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Finally, it’s closing time

With enrollments still falling and no money to spare, the District looks ready to make hard decisions.

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

There is no easy way to close schools. Embedded in neighborhood history, these buildings hold memories for thousands. They are the source of pride, loyalty and identity – no matter how deteriorated the building, how inadequate the academics, and how empty the hallways.

For decades, Philadelphia school officials have repeatedly put off any hard look at what to do in the face of departing students, aging buildings, and stretched resources.

Enrollment in District schools is now barely 160,000 students, just more than half of what it was at its peak in 1970 of nearly 300,000. There was a brief uptick in the early 1990s, but the decline has been steady over the past 15 years, especially with the rise of charter schools, which now educate more than 40,000 students.

Although various administrations did studies of school facilities, they never resulted in many closings – even though the District couldn’t afford to maintain all its buildings.

As a result, it finds itself today with an estimated 70,000 empty seats in more than 280 structures, at the same time it is facing a major funding shortfall.

Now, the administration of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is compiling a comprehensive facilities master plan designed to "right-size" its physical plant, and the School Reform Commission is promising action.

"This SRC is not going to kick the can down the street and leave the tough issues to somebody else," said Commissioner David Girard-diCarlo.

The goal, officials say, is to maximize educational availability, quality, and equity around the city for a dwindling student population that is also growing increasingly disadvantaged. Actions going forward, they say, will include downsizing, dealing with surplus property, and thinking about capital needs, all in the context of improving academic programs.

While public input is invited through three rounds of meetings, key aspects of the decision-making process have so far been kept under wraps. Officials have shared 11 factors they are using to evaluate schools, but have not said which will count the most. They declined to give the Notebook up-to-date school capacity and facilities condition data for this edition.

They acknowledge that there could be school closings as early as September. Yet they say that "late spring" is the earliest communities might hear the fate being considered for their schools: closing, consolidation, feeder pattern changes, renovations, a different grade configuration – or even expansion.

When pressed in January, officials were reluctant to say outright that closings are imminent. Asked whether it was "inevitable" that some buildings would close, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery replied, "I don’t know if it’s inevitable. It’s possible."

What is known from information released so far is that schools are underenrolled in most areas of the city.

There are a few overcrowded pockets – mostly in the Northeast, Olney, Kensington, and some of the river wards. On average, elementary schools are at about 82 percent capacity while middle and high schools are at 59 percent capacity, as opposed to an ideal of 85 percent.

And while school utilization generally reflects neighborhood demographics, that’s not the whole story. In every part of the city, at least 25 percent of the students transfer out of their neighborhood high school; in most areas it is more than 50 percent.

Six planning regions

For planning purposes, school officials have divided the city into six areas: Southwest, West, South-Central, North-Central, Northwest, and Northeast, the better to deal with their "different challenges," according to Associate Superintendent Penny Nixon.

She said they want to provide options in each region that minimize student travel for high school, but also let parents choose between small schools and larger ones, K-8s and middle schools, and different academic, career and technical programs. They are also considering the impact on special education, early childhood, and athletics, Nixon said.

In August, officials began discussions with charter school operators, politicians, community development organizations, and civic associations. At the same time, URS Corporation and DeJong Richter were conducting a demographic, enrollment, and building analysis.

In late fall, officials held regional meetings that were attended by about 500 people. Rather than talk about closings, the District asked participants to list "must haves" for any school in terms of academic programs, amenities like libraries, and conditions relating to climate.

"We wanted to explain the complex issue that the District is dealing with in regards to empty seats, but also explain that this process was about optimizing educational program options as much as it was about bricks and mortar," said Danielle Floyd, deputy for strategic planning initiatives.

At a second set of 10 meetings in early February in the regions, attendees were to be given a summary of their original feedback, asked what additional data they’d like to see and their concerns about the process, and asked to rank their "must haves," rating art and music against athletics, for instance.

During or after the second rounds of meetings, the District may share data about school utilization and facility conditions. URS has compiled a "facilities condition index" assessing repair and renovation costs for each building. A report to the SRC said that while most schools are in fair condition, the overall cost of capital repairs is in the $4 billion range. At 26 schools, the cost of needed repairs approaches or exceeds the cost of replacement. Most schools, 136, were in the "fair" range, and 124 had relatively good scores, meaning that repair costs would be low.

But the District did not release the ratings for individual schools.

No timeframe was set for the third set of meetings, when, presumably, people will finally be presented specific options.

The school code requires a public hearing at least 90 days before a school is closed. And there could be more than a few.

"If you look at … Kansas City and other places, they did everything in one fell swoop. They took all their hits in one year, and that’s an approach that you think about," Nunery said.

Factors considered for closing

While not weighting their importance, the District has outlined a list of factors that will be used in determining each school’s future: enrollment vs. capacity; scores on the facility condition index; compliance with requirements relating to building accessibility and classroom size; and amenities such as a cafeteria, gym, and library. Other factors include its suitability for reuse – community or commercial – and whether it is in the special historic district, which qualifies it for a redevelopment tax break.

Student accessibility to other specialized programs, transportation, capacity of area charter schools, "neighborhood dynamics," and plans of city agencies and nearby institutions are also considerations.

Finally, the school’s academic performance is a significant factor. Low-occupancy schools that are doing well may be expanded rather than closed.

"If there’s 25 percent occupancy, but if you have the right program, the right principal, the right teachers, there’s no reason why you can’t have more kids go to that school," said Floyd.

Renaissance Schools – those undergoing makeovers as Promise Academies and remaining in the District as opposed to being converted into charters – are not immune from potential closing or consolidation in the future, officials said, but all will open in September. Some schools designated as Promise Academies are way below capacity; Germantown High, for instance, is below 30 percent.

Historical trends

Cities all over the nation have had to deal with vast demographic shifts of people that have resulted in a hollowing out of once vibrant areas. The landscape has been further changed as public and parochial schools lose students to charters.

Michael O’Neill, who founded the Philadelphia School Partnership to identify and duplicate the best schools, whether they be public, parochial, or charter, said he expected that "some, but not a lot" of closed public school buildings might be suited to charters.

Beyond the persistent reluctance to close schools, Philadelphia is reaping the consequences of other decisions.

Many of the schools built between the 1960s and 1980s were poorly constructed, but the District declined to sue the builders, according to a former high-level District official.

"It became such a huge thing to do, the general counsel wouldn’t touch it," the official said.

For instance, air conditioning at the Pickett Middle School never worked; Edison High School had a leaky roof for 20 years.

Officials also opted for expensive, state-of-the-art buildings like William Penn High School – now abandoned, with its future uncertain. In 2009, Ackerman dropped a plan to permanently close it.

District leaders had no trouble deciding to build schools like William Penn and University City – plenty of lucrative contracts for construction companies, work for the trade unions, and bond fees for lawyers – but didn’t invest in supporting the full educational experience they were designed for. University City, now a Promise Academy, faces expensive asbestos removal.

Plus, routine and preventive maintenance was often neglected, hastening deterioration and driving up capital costs.

In addition, successive superintendents had shifting educational visions.

Former CEO Paul Vallas decided to close middle schools and convert as many elementary schools as possible into K-8. In his six years, he spent much of a $2 billion capital program on creating new small high schools and greatly reducing the number of middle schools.

The Vallas administration also did a facilities study, and it also concluded that the District had too much capacity and should close schools.

Instead, he garnered good will by building more. But those days appear to be over.

"This can get difficult," Girard-diCarlo said. "Communities could get upset. Elected officials could get upset. Some of our constituencies could get upset. We shouldn’t be afraid of that, but be open and transparent and listen.

"Then we have to make some decisions."