This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
To get some perspective on the empty seat problem in the School District of Philadelphia, Germantown High School is a good place to start.
With fewer than 900 students in a building designed to hold more than 3,000, it is operating at less than 30 percent capacity. Between 2005 and 2010, it lost 659 students.
In a recent report for the School District and the School Reform Commission, the URS Corporation and DeJong Richter estimated that there are 70,000 empty seats in the District.
School officials declined to immediately make available the latest school-by-school capacity and utilization figures that were produced for the report. "The District will release data for individual schools directly to the public in February," said Elizabeth Childs, a spokesperson for the District.
But comparing current enrollment numbers with a recent set of school capacity figures provided by the District to the City Planning Commission in 2010, the Notebook was able to assemble a picture of the excess seats.
Districtwide, about 30 schools were significantly over capacity. Some 60 schools were at or near capacity – between 80 and 110 percent.
At the other end of the spectrum, more than 70 others were at 60 percent occupancy or less. A handful, like Germantown High, were about one-third full or even less.
The problem is most severe in the high schools. Roughly 20,000 of the excess seats can be found within 15 of the city’s formerly huge comprehensive high schools, with the biggest excess at Germantown, King, Overbrook, and University City.
Some more examples of where empty classroom space is found:
- William Levering Elementary School in Roxborough had an enrollment of 194 students, less than a third of its capacity of 606.
- Anna Shaw Middle School in West Philadelphia was at 28 percent capacity, with 238 students for 864 seats.
- William Penn High School, designed for 2,400 students, is one of several District properties that sits empty, awaiting a decision about its fate.
While School District officials say that a school operating well below capacity won’t necessarily be closed, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery says it does set off alarm bells for the District, which is maintaining a massive and costly physical plant that has far more pupil space than it needs now and is likely to need in the foreseeable future.
The 70,000 empty seats are almost exactly the capacity of Lincoln Financial Field.
The URS report said that the District had lost 11,000 students over the past five years and would likely lose from 9,000 to 11,000 more in the next five years due to families leaving the city, declining birth rates, and the growth of charter schools. Private and parochial school enrollment was expected to remain stable or decline slightly.
A 2009 report by Athenian Properties had estimated the "empty seat" count at 43,500. But District officials said that URS was using more current data, and that the larger figure could also be attributed to their using a different formula to calculate capacity rather than to changes in demographic trends.
URS said it had estimated capacity by multiplying a building’s classroom count by the recommended class size and then by a factor of 75 percent to allow for other space usage. The report assumed that classrooms would accommodate 26 students in lower grades, 28 in higher grades.
Their overall classroom count included empty school buildings, leased space, and annexes.
URS found that the average District school is operating at 67 percent capacity, well below the "best practice standard" of 85 percent.
They estimated utilization in K-5 schools at 82 percent, close to the best practice standard. Underutilization was concentrated in middle and high schools, which were operating at 59 percent.
But the Notebook identified some three dozen elementary schools operating at 60 percent capacity or less, more than one in five. About half the schools at 60 percent capacity or less were elementary schools. But over half the middle schools – 16 of 25 – had at least 40 percent excess capacity.
Not surprisingly, empty seats are concentrated in particular areas, especially West Philadelphia and areas of North Philadelphia around Temple University. About 20 schools are at least 20 percent above capacity, many of them in the Northeast. Ethan Allen Elementary is 50 percent over; Northeast High School, 29 percent over, and Laura Carnell Elementary, operating at more than twice its capacity, with 1,636 students for 735 seats.
Some of the underutilized schools were much closer to capacity a few years ago. Comparing current numbers to District enrollment figures from 2005, University City lost over half its enrollment, 1,158 students; South Philadelphia’s enrollment declined by 743; King’s by 566.
In an interview with the Notebook, Nunery and Associate Superintendent Penny Nixon said that some schools operating well below capacity had outstanding programs and would be candidates for expansion or consolidation rather than closure.
Nunery stressed that some excess capacity could be absorbed by selling or leasing it for charter schools or community uses.
But given the facilities it now operates, there is no scenario in which the District can come anywhere close to filling its empty seats.