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District gets specific on impact of community input on school closing recommendations

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Benjamin Herold for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

District officials are genuinely listening to what the public has to say about their proposal to close nine schools, Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd told the School Reform Commission on Friday.

Since announcing a package of 31 facilities recommendations last month, the District has so far hosted six community meetings. Already, said Floyd, public input gathered during the meetings has made a difference.

In Roxborough, for example, Floyd said that District staff are taking seriously a community-generated counterproposal. Rather than close Levering Elementary and moving AMY Northwest into the empty building, as the District is recommending, some parents want to co-locate both schools at Levering. Floyd said that District staff have already done a walk-through at Levering and will soon do one at AMY Northwest to gauge the feasibility of that alternative.

In North Central Philadelphia, meanwhile, some current high school juniors are worried that the District’s plan to close FitzSimons High and convert Rhodes High into a middle school will prevent them from earning a diploma from the school they’ve attended since 7th or 8th grade. The District is looking into it, said Floyd.

And in University City, District staff are bending over backwards to accommodate parents from Drew Elementary, also slated for closure. After hardly anyone from the school showed up at a December 7 meeting at West Philadelphia High, said Floyd, the District scheduled an extra meeting in the region, this time to be held inside Drew.

“We don’t want to use the excuse that we had two community meeting and [parents] didn’t come,” said Floyd. “So we’re going to go to the school.”

After the meeting, Commissioner Lorene Cary said there is value in such an open-minded approach.

“If you really get the community [to participate], you really do get a chance for that wisdom to influence this proposal,” said Cary.

For supporters of two popular schools that have been targeted for closure, however, there are still no guarantees.

Both Isaac Sheppard Elementary in Kensington and E.M. Stanton Elementary in South Philadelphia are tiny, surprisingly well-performing neighborhood schools housed in ancient buildings. So far, there appears to be little middle ground between shuttering the schools altogether or keeping them open as-is.

Though Sheppard and Stanton both have intensely loyal followings, Floyd touched only briefly on each during her presentation.

E.M. Stanton parent James Wright remains nervous.

“[Floyd] definitely hears us, but we don’t really know how that information is getting to the decision-makers,” said Wright, the father of a Stanton 6th grader.

As a result, Stanton supporters have tried to take their case directly to the commissioners. Someone connected to the school has testified at all but one SRC meeting held since the November 2 school closings announcement. On Friday parent Donna Thomas told the commissioners, “E.M. Stanton has brought gifts out in my children that I didn’t even know they had.”

Commissioner Cary said the message of Stanton supporters is getting through.

“They have done their own community, long-term, organic, beautiful turnaround,” said Cary after the meeting. “They want to make sure that they keep it as strong as possible. I think that’s exactly what they should do.”

But, said Cary, when the time comes to vote on Stanton’s fate, she may not be able to take part. Many Stanton students, she said, attend a program at the nonprofit organization Cary runs at a site a few blocks from the school.

The community dialogue on the District’s proposal continued Saturday at 10 a.m. at Lincoln High in the Northeast. Floyd said she expects the “rich dialogue” to continue.

“All you can ask when you go through a process like this is for people to be engaged and give you another way of looking at it,” said Floyd.

The SRC must still hold an official public hearing to kick off the state-mandated 90-day window for public comment before a vote can be taken to close any schools. Officials said Friday that no date has yet been set for that hearing, but it won’t take place before the new year.

This story is a product of a reporting partnership on the District’s facilities master plan between PlanPhilly and the Notebook. The project is funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation. Follow our coverage of the facilities master plan community meetings, and discuss school-specific issues in our forum.