A shouting and chanting crowd of hundreds told officials Thursday night exactly what they thought of a Philadelphia School District plan to close 37 schools and change grades and shut programs at dozens more.
"SOS! Save our schools!" hundreds yelled as they marched up North Broad Street toward district headquarters. "Whose city? Our city! Whose schools? Our schools!"
It was a dramatic stand against the planned closings of one in six city schools, announced last week. Closings were not on the agenda of the School Reform Commission's voting meeting, but they quickly became the hot potato of the evening, with students, teachers, parents, and community members demanding answers.
"How do you sleep?" parent Linda Crowder asked the SRC. "What were you thinking? Or are you thinking?"
No final decisions have been made on which schools will be shut, and the SRC is not scheduled to vote until March.
But new Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said that without large-scale closings, the district - which recently borrowed $300 million to pay its bills through the end of the school year - will run out of money. He has estimated that the closings would save $28 million.
While the SRC did not publicly address the closings, Hite briefly alluded to them.
"These are incredibly painful discussions, and I know how much each school means to its respective community," he said, adding he was "continually impressed by the passion you show on behalf of our students, our community, and our schools."
That passion was on full display Thursday night.
A community activist and frequent SRC speaker known as Mama Gail said she was furious about the planned closings, which she said put children up for sale and disproportionately affected poor and minority students.
"I think some very stupid decisions have been made," she said. "Why do those that have the least have to give the most?"
The community will not stand for it, Mama Gail said.
"You haven't seen the storms that are coming if you don't do right by our kids," she said.
One by one, speakers trooped to a microphone to point out issues with the closing recommendations.
They stated concerns about safety, transportation, inflated savings estimates, a lack of community input, and an SRC that allows charter-school expansion while shutting traditional public schools.
Some raised questions that certain schools were being targeted because they sit on valuable property, not because they are bad schools or in old buildings.
Theodore Yale, a teacher at the Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson, a North Philadelphia school that would be combined with another military school and relocated at the current Roosevelt Middle School building in East Germantown, said that students would leave in droves if forced to make an hour-long commute on public transportation.
"I will not accept that losing scores of our best students to a system of charter schools that is already bleeding us dry is the only option," Yale said. "I will not accept that destroying one of the best schools in this jacked-up district is the only option."
Parent Rebecca Poyourow questioned the district's assertion that closing schools is its only option.
"We do, in fact, have other options," she said, and then listed some ideas - cut extended-day services; stop paying $4.7 million for city workers from the Board of Revision of Taxes; cut back on professional development funds in favor of peer training; shave utility costs; cut charter enrollment; and look into the costs of the City Year program, which puts support staff into schools.
Christian Warrick, a student at University City High, which is slated for closure, said the district was making a mistake by trying to shut a successful school, even if it is in an imperfect building.
"I refuse to see my family torn apart," Warrick said. "I just won't allow it."
The crowd, many of whom had marched from City Hall holding candles and waving signs, hooted approval.
The audience was energetic but orderly. The only discord came earlier, when the march arrived at the entrance to the district building and a small group of protesters made its way around city and district police officers and into the lobby.
The rest in the group were blocked and pounded on the locked glass doors while chanting: "Dr. Hite, let us in!"
Eventually, people were allowed into the building in small groups.
Marcher Dawn McDonald, 34, an English teacher at Bok High, which is on the chopping block, said it was important to organize and fight back. "We all need to get together to save our schools," she said.
North Philadelphia resident Judith Robinson questioned why so many schools were closing in gentrifying neighborhoods. She said she would continue to investigate and demand answers.
"Dr. Hite," she said, "welcome to Philadelphia."
The crowd laughed.