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Activists gear up against planned Philadelphia school closings

As the clock ticks down to a School Reform Commission decision on shutting one in six Philadelphia public schools, opponents of the plan are ramping up their push against it.

As the clock ticks down to a School Reform Commission decision on shutting one in six Philadelphia public schools, opponents of the plan are ramping up their push against it.

Activists, clergy, and elected officials today will present an analysis of the Philadelphia School District's plan that shows the closings would disproportionately affect students of color, as well as poor and disabled students.

And they will announce that the district is now the subject of a federal civil rights investigation into the racial patterns of its 2012 closings.

In a recent letter The Inquirer obtained, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed to the activist group Action United it would investigate its claim that the "district adopted a school closing and consolidation plan . . . that has a disparate, adverse impact on African American and Hispanic students, and on students with disabilities."

The SRC closed eight schools last year. In March, it is scheduled to vote on shutting 37 more and ordering consolidations and other changes at dozens.

According to an analysis completed by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) - an umbrella group made up of the district teachers' union, Action United, and several other community organizations – 81 percent of the roughly 15,000 students who would be affected by this year's planned closings and mergers are African American.

District-wide, 56 percent of students are African American.

Most of the schools that would close - 24 - have populations that are more than 90 percent African American. Just three of the schools have white populations higher than the district average.

The group also found that most of the schools targeted also have district higher-than-average populations of poor and disabled students.

Citywide, there are about 53,000 empty seats in public schools, the district says, and many are in heavily African American neighborhoods. Schools with more concentrated white populations, such as in the Northeast, are more crowded and in some cases overcrowded.

Officials have used those statistics to justify past decisions on closings.

The district has not yet seen the analysis and cannot comment on any specifics, spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

Officials understand that most students in under-enrolled, low-performing schools are African American, "and these are the schools that are most affected by the recommended facility closures. It is important to note that students at these schools will benefit from the facilities and academic program improvements" that are part of the district's facilities plan, Gallard said in a statement.

But, PCAPS will argue, "the district has failed to demonstrate how displacing these students would improve their educational outcomes," according to a memo The Inquirer obtained.

The goal is to move students from buildings targeted for closing into schools where student performance is the same as or better than the ones they currently attend. But, PCAPS found, after closings, the strong schools that would remain open rarely have room for more students, leaving limited opportunity for children to move into better situations.

"In fact, a significant number of students may be directed to a lower-performing school," the coalition found.

The findings will be presented at a Monday news conference at Bright Hope Baptist Church expected to be attended by local NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire, City Council Education Chairwoman Jannie Blackwell, and State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.). On Tuesday, some members of the group will testify in Washington at federal hearings on the civil rights impact of school closings.

Philadelphia's is one of more than 10 civil rights claims filed with the federal Education Department, and representatives of 18 urban districts around the country will testify at the hearings.

The Philadelphia group has pushed hard on the SRC for a one-year moratorium on school closings. That position got a boost last week when City Council passed a nonbinding resolution asking the district to pause its closing plans for now. But that move was largely ceremonial. Council cannot block any moves the SRC might make.

Citing a fiscal crisis and years of inaction on the part of earlier administrations, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said this month he "would be lying if I would give you hope that a moratorium is in any way feasible without doing more harm to the district academically."

Officials said Friday the SRC would vote on the closings March 7. Formal school-closing hearings will be held beginning at 5 p.m. Feb. 21 and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb 22 and 23.