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School-specific data related to closing decisions obtained

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

[Updated with statement from the District and more data highlights]

A document obtained by the Notebook gives the first hint as to which schools might be candidates for closing under the District’s Facilities Master Plan.

With a study showing that it is carrying 70,000 empty seats in its nearly 300 buildings, the District has been working on a comprehensive plan to “rightsize” its physical plant by closing, consolidating, and co-locating schools. But it has yet to share any school-specific data about closings, even though it has held two series of public meetings.

After the posting of this story, the District issued a strongly-worded statement objecting to the decision to publish the document.

"The draft report that the Notebook obtained, is just that – a preliminary draft," the statement says in part. "The draft contains inaccuracies, is incomplete and the District specifically requested that the Notebook not release an incomplete report. Deliberately sharing inaccurate data and implying that this data will inform decisions is irresponsible. The Notebook’s readers deserve better."

The document, from January, lists the District’s schools along with an evaluation of each in three areas that will help determine their futures:

  • A Facilities Condition Index (FCI) that measures the cost of necessary repairs compared to the cost of replacing the building,
  • The level of utilization relative to capacity, and
  • Academic rankings according to the School Performance Index (SPI).

District officials have steadfastly maintained these three measures alone won’t determine the final decisions. Other factors include the building’s historic status, neighborhood conditions, whether a building has amenities like a cafeteria and gym, potential for reuse, and accessibility to transportation.

District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs also said that the Facilities Condition Index and level of utilization numbers have been updated for some schools over the past two months. When asked for a more recent version of this information, Childs said the District was not ready to release school-by-school information.

Based on this document, the data for some schools stands out. For example:

  • In the North Central region, Harrison has a high FCI and very low utilization.
  • In the Northwest, Jay Cooke elementary and Wagner middle schools have high repair costs and low utilization.
  • In the Southwest region, Drew Elementary School has high repair costs, a poor academic score, and is only a third full.
  • Olney East and West, both housed in the same building, have very high repair costs, are only half full, and have poor academic scores. These schools are about to be turned over to outside managers.
  • Dobbins, a career and technical high school, has relatively high repair costs and low utilization. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has said she wants to expand career and technical offerings, which community members have cited as a priority in the Facilities Master Plan meetings held so far.
  • Widener Memorial School has the highest ratio of repair costs to utilization of any building on the list. However, it is a unique school, housing physically handicapped students.
  • In the Northeast, some of the buildings in the worst conditions are also overcrowded – Smedley (now run by Mastery), Comly, Crossan, Mayfair, Disston, and Sullivan Elementary Schools.
  • Among high schools, Northeast and Frankford both have relatively high repair costs, but are at or above capacity.

Reading the document

The document was developed by the engineering and design firm United Research Services (URS), which is under contract with the District.

From left to right, the columns indicate the region, school name, grade level (elementary, middle or high), the FCI, utilization percentage, and SPI. Handwritten notes obscure some of the data, but Notebook staff was able to decipher areas that appeared illegible.

Buildings with an FCI at 66 percent trigger concerns about whether the cost to repair it is worth it, according to Tracy Richter, CEO of Dejong Richter, a subcontractor of URS who also worked on developing the facilities master plan. According to Childs, they will be using a higher benchmark of 75 percent in determining which buildings have a "high" FCI.

The utilization numbers presented by URS differ somewhat from those appearing in the Notebook’s District Facility Map, in part because they are based on a reassessment of each building’s capacity. The Notebook compiled utilization percentages based on 2010 capacity numbers from the District.

Richter said that an ideal capacity use for a school is 85 percent, while anything between 75 and 100 percent is considered "in-range". The District’s average is 67.

For the School Performance Index (SPI), 1 indicates the best-performing, and 10 the worst. A number of buildings are listed as having an SPI of zero. This indicates that either a building is a charter or non-traditional school, or it is closed.

UPDATE: The District-run schools that are currently open and have the highest FCIs (all elementaries unless otherwise noted) are Crossan, Lowell, Widener Memorial, Comly, Fox Chase, Daniel Boone (a remedial discipline school), Jay Cooke, Mayfair, Wagner Middle, Bridesburg, Disston, Logan, Sullivan, Finletter, Drew and Creighton.

The District-run schools with the lowest utilization rates include Widener Memorial, Vare Middle, Arthur Elementary, Roosevelt Middle, Rhodes (secondary), FitzSimons (secondary), Austin Meehan Middle, Penn Treaty Middle, LaBrum Middle. Also Dobbins AVT, Roxborough, Germantown, King, and Palumbo high schools.

Editor’s Note: The Notebook decided to publish the document because of a conviction that the public needed to see as early as possible any numbers and information that will pay a key role in forthcoming closing, consolidation, or co-location recommendations.

UPDATE: In April 2011 the District published a working draft of the URS report.

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