May 3 — 1:28 pm, 2004

‘Room for improvement’ seen in community outreach for construction plan

Some parents, students, and community members across Philadelphia are seizing upon an opportunity to shape the transformation of deteriorating school buildings into state-of-the-art facilities.

Community meetings are being held at 11 schools where major construction is scheduled, kicking off a new phase in the School District’s strategy to get community input into its ambitious five-year $1.5 billion Capital Improvement Program – which calls for building five high schools, five elementary schools, several additions, and renovating dozens more over the next two years alone.

Turnouts were modest at most schools. The exception was the Fels High School project, which has prompted strong community opposition.

At each school slated for construction, the District’s in-house capital plan managers – known collectively as the Philadelphia School Improvement Team (PSIT) – are convening a series of three meetings at different points in the design process to allow community members to have ongoing input.

One key player on the District team that organized the capital plan public meetings, ACG Associates president Cody Anderson, says lack of internal coordination of the effort to get community input has limited its overall effectiveness.

Under a $25,000 contract to do publicity for the public meetings, ACG Associates distributed thousands of flyers in schools, neighbors mailboxes’, local businesses, churches, and community centers advertising the public meetings in the communities surrounding each the schools in the first round of projects, Anderson said.

"I see room for a lot of improvement," he commented, emphasizing the need to provide incentives to attract a wider cross-section of community representatives to the meetings.

"We have to use more creative ways to get a greater turnout," he said.

Real opportunities for input?

Community turnout to public meetings about school building construction is one indicator of whether or not a school district is providing for authentic community involvement in the design planning process, says Steven Bingler, president of the architecture firm Concordia Inc. Bingler has written extensively on community involvement in school design.

"People know if [the process] is authentic," or if it was created just "so somebody could check off the box that says ‘yes, we did community participation,’ " Bingler said.

Concordia has developed a process that promotes collaboration between school districts and community stakeholders in carrying out school design, allowing for broad community input early on before narrowing to a smaller planning team. Community members are provided with specialized training to enable them to be informed participants in the process.

"Part of this whole process is not just about getting input," said Bingler. "The opportunity that’s there is to build stronger leadership capacity within the community."

The Notebook attended April community meetings at four schools – Bluford, Fels, Mifflin, and Ziegler – that will receive building improvements during this first round of construction projects.

Despite smaller-than-hoped-for turnouts, parents, students, and community members who did attend the recent capital plan meetings readily offered their questions and comments, and they say they will be looking to see that the PSIT staff and project architects factor in their input in the next round of plans presented.

Based on the meeting he attended at Mifflin Elementary in East Falls, neighbor Michael Moulton said he does see avenues for input into the plan at his neighborhood school.

"It sounds like there is a desire," he said. Other community members interviewed by the Notebook at Bluford and Zeigler Elementary Schools agreed that they felt encouraged to comment.

Meeting format

At one school, Fels High, District officials abruptly ended the first community meeting after a raucous 30-minute shouting match with the audience – primarily made up of neighborhood residents who were against the proposed site for a new Fels – and designs were not discussed.

But otherwise, these public meetings followed a similar format:

  • PSIT representatives briefly outlined the two-pronged approach for the community input process.

  • A member of the School Planning Team (SPT) – a small, representative, school-based team of about eight people – was on hand at the meeting to inform the audience about the role of the SPT as the first group of community members given the opportunity to provide input during the initial planning phase of a capital project. SPT members define the specific scope for each school’s project. The school’s principal is charged with making sure the SPT includes teachers, Home and School members, staff, students, and faith-based and community representatives.

  • The architect hired by the school’s administrative team presented preliminary designs for the construction project. Architect presentations ranged from a PowerPoint presentation with color handouts to no design visuals at all.

  • The architect and the PSIT project manager assigned to the school fielded a variety of questions and comments: for example, concerns about school safety during construction, or questions about when the project will be finished or where children will be able to have recess when construction starts.

Here are four snapshots of what school communities were talking about as they listened and responded to the plans for their improved schools.

Bluford Elementary

When the District’s Capital Improvement Plan was first unveiled in December 2002, Guion Bluford Elementary School was not on the list of schools scheduled for improvements. But a persistent group of parents active in the school’s Home and School Association helped to change that.

They recorded video footage and took pictures of the conditions of Bluford’s building, originally built in 1908, and showed them to CEO Vallas and members of the School Reform Commission during a fall meeting of the commission.

Renee Mungin, president of the school’s Home and School Association, also testified about the school’s need for building improvements during that meeting and urged Vallas to make a site visit to the West Philadelphia school, located at 58th and Media Streets.

"We needed [Vallas] to come out here and see for himself the condition that our school was in and the condition that our children had to learn in," said Mungin.

She added: "Maybe that’s why their skills weren’t up to par – because they were in a building that looked like it should be condemned."

The Bluford plan calls for a replacement of the original 1908 building. The improved school will be housed in separate upper and lower school buildings and will accommodate two additional grades, to serve grades K-8.

The handful of audience members at the April 15 public meeting asked questions about safety and parking availability near the school site during construction. Several commented that they were particularly glad the school would grow to serve middle school students.

Parents and community members at the Bluford community meeting, including community activist and SPT member Valerie Barnes, expressed hope that the improvements at the school will help revive parental and community involvement with the school.

"We’re hoping that a positive change in this school will lead to a positive change in this community," she said.

Construction at Bluford is scheduled to start in spring 2005 and is to be finished by fall 2006.

Fels High School

The intense opposition of least a hundred community members drowned out any feelings of excitement and optimism about the construction of a brand new Fels High School at an April 26 public meeting.

Several opponents of the plan to build a new Fels on a 23-acre campus site located a few blocks away from the school’s current site in the lower Northeast yelled angrily at School District representatives during the half-hour meeting. They cited problems with student discipline during and after school and the increase in traffic in the school’s vicinity as reasons for their hostility.

Some promised to picket the vacant John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital site at 5500 Langdon Road if the District moves forward with the plan.

Raquel Fitzhugh Marsh lives near the proposed site and said building a new school won’t change ongoing student discipline problems that affect the neighborhood.

Students "are not respecting the school that’s here now," she said.

District deputy chief of staff Timothy Spreitzer said the District still plans to move forward with the acquisition of the JFK Hospital site.

The current Fels building "is just not an environment that is conducive to learning," said Spreitzer, expressing optimism that neighborhood residents will eventually embrace the plan.

Most community residents opposed to the new building don’t send their children to Fels, points out first-year math teacher Courtney Patterson. Students of color – many of whom travel to the mostly White neighborhood surrounding Fels from other areas of the city – account for 86 percent of the school’s enrollment.

But Patterson said the project has the potential to spur educational reform inside the new school.

"A new school with the same old habits can’t work," she said.

Mifflin Elementary

Two years ago a group of Philadelphia parents started exploring what public school options were available in their East Falls neighborhood. After toying with the idea of starting a charter school, the group, called the East Falls Schools Committee (EFSC), decided to devote its efforts to strengthening the Mifflin School.

EFSC member Jeff Friedman attended the April 19 community meeting about the capital plan improvements at Mifflin and is excited about the extensive renovations the school will receive.

"I think it’s fantastic," said Friedman of the $7 million project. "It’s going to be a real asset to the community."

Several of the 15-member audience of mostly neighborhood residents urged the architect to modify his plans in order to address a "blind spot" on the Mifflin campus where they said students often cause trouble after school.

New enhancements to the Mifflin building will include a cafeteria, an art center, a science lab, and a gym. All this could help restore the faith of some East Falls residents in their neighborhood public schools, says Moulton, an EFSC parent.

"The community has really in many ways chosen not to send their kids here," he said, but added that he believes the new plan for the school "is going to electrify the community."

Construction at Mifflin is slated to begin in late summer and is to be completed by January 2006.

Ziegler Elementary

"For so many years this school did amazing things with nothing."

Ziegler principal Linda Saxon has a long list of evidence for her statement. The school has no gym or auditorium, two adjoining classrooms serve as a lunchroom, and the school’s designated library space is being sacrificed to accommodate students. The Northeast Philadelphia school was originally built for 250 students and now enrolls almost 400. This year it has an annex, located a 20-minute bus ride away.

Plans to renovate the existing building and build a new addition will double the current size of the school. The new building will have a cafetorium (a cafeteria and an auditorium combined), will continue to serve students in grades K-8, and will grow to accommodate up to 600 students.

The 25 parents, students, teachers, and community members present at the April 14 Ziegler community meeting about the building improvements were vocal.

Parents and community members expressed concern about parking for nearby residents and student safety during construction. One of a few students who attended the meeting wanted to know if CEO Vallas would be paying a visit to the school anytime before the ribbon-cutting for the project.

Plans to break ground on the addition are slated for early 2005.

Next steps

The next round of public meetings at the 11 schools in the first set of Capital Improvement Program projects will begin in June.

The design and community input process is currently underway at the following schools:
Major renovation: H.A. Brown, Bluford, Gratz, Longstreth, Mifflin, Roxborough, Shawmont, Strawberry Mansion, University City, Washington High
New building: G & Hunting Park Elementary, Fels
Middle school conversion: Sayre, Vaux
Building addition: Lawton, Moore, Ziegler
Two other projects where the process will be starting up soon are Ethan Allen and GAMP.

For more information on how to get involved in the planning process, visit the Philadelphia School Improvement Team’s website at www.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/psit/ or call 215-875-3650.

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism