February 19 — 3:47 pm, 2020

School Planning Review is treating a human problem – equitable education – like a numbers game

The District "should end its pattern of bringing in outside consultants who have no stake in the outcomes and who do not have the history or love for the city’s children that is needed."

Laurie Mazer and Zoe Rooney

The School District of Philadelphia is now halfway through the first year of its Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR) process, but no closer to a truly comprehensive District-wide plan that prioritizes equity or the aspirations that parents and students have for their schools.

The CSPR is described on the District’s website as a “collaborative process” to help “plan for the future in a way that ensures our students have access to a great school close to where they live.” In reality, it has been marked by lackluster attempts at family engagement and negligible return on the $1.4 million investment into out-of-state contractor FLO Analytics and its subcontractor, Bloom.

Although parents, teachers, and community members are supposed to be engaged in the process, the CSPR planning committees are limited to four representatives per school, including and selected by principals. Attendance has been low, with two or fewer parents in total at some committee meetings in Study Areas Two and Three, which are also the areas where schools are more likely to face closure.

For the first few months of planning committee meetings, participants weren’t provided any historical discussion of school closures, boundary changes, or policies affecting enrollment. This was a gross oversight because many of the problems that the CSPR is trying to address were caused by District policies that pull resources from neighborhood schools, including school closures, increases in the number of charter schools, promotion of special admissions programs, and development of inequitable school selection policies. 

These District-created inequities have led to schools that are bursting at the seams in wealthier, and often whiter, neighborhoods, where they have art, music, computers, and even volunteer-staffed libraries, while schools that serve mostly students of color struggle with high teacher turnover and fewer resources.

At the February planning committee meetings, it became clear that FLO Analytics consultants hadn’t taken the time to fully understand the context behind the information they’ve presented to the planning committees, which seems to consist mainly of data aggregated from publicly available census, city and District sources. 

Demographic projections haven’t been utilized in a meaningful way, community input meetings have been pushed back by months, and a phone survey, framed as an early engagement tool that would engage a wider network of parents, was cancelled. The consultants from FLO Analytics – which has offices in Washington, Oregon, and Massachusetts – don’t seem to have visited the schools.

Despite using construction data in their conclusions about communities, the consultants haven’t toured the neighborhoods or talked to locals to check whether the data they’ve found on building trends matches the lived realities of gentrification and unpermitted construction. They haven’t reached out to city planners enough to recognize or find out in advance when one is in their midst at their meetings, ready to point out the blind spots in their data.

They also haven’t learned about the fights to keep schools like Sheppard Elementary open in the past, even as they’ve put them back in the crosshairs. This time, they’ve tried to sugarcoat their proposals by calling them “relocations” or “co-locations” in other school buildings instead of closures, although their proposal notes that, should those options move forward, the Sheppard and Overbrook Elementary buildings would be “repurposed” once the students are gone.

So far, the CSPR process has treated the very human problem of equitably educating students in the poorest big city in the United States as a numbers game. The primary concern seems to be optimizing the occupancy of buildings without any regard for the needs and welfare of the students they are moving around. The focus clearly isn’t on creating the best possible outcomes for children.

Certainly, there is overcrowding at some schools that requires immediate interventions from the District. Those interventions may be unpopular and they may end up being short term, but those aren’t reasons to strong-arm the whole District through the flawed CSPR.

Despite the shortfalls of a process that has so far been rushed, fragmented, and largely reactive, there is still a path forward. Taking that path would require the District to recognize that its priorities haven’t been quite right and to put equity above space-utilization percentages. It would require changes to the process, the timeline, and who is doing this work.

If the District wants to conduct a truly comprehensive school planning review, it should stop the current strategy of carving the city into a patchwork of study areas. It should stop pretending its tepid approach to hearing from stakeholders is sufficient to truly engage families, educators, and students. It should end its pattern of bringing in outside consultants who have no stake in the outcomes and who do not have the history or love for the city’s children that is needed to take on this work.

Instead, the District should take the time to do a truly comprehensive study across the district, in which District and community leaders go into every single school and community. They should start by seeking to learn about the real harm that the District has wrought on school communities through past closures, austerity budgets, and mandates and policies that have allowed for segregation and inequitable access to resources. 

Then the District should ask students, families, school staff, and community members what their aspirations are for our schools and our children. These are the people who can best speak to how to create the best possible schools for the children in their neighborhoods. The District should wait to develop a plan that addresses wider-ranging demographic patterns and equity needs only once sufficient information has been gathered from all the relevant parties.

According to the District’s schedule, the schools that are now participating in Year One are supposed to transition to a “planning year” during Year Two, and at the same time, the process is supposed to start anew in many more school communities over a larger area of the city. There has been no mention of any community meetings in the current study areas after June and no indication as to how the community might continue to be involved in the planning year.

The process has faced challenges and delays with the first cohort of only 21 schools across three study areas, so it is unclear how the District will have the capacity to handle a new cohort that has about three times as many schools spread across four study areas while continuing the planning process with the original cohort. There should be a clear set of actions that prioritizes engagement with families and school-based staff across every year and every step of this process without spending more money on consultants.

The existing $1.4 million process, with its superficial community engagement, hasn’t given us reason to believe that the District will come up with the right solutions because the District hasn’t even shown that it is considering the right problems and information.

In the words of the poet Adelaide Anne Procter, “We always may be what we might have been.” As a city, and as a District, we can still be better for our children. It isn’t too late for the District to rethink the CSPR process and take the steps to make it a truly collaborative, forward-thinking project centered on equity and humanity.

Laurie Mazer and Zoe Rooney are members of Parents United for Public Education, a parent-led citywide organization focused on engaging parents on issues of quality and equity in public schools. Parents United is holding a public meeting at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 7, at the Logan Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia to discuss the CSPR process and the ongoing facilities issues across the District.

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