School closings moving ahead, but ...
Now that the Philadelphia School Reform Commission has ordered 23 schools shut, the heavy lifting begins. Literally. After a tense school-closing vote Thursday night, the city School District shifted gears as it prepares to deal with practical questions: How do you shut and eventually sell 23 buildings? How do you move 23 schools' worth of textbooks and computers into new locations? Manage new assignments for 9,000 students? Transfer or, in some cases, shed employees affected by the closures?
Now that the Philadelphia School Reform Commission has ordered 23 schools shut, the heavy lifting begins.
After a tense school-closing vote Thursday night, the city School District shifted gears as it prepares to deal with practical questions: How do you shut and eventually sell 23 buildings? How do you move 23 schools' worth of textbooks and computers into new locations? Manage new assignments for 9,000 students? Transfer or, in some cases, shed employees affected by the closures?
"Now, we immediately transition to school opening," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Friday.
At one point, the SRC considered shutting as many as 37 schools, but after public and political outcry, Hite last month recommended that 29 buildings shut. Ultimately, the commission spared four schools; it will vote later on two other closures, Beeber and M.H. Stanton.
Large-scale closings are necessary, Hite said, to help solve an acute fiscal crisis and deal with some of the district's 53,000 excess seats, due largely to the opening of 84 charter schools since 1997.
The SRC's sparing four schools will have financial implications; the money will have to come from somewhere else, but the superintendent said it was too soon to say where.
And even as transition plans were being made, legislators were saying: Not so fast.
"I think it is time for the parents, teachers, and students of Philadelphia to go into federal court - tomorrow," State Rep. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.) said Friday. "We have a situation that is completely out of control."
Thomas said he personally would file complaints with the state and federal Education Departments. That's on top of an existing federal civil rights investigation into the racial pattern of the district's 2012 school closings, spurred by a complaint by the activist group Action United.
Thomas, who said he would seek to change state law to replace the School Reform Commission with an elected, independent school board that would have its own taxing power, strongly objected to closings that mostly affect poor students in blighted communities.
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who heads the education committee, also said legal action could be taken to try to stop the closings. That option is being discussed, she said.
The anger that erupted at Thursday night's SRC meeting - helicopters in the sky, police on the ground - frightened her, Blackwell said. And she is also "tired of watching people beg. Beg their own School District, in their own city, for consideration."
Blackwell was one of many who had sought a one-year moratorium on school closings to allow more time for review and community response. It wasn't granted.
She was asked whether that would shape her views when school officials go this spring before Council to seek funding.
"We're going to have a lot to say," Blackwell said.
SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said he realized there would be threats and possible legal action.
"Our city is certainly known for its passion, and we have seen the passion through this process," Ramos said after the SRC's vote Thursday. " . . . I don't criticize anybody for being upset about it. I'm upset about it."
Action United was a key part of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), the group that initially issued the call for a one-year moratorium on closings.
Yes, 23 school closings is "a big blow," said Craig Robbins, executive director. "But we've never seen this as a short-term fight. We realize that we're in a huge war - are we going to have a public education system in this city and state, or not?"
One silver lining of the last few months is that large numbers of people are engaged in ways they have never been before, and that's going to be key, Robbins said.
Andi Perez, executive director of the student organizing group Youth United for Change, underscored that point. Youth United, a part of the PCAPS group, won't stop insisting that the district fight for more state funding, or pushing for community schools.
"It's funny - one day we're protesting and the next day we're working with officials. This was a painful fight," Perez said, "but we have a lot of good relationships with people."
At the school level, students and teachers at buildings affected by the SRC's closure votes said they were struggling to keep composed the day after their fates were sealed.
Yasmine Bouie helped lead students at Carroll High attempt to save their school. Their efforts were not successful.
"We worked very hard to try to keep our school open, and it just feels like they don't care, like we did that for nothing," said Bouie, a junior. She said she did not want to go to Penn Treaty, an existing middle school that will be converted into a middle-high school for Carroll students.
Donna Widmann, an English teacher at the soon-to-close Vaux High, said people at her school felt adrift, angry, sad.
"But as teachers, we're shifting into damage-control mode," Widmann said. "We've got to make sure these kids get into the best possible situation next year."
Karyn Lynch, the district's chief of student services, said that a special enrollment process would be opened for students in closing high schools. In the coming weeks, they will be given the opportunity to apply for spots in schools with room for them, including special-admission schools.
But "we are very much hoping that parents are going to minimize the transfers that take place with children at the elementary- and middle-school level," Lynch said.
Hite stressed that enormous amounts of time and energy would be poured into making sure that resources follow students from their closing schools into their new ones. If students had band or advanced-placement calculus at their old school, they will have it at their new school.
"We go through the pain because we've got to get better at teaching children to read," Hite said. "We've got to get better at providing children with technology and enrichment activities. We've got to get better at college-going and work-going cultures in many of our high schools."
A Snapshot: The 23 Closing Schools in Philadelphia
Closing 23 school buildings and four programs
will affect about 9,000 students in 2013-14.
$2,100 per student on average for an estimated $19 million in operation, instruction, and facility costs.
Per-building savings range from $2.2 million
for University City to $244,000 for Joseph
Leidy and more than $1 million each for four other large buildings - Vaux, Germantown, Bok, and Pepper Middle.
None of the closing schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) last year. For 15 schools, more than two-thirds of the students failed to pass state math or reading exams in 2011-12. The eight high schools had graduation rates in 2010-11 of
70 percent and below. The lowest were University City at 45 percent and Germantown at 42 percent.
While Bok High is nearly full, most of the other schools are less than three-quarters full; seven are
a third full.
School violence was studied but was not listed as a reason to close several of these schools. However, violent-incident rates at Germantown High, Shaw Middle, and Stephen A. Douglas ranked among the highest in the district.
SOURCE: School District of Philadelphia; Inquirer analysis by Dylan Purcell