November 23 — 4:12 pm, 2011

Proposed closure list has only 9 schools – for now

School Reform Commissioners and others ask whether the plan goes far enough.

After months of bracing the city for the possibility of widespread school closings and consolidations, District officials recommended in early November that just nine schools be shuttered.

Five elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools are being targeted for closure.

Seventeen schools are also slated for grade changes, mostly from K-6 to K-5. One school currently in a leased building – AMY Northwest – is to be relocated, and a number of surplus properties, including the recently replaced West Philadelphia High building at 47th and Walnut Streets, are to be listed for sale.

"We need to aim for a more efficient footprint that reflects the demographics of the city," said Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery in announcing the plan at a School Reform Commission meeting.

But all told, the moves will only reduce the District’s excess capacity by an estimated 14,000 seats – a far cry from the target of 40,000 seats officials had earlier set.

"We need to do more," said Commissioner Wendell Pritchett, who at the time of the announcement was the SRC’s interim chair.

Through months of work on its facilities master plan, officials had argued that the District needs to dramatically "rightsize" its aging physical plant. Over the past 10 years, the District has lost more than 50,000 students, leaving the system’s facilities operating at only about 68 percent capacity, they said.

If approved, the November recommendations will get the District to about 71 percent capacity, well short of the 85 percent target adopted by the SRC last spring.

The timeline for further action is unclear. More high school closing recommendations are expected after completion of a forthcoming blueprint to overhaul the District’s career and technical education programs.

"This plan is not one and done," said Nunery.

But many, including newly installed SRC Chair Pedro Ramos, who had not yet been confirmed when the recommendations were announced, questioned the wisdom of a phased approach.

"It’s not clear to me why [District officials] intend to roll it out in stages," Ramos told Notebook news partner PlanPhilly.

"I believe the general advice out there is if you’re going to go through a process like this, you do it once. Otherwise, you’re in perpetual uncertainty."

Fighting back

Even before the recommendations were formally announced, supporters of some targeted schools were mobilizing to keep their buildings open.

Temwa Wright, the mother of a 6th grader at E.M. Stanton Elementary in South Philadelphia, was one of dozens of sign-waving Stanton supporters who attended the November announcement.

"Are the reasons highlighted in the recommendations great enough to warrant disrupting a school that is … clean, safe, academically sound, culturally rich, and structurally stable?" Wright testified before the SRC. "No, they are not."

E.M. Stanton has long been a strong academic performer, and parents and staff tout the school’s family atmosphere and strong partnerships with local arts and cultural organizations. Supporters successfully fought back an effort to shutter the school in 2003.

But Stanton is located in an 86-year old facility that would cost over $8 million to fully renovate, according to District estimates. Stanton enrolls just 225 students. While supporters say the building is well-utilized, the enrollment represents barely half the building’s listed capacity.

"This is not an indictment of the work of a principal or students," said District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd, who has been overseeing the facilities master plan.

"But some [of the buildings] are approaching 100 years old … [and] have outlived their useful life."

For some parents at other schools, the closing recommendations mean tough choices ahead.

Suzann Hitchner, for example, has two children at Levering Elementary, a K-8 school on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough. The District wants to close Levering after this school year.

If the SRC approves the recommendation, Hitchner will be given a choice of four area schools to which her children can be reassigned. But she said none of them are both safe and within walking distance from her home, as Levering is.

"It would mean pulling my kids out of the public school system and home-schooling them," said Hitchner. "It’s going to be a lot more for me to deal with."

What comes next

Members of the new SRC have taken pains to emphasize that no final decisions have yet been made about which schools will be closed.

"These are recommendations," stressed Lorene Cary, a writer and educator who was recently appointed to the commission by Mayor Michael Nutter.

Under state law, the SRC must hold a public hearing on each closing plan, then allow at least 90 days before taking action to formally shut down any schools. The voting is currently expected in late winter.

Prior to that, District officials will host 17 community meetings, at which they hope to get feedback on their proposals.

"We don’t want to just shut down buildings without talking to the public and vetting everything that we do," said Nunery.

Getting that kind of community engagement is a must, said City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, whose West Philadelphia district is home to one of the targeted schools, Drew Elementary.

"We understand that some schools might be closed," Blackwell told PlanPhilly. "But we need to be included in those discussions."

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