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70,000 vacant seats: A convenient truth?

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

During its recent January planning meeting, District staffers presented a preliminary facilities usage report to the School Reform Commission. At this time, the SRC was informed that there are 70,000 vacant seats in the District’s schools. This was almost double the number quoted in an earlier report. In their PowerPoint presentation, staffers portrayed excess space in District schools as being greater than the number of seats in Lincoln Financial Field.

The staffers’ use of the term “vacant seats” to describe underutilized space is an interesting choice of words. Even more intriguing is how they compared this number to the amount of seating available at a football stadium.

This description conjures up an image of a vast wasteland of open spaces in schools. This is a distorted picture of school space availability. Effective educational facilities should be designed to provide the spaces needed to foster active learning experiences for children. A school building should not be viewed as venue for a spectator sport.

Please note that when I speak of facility usage, I refer to classroom space as opposed to classroom seats.

Unlike the corporate perception of facilities’ utilization, educators view the facility needs of school program in terms of the number of spaces that are available in a building which can be used to support or enhance the delivery of the instructional program.

Educators view an adequate facility as including room for:

  • each section of designated grade levels in the school;
  • core spaces for art, music, and physical education;
  • a science lab;
  • computer labs;
  • a school library; and
  • small group instruction spaces for speech teachers, special education teachers, psychologists, and counselors to work with students.

The use of the term “vacant seats” first appeared in a report prepared for the District by Athenian Properties in 2009, while I was principal of Meade School. At that time, this consultant estimated that 45,000 43,500 vacant seats existed in District schools. In this report, Meade Elementary School was identified as using only 41 61 percent of its building capacity. Interestingly, during the time period in which this study was conducted, I was not consulted about how my facility was actually being used nor was I informed about the eventual conclusion of the report.

According to the Athenian report, Meade School has the capacity to set up 882 672 student desks in its combined classrooms. In 2009 2008, the student enrollment at Meade was 361 413 students. According to calculations used by the consultants, Meade was determined to be 521 259 seats under capacity (882-361=521) (672-413=259).

In actual point of fact, every room in Meade Elementary School was being utilized to support the effective implementation of the school’s PreK-8 instructional program in 2009. In total, there are 49 classrooms in Meade Elementary School. All of these rooms are not equal in size. 39 of them are full-sized classrooms. 29 of the full-sized rooms are used to provide instructional spaces for each section of K-8 grade level students and to house a Head Start program. The remaining 10 full-sized classrooms are core facility spaces used for expressive arts for both elementary and middle school students, (e.g. art, music, physical education, computer labs, etc.) and to house a community health clinic.

The 10 remaining classrooms have half or less of the square footage of the average classroom size. Three of these smaller rooms were recently converted into one large space that houses a newly designed, wired, and furnished Instructional Media Center. The other seven small rooms are used for small group instructional spaces (special education, speech, counseling, etc.).

As the description above illustrates, the number of seats that can be set up in a school is irrelevant to the space needs of a school. In order for a school staff to create a high quality instructional environment, they need access to an infrastructure that will support their program. To describe school facilities otherwise presents a flawed perception of facilities’ usage to school communities and creates the potential for a detrimental impact on their children’s educational experiences.

Declining enrollment at Meade Elementary School presented an opportunity to create and restore the kind of core facilities that are essential to support a quality elementary and middle school program. Such core spaces are routinely part of the design of more affluent suburban districts. Unfortunately, these kinds of spaces have been non-existent in many of the District ‘s overcrowded schools, particularly in its K- 8 buildings.

As student enrollment declines across the District, it is likely that there are many other schools that will benefit from the availability of this critical additional space. It is also a possibility that some schools, particularly ones that were originally constructed to house thousands of students, will be unable to make practical use of excessive square footage. If this is the case, then the consolidation of programs that might result in a school closing may be a reasonable consideration.

It is therefore imperative that practitioners and leaders of individual District schools be consulted before decisions are made regarding a future District facilities master plan. Without their voice and perspective, the information will be extremely misleading and the political dimensions and potential consequences to local school communities will be devastating.

On the face of it, the language used in the recent facilities usage report appears to communicate that a “crisis” exists and that we have many empty schools, waiting to be filled or sold. Is this really the situation? Or have the powers-that-be manufactured a problem in order to advance their agenda, in this case turning over public school spaces to charter and private school entrepreneurs?

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