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Philadelphia superintendent identifies schools he intends to close

Proposing the largest contraction in the history of the Philadelphia School District, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said that come June, he wants to shut one out of six city schools and relocate, close programs, or reshuffle grades at many more.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said improving academics was also a focus. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said improving academics was also a focus. DAVID SWANSON / Staff PhotographerRead more

Proposing the largest contraction in the history of the Philadelphia School District, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said that come June, he wants to shut one out of six city schools and relocate, close programs, or reshuffle grades at many more.

The numbers released Thursday are staggering: 17,000 students and 2,000 staffers would be affected by the moves. Thirty-seven buildings would close for a savings of about $28 million, money the nearly broke district says it needs to survive.

"This is a historic moment for us," Hite said at a news conference.

Overall, 22 elementary, four middle, and 11 high schools, in nearly every neighborhood of the city, would close if Hite's recommendations are adopted by the School Reform Commission, which will vote on the shutdowns in March.

Jobs would likely be lost as a result of the closings, though there's likely to be "minimal impact" at the teacher level, Hite said. Principals and other support staff are more vulnerable.

Acknowledging that the changes would bring "tremendous controversy, angst, and emotions," Hite vowed that the district would invest heavily in programs and safety to help the remaining 200 schools thrive.

The superintendent said all closing decisions were made with two goals - boosting academics throughout the district and ensuring its long-term financial viability.

Borrowing to pay bills

A financial picture bleak and fragile is the key driver of the proposed changes.

The district recently borrowed $300 million just to pay bills and issue paychecks through the end of the school year. It faces an equally tough picture for next year, and if one action built into its five-year plan doesn't happen, dominoes would start to tumble.

"If we don't take these actions now, we actually have no money to spend," Hite said of the closings.

Some of the $28 million saved if the changes are enacted would be plowed back into programs and safety initiatives. But some would have to go toward start-up costs for merged or new schools created from closed programs.

Academics are also a major consideration in the changes, officials promised. The schools targeted are largely under-enrolled and underperforming.

Some buildings are dramatically underutilized. Shaw Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia has 193 students in a building that has room for 1,071.

The changes would take the district from about 67 percent utilization to about 80 percent.

The district is struggling academically, with the vast majority of schools failing to meet state standards. Eighty-two percent missed the mark on either math or reading goals, and 68 percent failed in both.

"Those data are simply unacceptable," Hite said. He said the closings would help fix that.

Officials said their aim was to send all students affected by a closure or program change to a school that performs as well as or better than the school they are leaving.

In most cases, that goal would be realized, Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said, but it is not universal. He said there would be a "commitment to focus on those schools in particular, to ensure that we bring up the academic outcomes."

Some have suggested that mass school closings are a tactic to weaken and ultimately destroy the system. Hite said the intent was just the opposite.

Officials "believe very strongly that our public-school system is an institution worth saving," he said.

Hite and others said the closing decisions should have been made years ago.

In the last decade, the district has lost more than 50,000 students, mostly to charter schools, and did not adjust its infrastructure accordingly.

"Many superintendents chose to kick the can and continue to just kick it down and let someone else deal with it," Hite said. There's no more room to kick the can, he said.

Still, he said he realized the enormity of his proposals.

"These are not recommendations that we take lightly," Hite said, but they acknowledge "that our resources are limited, and we must do our best to use them in a way that best serves the children of Philadelphia."

A range of changes

Absorbing the list of potential changes requires a flow chart.

Some buildings would close and be sold according to the district's existing adaptive reuse plan. (Hite reminded the public that the district was in the business of education and not real estate, and would likely need help with selling so many buildings at once.)

Some schools would change grades, with a number of K-6 buildings becoming K-4 elementaries. In other cases, elementary schools that serve students up to fifth or sixth grade would become K-8 schools.

K-8 schools use space more efficiently, and parents told the district they prefer that model, Hite said.

"Our middle schools are one of our greatest challenges," he said.

Some new schools would emerge from old buildings. Vaux, now a high school in North Philadelphia, would close to older students and reopen as an elementary school for students who now attend the closing Meade and Reynolds Elementaries.

Some schools would swap buildings. In South Philadelphia, the higher-performing Abigail Vare Elementary would move to the George Washington Elementary building, which is in better shape.

In some cases, strong programs are in bad buildings, and they would "colocate" at schools with space for them. Lankenau High, for instance, would move into nearby Roxborough High but would keep its separate identity and administration.

And some freestanding schools would become programs inside other schools, losing their separate administrations and stand-alone status. Communications Tech High in Southwest Philadelphia would move into Bartram High, and Robeson High into Sayre.

The changes would mean a tremendous upheaval for some students.

Strawberry Mansion High's proposed closure means some students would be forced into their third high school in three years. When FitzSimons and Rhoads Highs closed in June, their students were sent to Strawberry Mansion, which even with such an influx still has only 435 students in a 249,000-square-foot building that can accommodate 1,762.

Next year, Strawberry Mansion students would be sent to Benjamin Franklin High.

Voices of opposition

Reaction was swift from supporters and detractors.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, accused the district of trying to kill neighborhood public schools and said the PFT would help organize a fight against the closures.

"I'm very, very concerned about the decisions that have been made by the School District," Jordan said. "There has not been inclusion in the conversation with those of us who have lived in the city all of our lives, who know the community and many of the potential problems that are inherent in making these kinds of school closings."

Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, decried "top-down mandates to close schools and destabilize neighborhoods."

Mayor Nutter struck a different note. Hite, he said, had his "full and unequivocal support" for "making tough, difficult decisions" on closings.

"In the end," Nutter said, "it will mean safer, better-equipped schools capable of meeting the educational needs of the schoolchildren."