This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Patrick Gailey
Community planning meetings in late November and early December aimed at gathering input regarding the District’s Facilities Master Plan drew packed houses. Groups of well over a hundred, many of them drawn by reports of the likelihood of school closings, gathered in overcrowded spaces to discuss the future of Philadelphia’s schools during the three meetings covered by the Notebook.
One attendee at the Dec. 2 meeting at First District Plaza in West Philadelphia noted that the crowds were “a good thing because it means that people care.” At that meeting, though, the inadequacy of the room for the size of crowd meant that, at times, people in the back of the room couldn’t hear what was being said.
At each gathering, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery presented the Imagine Great Schools project and explained the need for a Facilities Master Plan. Schools now have 45,000 empty seats, Nunery said, and many buildings don’t meet student needs. In addition, the District needs to reduce the expense of maintaining all these buildings, especially as it faces an unsure budget situation in the future.
Nunery said 26 community meetings were already planned, but suggested more would be added. ”We’re going to keep talking,” he said. The first round of six meetings was meant to be a set of informative sessions; the next stages will be more specific as the decision process unfold andcommuities learn how schools in their neighborhoods might be affected.
Following this presentation, representatives from the School District facilitated breakout sessions to talk about what the community sees as “must-haves” in schools. These “must-haves” were broken up into category by type of school (elementary, middle, and high) as well as what every school should have in terms of educational programs, improvements to facilities, and safety features.
Shirley Tilghman and her granddaughter, an 8th grader at Martha Washington Elementary, attended the West Philadelphia meeting. Tilghman said she found the meeting “enlightening,” though she had come primarily because of concern with talk that some schools might close. “Our neighborhood can’t afford to lose another school,” she said.
“There’s been some talk that some of the smaller schools might close, but they didn’t discuss that portion,” Tilghman pointed out. The District’s presentations at these meeting barely mention that possibility directly.
At the next set of 10 community meetings the agenda will be to “share data and discuss options.” Titusdemetrius Simmons, however, thought that the meetings are not well enough advertised. He found out about the Dec.2 session by chance from an administrator at his brother’s school, Benjamin Franklin High.
The District hasn’t yet announced the times and places for the next round of meetings, planned for January and February.