultants,” she added.

A limited number of seats at the table

District officials, however, have clearly indicated that they will not be prioritizing that type of grassroots input.

According to the most recent version of the Adaptive Reuse Policy, scheduled for an SRC vote on Monday, June 13 at an unusual 5 p.m. meeting, the primary vehicle for public involvement will be participation on “evaluation teams” that vet proposals from prospective buyers and make a recommendation to the SRC. These teams appear set to play a significant role in deciding the future of closed buildings, akin to the role played by School Advisory Councils in the Renaissance Schools matching process. 

But getting a seat on one of the teams looks to be a challenging prospect, especially for individuals not affiliated with established organizations. The policy calls for each team to include only “two to four representatives from community/civic organizations and stakeholders.” They will join District staff as well as representatives from the City Planning Commission and the relevant councilmanic and legislative districts.

For Cecilia Thompson, that’s not enough.

“The lazy way is to go through the City Planning Commission and other organizations who claim to know the neighborhood,” she said. “We live here. We shop here. Our children go to the neighborhood parks. Ask us, because we’ll be the ones utilizing” a reused building.

District officials say interested members of the public who don’t make it on to the evaluation teams would still have the chance to make their opinions known during public hearings at which they will be able to listen and respond to all the proposals for a given building.

“The public can make comments that will be taken into consideration by the evaluation team,” said District Assistant General Counsel Susan Fetterman, who has been involved in developing the policy. 

“But it’s just not appropriate to have [public involvement] at the stage before we even get to [reviewing] proposals,” Fetterman added.

What comes next?

Given the SRC’s close involvement in directing revisions to the policy over the last week during private discussions of its “operations committee,” headed by Dworetzky, the policy appears likely to pass.

District officials, however, say they are still taking feedback on the most recent revisions, which are posted online and have been distributed at the District’s Parent and Family Resource Centers.

But even after the policy is eventually adopted, there will still be big decisions to be made around how it is implemented.

One of the biggest implementation decisions has to do with how many evaluation teams will be created. The policy does not spell out whether there will be a separate team for each listed building or whether a smaller number of teams – perhaps based on the city’s 12 planning analysis sections – would evaluate proposals for multiple buildings within that area.

Asked about the pros and cons of each approach, Dworetzky said, “If you want to get the most intense involvement from people, it’s probably better to draw the evaluation teams’ jurisdictions narrowly.”

But then again, he added, “You’ve got to staff it all, and you’ve got to make sure you get everybody trained. The teams have to be set up in a way so the evaluations will be done seriously.”

Fewer teams would mean fewer seats for community residents to fill, making it even harder for neighborhood residents like Cecelia Thompson to be involved in the decision-making process.

Further marginalizing voices like Thompson’s would be a huge mistake, said Filardo of the 21st Century Schools Fund.

“The folly of thinking you can do this without the local knowledge of the communities in which schools are operated is just such arrogance, based on an enormous amount of ignorance about planning and development,” said Filardo. 

“You have to get local knowledge. Without it, you won’t get good decisions.”

This story is a product of a reporting partnership on the facilities master plan between the Notebook and PlanPhilly.

Benjamin Herold is a freelance reporter.

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II. At the SRC . . .

At its May meetings the School Reform Commission:

Contact the Notebook at 215-951-0330 x2107 or flash@thenotebook.org.

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III. Upcoming events

Sat. June 4. Kensington Branch Summer Reading Game Block Party. 12 p.m.
Free Library of Philadelphia Kensington Branch, 104 W. Dauphin St. Join the Kensington Branch for their Annual Summer Reading Game Block Party. This event celebrates the joy of reading. Food, music, games, and prizes; featured performers will be DJ Rosin, Bubbles the Clown, and Kensington’s very own Mauricio y Su Combo-Montana. For information, call 215-685-9996.

Sat. June 4. One-week Police Camp Registration. Philadelphia Police Academy, 8501 State Rd. For boys and girls in grades 3-5 who are interested in law enforcement, this camp will be held from June 2-24. Students in grades 6-8 can attend the camp from June 27-July 1. Registration deadline is June 4. For information, to register, and to download an application, visit www.phillypolice.com/news/philadelphia-police-explorers-hosts-youth-camp/.

Sat. June 4. 27th Annual Celebration of Black Writing Outdoor Festival. 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Temple University, Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Ave. Come enjoy workshops, panels, live music, comedy, poetry, and more. For information and to see a full schedule, visit http://artsanctuary.org.

Sun. June 5. First Annual Philadelphia Education Conference. 10 a.m. Temple University, Howard Gittis Student Center, 1755 N. 13th St. Participate in a discussion on the state of education in Philadelphia, and co-produce a plan for educational reform. Interested participants must buy tickets ahead of time on the TicketLeap site. For information, visit http://unitedphilly.ticketleap.com/pec/.

Mon. June 6-Sun. June 12. NBC News Education Nation Experience. 8:30 a.m. National Constitution Center Lawn, Independence Mall, 525 Arch St. Public exhibition to inform and engage students, and the public on the state of education in America now and in the future. The experience incorporates news, information, and interactive activities that demonstrate important trends and issues in education, highlight various individualized learning styles, and shed light on the skills and careers that are in demand today. For information, visit www.phoenix.edu/educationnation.

Mon. June 6-Fri. June 24. G.R.E.A.T. (Gangs Resistance Education and Training) Free Summer Camp Registration. 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Two locations: Ford Recreation Center, 609 Snyder Ave. and McVeigh Recreation Center, “D” & Ontario Sts. Register your child for a school-based, law enforcement officer-instructed classroom curriculum. With prevention as its primary objective, the program is intended as an immunization against delinquency, youth violence, and gang membership. This event is for students ages 10-14. For information, call 215-686-3380 or 215-686-3381.

Tue. June 7. Philadelphia Public School Notebook annual celebration: “Turning the page for change!” 4:30-7 p.m. Hamilton Hall, University of the Arts, 320 S. Broad St. Come out for a party to support the Notebook’s publishing and celebrate the accomplishments of another year of education activism. Fun, food and drink, annual Student Journalism Awards. Admission is $65 with discounts for members and for parent and student organizations. For information, call 215-951-0330 x2103 or go to www.thenotebook.org/june-event.

Tue. June 7. Oscar Hijuelos|Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir. 7:30 p.m. Free Library, Central Branch, 1901 Vine St. Oscar Hijuelos turns the characters and experiences of his Cuban-American heritage into fictional works that consistently win both critical and popular praise. The author of eight internationally bestselling novels, Hijuelos was the first Latino to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, honored for his lyrical second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. In his new memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, Hijuelos chronicles his colorful experiences growing up in a working-class Manhattan neighborhood. For information, call 215-567-4341.

Wed. June 8. School Reform Commission Planning Meeting. 2 p.m. School District of Philadelphia Education Center, 440 N. Broad St. To register to speak, call 215-400-4180 by 4:30 p.m. the day before the meeting.

Wed. June 8. How to Master Interviewing Workshop. 5-6 p.m. School District of Philadelphia Education Center, Parent and Family Resource Center, 440 N. Broad St. Come sharpen you interviewing skills and pick up some new ones at this workshop. RSVP by June 7. For information and to RSVP, call 215-400-7272.

Thu. June 9. SEAMAAC Spring Gala. 6-9 p.m. Hamilton Hall, University of the Arts, 320 S. Broad St. Immigrant and refugee service and advocacy organization holds its fundraiser. Admission: $60 for individuals, with discounts available to students, young professionals, and community members. For additional information, contact mfalcon@seamaac.org.

Thu. June 9. Title I Parents Are ‘R’ Equal Partners (PREP) Training. 5:30 p.m. School District of Philadelphia Education Center, 440 N. Broad St., Barry Conference Room 1080. Receive free training to become a graduation coach. Dinner will be provided for those who register by June 7. For information about the Graduation Coach Campaign and to register, visit www.phillygradcoach.com.

Sat. June 11. GEARing UP for High School. 9 a.m. Benjamin Franklin High School, 550 N. Broad St. Program that aims to improve the chances for educational success of middle and high school students at targeted schools. The program offers a set of academic and co-curricular experiences for students and teachers designed to help students prepare for postsecondary education. For information about participating schools, call 215-400-4130.

Mon. June 13. School Reform Commission Action Meeting. 5 p.m. School District of Philadelphia Education Center, 440 N. Broad St. To register to speak, call 215-400-4180 by 4:30 p.m. the day before the meeting.

Tue. June 14. Youth Summer Opportunities Fair. 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Philadelphia Charter School, 1100 E. Erie Ave. Come get information about various job opportunities for the summer. For information, call 267-702-4244 or email info@24thPDAC.org.

Tue. June 14. Kick Off Summer Reading with a Concert. 4 p.m. Fumo Family Branch 2437 S. Broad St. Join The Cat’s Pajamas at Fumo Family Branch. This group will perform for you as part of the branch’s Summer Reading Game Kick Off event. The concert will be held in the auditorium of the FELS South Philadelphia Community Center. This program is for children in grades pre-K-6. For information, call Liz Heideman at 215-685-1758.

Sat. June 18. 6th Annual Philadelphia Fatherhood Festival. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1201 Arch St. Breakfast and lunch will be provided at this event. For information, visit www.fatherfest.com.

Sat. June 18. Daddy Daughter Dance. 6-9 p.m. Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1201 Arch St. For information, call 610-721-6757 or email info@daddyuniv.com.

Mon June 20. Mad Science Presents: Science Around the World! 6:30 p.m.
Holmesburg Branch, 7810 Frankford Ave. Watch thrilling demonstrations of science experiments from around the world. Presented by Mad Science of West New Jersey and sponsored by Friends of the Holmesburg Library. For information, call 215-685-8756.

Tue. June 21 Discover the World @ Your Library: Everything Is A Drum! 10:30 a.m. Charles Santore Branch, 932 South 7th St. Jay Sand, guitarist, and children’s music teacher, will present rhythms from around the world. Sing songs from many different countries, such as Peru, India, Greenland, and Tokelau. Rhythms and drumming from 6 continents will be featured. This program is intended primarily for children from babies to five years old. For information, call 215-686-1766.

Sat. June 25. Afro-Caribbean Festival. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. School District of Philadelphia Education Center, 440 N. Broad St. Come enjoy food, fun, and many activities. For information, email ydesir@philasd.org.

Ongoing Events

Every Friday thru June 12. Summer Storytime for Families. 10:30 a.m. Whitman Branch, 200 Snyder Ave. Join us for stories, songs, and more! After story time is completed, all children will have the opportunity to create something special like a take-home craft. All children under five years old and their caregivers are welcome. For information, call 215-685-1754.

Wed. June 1 thru Wed. June 15. Kids Chess Club. 4:30 p.m. Free Library of Philadelphia, Haverford Branch, 5543 Haverford Ave. Join Coach J on Wednesdays for Chess Club. A Championship Tournament will be held on June 15. Prizes will be awarded. For information, call 215-685-1964.

Mon. June 20 thru Fri. July 15. Summer Science @ Jefferson. 8 a.m. Thomas Jefferson University, Edison Building, 130 S. 9th St. Science-minded high school students learn in real-world laboratories. Through discussions with researchers and hands-on lab experiments, students learn about science in everyday life, exploring the field of biomedical research. This event is for students who have finished at least two years of high school and are in good academic standing. To register your child or for information, call 215-503-8414 or visit www.jefferson.edu/summerscience.

Thru July 28. School District of Philadelphia’s Summer Learning and More (SLAM). The School District of Philadelphia’s summer school program will be held at a various school sites from Tuesday July 5 through Thursday July 28. Registration closes June 16. Contact your school for an application. For information about school locations, call 215-400-4180.

Thru Sat. Sept 10. The Galleries at Moore present “Seeing Through Young Eyes: Inside the Philadelphia Classroom & Community.” Levy Gallery for the Arts in Philadelphia, 20th Street and the Parkway. The inaugural exhibition of “Literacy Through Photography: The Philadelphia Project,” Moore’s newest collaborative outreach program in Philadelphia schools, focuses on the impact of arts education on learning and improving literacy and arts access for school-age youth. Students at five Philadelphia public schools received cameras and training and were sent out into the community to photograph and write about what they saw. The exhibition will be a culmination of all work from the students. Event is free and open to the public. For information, call 215-965-4027, or visit the project’s blog at www.ltpphiladelphia.wordpress.com.

School Calendar

Tue. June 21. Last day of classes for students. Have a safe and enjoyable summer.

Wed. June 22. Last day for staff. Organization day.

The Notebook NEWSFLASH welcomes brief announcements of events addressing issues of quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. Email your submission to flash@thenotebook.org with 'Upcoming event' in the subject line. We cannot guarantee the listing of your event.

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