January 30 — 4:33 pm, 2013

The transition: More promises than plans

Details are still sketchy about what will be done to give displaced students a better experience in their new schools.

hamels playground2 Photo: Harvey Finkle

The Philadelphia School District’s plan for surviving its fiscal crunch is simple: Less must be more. 

And while the proposal to close or relocate 44 schools makes it clear how the District wants to handle part of the “less” side of the equation, just exactly how it will deliver on the promise of “more” is yet to be explained.

In community meetings across the city, parents, students, and teachers have gathered to learn about the District’s plans, expected to displace about 17,000 students. At every step, the District has insisted that closing schools will not only save money, but also improve conditions at the schools that remain. 

“I didn’t come to Philadelphia wanting to … close schools,” Superintendent William Hite told the audience at Bartram High in Southwest Philadelphia. “We have no choice. … So the question becomes, how do we use this situation to create better options for students?”

However, while parents, students and teachers have asked repeatedly about the cash-starved District’s plans for specific situations, officials have declined to share details. Instead, they have said that “school-by-school” planning will begin in February, and will include students and communities.

“We want to talk about what [receiving] schools will offer that are not offered right now,” Hite said. Those plans will be ready, he said, before the School Reform Commission votes on closures in March. “[The SRC] will understand what the implications are for these decisions,” Hite said.

More students, fewer teachers

Lessons from last year’s handful of closures suggest that the transition can be bumpy. Robin Dominick, head of the Home and School Association at Powel Elementary School, said Powel’s special education population tripled and class size swelled after nearby Drew was shuttered. Powel, with an enrollment of less than 200, took 38 students from Drew. 

This “should have been a trigger” for the District to commit more resources, she said.

Instead, the small school lost a teacher to budget cuts, and the fall was marred by classroom disruptions and a shortage of special education support, Dominick said. District officials eventually visited Powel to work on solutions, but only after parents appealed directly to the SRC. “There was never a meeting at Powel where they said, ‘This is how all this is going to affect you,’” Dominick recalled. 

In addition, newly-released District data show that many students simply swapped one underperforming school for another. Last year, after three high schools closed (Rhodes, FitzSimons, and Business and Technology), 415 students moved to other District schools. Of those students, over 40 percent – 168 altogether – ended up in schools now slated to close, including Strawberry Mansion, Germantown, Bok, and Robeson. 

David Kipphut, who is in charge of career and technical education (CTE), understands why parents worry. “They don’t have the details,” he said. The District must “clearly communicate what that promise is.”

Many are hungry for those details. During January’s Southwest Philadelphia community meeting, Bartram High School teacher Nina Petrasek said to Hite, “My concern is that these decisions have already been made without a concrete plan for implementation. How can you guarantee this will be effective … without telling us how it will be done?”

Hite responded by assuring her that transition planning will begin soon. Variations on that exchange played out across the city, as Hite and his staff have sought to assure audiences that “consolidated” schools will offer more to students. If one school has art, and another has music, a consolidated school will offer both, they say. 

But just as consistently, they’ve insisted that plugging the District’s budget hole is paramount, and that nothing can be done that undermines that goal. For example, Hite has said that reducing class sizes is not an option. Shrinking classes by one student per class would cost a prohibitive $10 million, Hite said, He’d prefer to focus on improving teacher quality through professional development – but he has not spelled out how that might happen.

Consolidation and partnerships

Likewise, officials have so far declined to detail what kinds of investments they’ll make to improve climate or academics in receiving schools. Next year’s budget includes $19 million to support “high-performing seats” across the District, but how much of that will go to the roughly 60 schools affected by closures – and when such decisions will be made – is not clear.

“It would be foolish for me to make any promises about when we can release estimated amounts of investment,” said Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn in a January interview. “We’re currently working incredibly hard on figuring out exactly what those investments will be to ensure the success of the transition and the success of the students.” 

In the meantime, officials are stressing that consolidating resources and building partnerships will be key to improving schools. Principals, they say, will have the autonomy to experiment, as long as they stay within financial limits.

That hasn’t satisfied those who worry that they’re about to permanently lose hard-won resources and trusted relationships. 

What will happen, for example, to the $317,000 playground built last summer at Taylor Elementary by the Hamels Foundation? Or to the walking-distance partnership between the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and nearby Pepper Middle School? Can the District afford to build state-of-the-art film studios in Bartram or South Philadelphia High by September, when students from Communications Technology High and Bok Technical High School, respectively, move in? 

And more broadly, will familiar teachers and established extracurricular and afterschool programs follow students to their new schools? 

Many at the closure hearings were not persuaded that the District is up to the challenge. 

“Impossible,” said Naeedah Felder, who sent three children to Pepper. Neither the school’s physical assets nor its support network can be transferred, she said. “You’d have to take the [playing] field, you’d have to take the tennis court – they’d have to take everything,” she said.

Sadie Holloway, a George Washington Elementary parent, said the same. “They have afterschool activities, dancing, math tutoring, Girl Scouts,” she said. “But then there’s the special camaraderie that’s going to disappear. The teachers at Washington, they know every child. … That’s special to the kid, and the parent.”

‘They don’t get it’

No issue generated more emotion at the regional meetings than safety. Parents and students consistently told Hite and his team that by combining neighborhood schools and lengthening commutes, they were exposing students to serious new risks. 

At the meeting for Northwest Philadelphia, one parent, concerned by the prospect of elementary students walking a mile or more to a new school, demanded to know, “Who’s going to protect these children? Who’s going to protect my child?”

Chief of Student Services Karyn Lynch replied, “Ma’am, the whole community will watch your child.” That sent a groan of displeasure rippling across the crowd. “They don’t get it,” said one woman.

Throughout the closure hearings, Hite and his staff thanked people for their input and promised to seriously consider their ideas. While offering new details about usage and capacity calculations underlying closures, they’ve never wavered from their insistence that closures must happen, accompanied by promises of better schools for everyone in the end. 

They also said that some transition planning has quietly begun. Kipphut, for example, said he has already visited receiving schools to plan new CTE facilities. He has met with students from the military schools at Leeds and Elverson and intends to meet with students at Communications Technology High School. “It’s starting now, but it’s not out in public,” he said. 

But for now, many remain skeptical. 

Micia McBurnette, a junior at Comm Tech, thinks the plan to merge it into Bartram carries much more risk than promise. Many of her classmates, she said, chose Comm Tech because they didn’t want to be at Bartram in the first place. 

She came to the Bartram meeting to ask Hite how the transition would work, and she left unhappy with his response. “Our history teachers, our math teachers … they’re going to take that away from us,” she said. 

Hite responded that he has every intention of talking to the students.

Said McBurnette: “He did not answer my question at all.”


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