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Phila. school closings bring worry and anger

From Germantown to Mantua and Strawberry Mansion to South Philly, parents, students, and community members responded with shock and anger to Thursday's announcement that the Philadelphia School District planned to close 37 schools in June.

From Germantown to Mantua and Strawberry Mansion to South Philly, parents, students, and community members responded with shock and anger to Thursday's announcement that the Philadelphia School District planned to close 37 schools in June.

"It was like a punch in the gut. It was almost a betrayal, because we had asked specifically to be included in decisions like this that will affect our children," said the Rev. LeRoi Simmons, coordinator of the Germantown Clergy Initiative, who has worked to improve Germantown High School, which is targeted to close. "We heard through the grapevine an unconfirmed message [on Wednesday]. It's disrespectful. It's uncaring."

About 250 students, parents, teachers, and union leaders staged an angry rally outside district headquarters Thursday afternoon, complaining that the public had been cut out from district deliberations.

Teachers waved their fingers at the building, chanting, "Shame on you!", while students held up signs shaped like coffins that read, "RIP Philly's Schools."

Speaker after speaker condemned the proposed closings while questioning the motives and spending choices of the School Reform Commission.

'Getting better'

Some said that while their schools weren't set to close, they feared disruption.

Hausim Talbot, a 10th grader at Benjamin Franklin High, said he worried that class sizes would grow and learning would suffer.

"Right now the school is getting better, because classes are smaller," he said. "But if more students are added, we're not going to get by."

Mark Gleason, executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership, said the closings were painful but necessary.

"I want to applaud the district for clearly what has been a very thorough approach and for putting the focus on moving all students into high-quality learning environments," he said.

He said 80 percent to 90 percent of students being displaced would move to schools comparable or higher-performing than their current placements.

Some parents had other concerns. Retired cook Kevin Gordon walks his son, Trevon, 10, to McMichael Elementary in Mantua every morning, and picks him up every day just after 3 p.m.

'Have to drive'

On Thursday as Gordon began the walk home, he stared with a bit of annoyance at a printed school announcement telling him McMichael would close in the spring. The note said children would be offered new placements at Martha Washington Elementary, Middle Years Alternative, and Locke Elementary.

"I know where those are," Gordon said, "but McMichael has been convenient, because it is walking distance. Next year I will have to drive."

Robert McGrogan, president of the administrators' union, was fielding calls from principals who were bombarded with questions at their schools.

"The emotion that is associated with this is enormous," he said, noting that more than 16,000 students would be displaced by the proposed closings and would have to travel farther next year to attend school.

At a minimum, the closings would eliminate the positions of principal and building engineer at 37 schools, but McGrogan said he could not predict how many other administrators could lose their jobs.

At University City High School in West Philadelphia, principal Timothy Stults was crestfallen.

He moved to the Philadelphia area four years ago from Olympia, Wash., to take a job with the district. Now the school he has poured his heart into was closing.

"As a school community, there has been a lot of progress made. By whatever data you want to use, [the students] have come a long way. Understandably," he said, they "have questions about the justification for this decision. . . . The kids are shocked."

University City, at 36th and Filbert Streets, is a massive, 40-year-old brown-brick building, with a four-story central arch flanked by two block-long, three-story wings. It was built to accommodate 2,000 students and has just 500.

Senior Janayah Headen, 17, applying to college, was outspoken: "I don't think it's fair that this school is shutting down, because we have come a long way. Our grades went up. Students are more focused on work. We have a good support system. Who knows if all the kids that have to go somewhere else next year are going to get the same support?"

Retired administrator Ed Koch was shocked that Fairhill, a K-8 school he led for nine years, was on the chopping block.

Although 91 percent of students were in poverty, Fairhill had met the state's academic benchmarks eight of the nine years he was there and sent a record number of graduates to special-admission high schools.

"I was surprised when I heard the school was having issues," said Koch, who left Fairhill in 2008 to become principal of Frankford High. "I was more surprised it made the list."

The Philadelphia Student Union has called for a moratorium on school closings until a full study is completed "and a real effort to understand the feedback of the communities most affected by these closures has been undertaken."