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District: It’s not all about school closings

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

Even if your school isn’t likely to be closed, that doesn’t mean it won’t be affected by the District’s facilities master planning process.

Just ask the folks at LaBrum Middle in Northeast Philadelphia and Simon Gratz High in North Philadelphia.

Though neither of those schools is being shut down, both are set for significant changes as part of the District’s first set of “right-sizing” recommendations. LaBrum is being folded into its feeder school, Hancock Elementary, while Gratz is poised to add grades 6-8.

All along, District officials have emphasized that the facilities plan is not just about school closings. Indeed, they’ve identified nine different “right-sizing options.” And in the initial recommendations they’ve made for the 2011-12 school year, there are no closings, but two consolidations of multiple schools and several grade reconfigurations.

But concerns have already been raised about how the District is developing and implementing its plans. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan says that he “learned about the Hancock and LaBrum merger in a circuitous way” – not directly from Superintendent Arlene Ackerman or her staff, but after a teacher called PFT offices to check in on a rumor.

The District is choosing to make its recommendations regarding “right-sizing” before working out details in areas like staffing, but this approach is already raising some messy issues.

For instance, in its presentation to the School Reform Commission, the District said that part of the motivation for the Hancock-LaBrum consolidation was to extend Hancock’s “demonstration school” status to the middle grades. But Jordan says that can only happen gradually because current LaBrum teachers can’t be required to take the necessary test. District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs confirmed that the current teachers at LaBrum will not be affected next year.

With the District intending to announce a host of closings, consolidations, reconfigurations, and co-locations in October, such issues are likely to abound – and as Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery said, “the devil is in the details.”

To help inform and engage the public in sifting through such considerations, the Notebook and PlanPhilly have launched a new reporting partnership. Last week, District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd and consultant Tracy Richter of DeJong-Richter sat down with the Notebook for an extensive 90-minute. Each day this week, the Notebook and/or PlanPhilly will run an edited excerpt of the transcript from that interview focusing on a key question about how the facilities master plan will work in practice. (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday)

Today’s question: What motivated the initial “right-sizing” recommendations?

The District has recommended that Hancock Elementary (K-5) and LaBrum Middle (6-8) be consolidated into a single K-8 school, but remain in their current separate locations.

Notebook: Walk me through the decision to consolidate Hancock and LaBrum.

Floyd: Hancock is a demonstration, K-5 elementary school. The only students who feed to LaBrum are Hancock students. Right now, [there is no] curricular articulation between the K-5 program and the 6-8 program…So by having those programs together under one administration, there is a curricular advantage, program alignment opportunity, and it gets them within range in terms of the school size ranges that we’ve set for K-8 elementary schools.

Notebook: So the two big factors in that particular decision were curricular alignment and the size range.

Floyd: That’s correct.

Notebook: And what’s going to happen with the teachers at LaBrum? From what I understand, to teach in a demonstration school you have to be demonstration-certified, is that right?

[Floyd was unable to answer this question and referred the Notebook to Assistant Superintendent of Schools Penny Nixon’s office. Spokeswoman Childs said that “Hancock’s demonstration status will not impact LaBrum’s current staff.” It’s unclear what that means for the District’s plans to extend the demonstration model to the middle grades.]

Notebook: I’ve heard that the decision was announced at the SRC on April 7 and on April 8 an assistant regional superintendent showed up and said “this is what’s happening.”

Floyd: My understanding is that the assistant superintendents spoke with the principals of the schools on April 7 and are managing communications home to the parents as well as to the faculty.

Notebook: What input was gathered from the school community to determine whether this was a good idea?

Floyd: Our team consulted with the academic side [of the District central office, and with] both assistant superintendents for that area…to put this forward as an action we could take for September.

Notebook: Any sense on whether there was a process by which the assistant superintendents or the regionals gathered feedback from those schools?

Floyd: I don’t know.

Notebook: A single principal over two sites? That’s what we’re looking at?

Floyd: An assistant principal will be at the LaBrum site.

[At Simon Gratz High, recently awarded to Mastery Charter Schools through the Renaissance initiative, the District has recommended that Mastery be allowed to add grades 6-8 to the school, a move that could impact an additional 650 students.]

Notebook: And Gratz, the middle grades there, that’s going to be a separate school?

Floyd: How ever Mastery does their model.

Notebook: Earlier you talked about really wanting to separate the facilities planning process from the process governing charter school expansion. It seems like that did not happen in this instance – you gave a charter operator an underutilized school and then immediately said it could add grades.

Floyd: I know that Mastery did make a presentation to the School Advisory Councils at both Gratz and Clymer about the addition of middle grades…And there was a strong belief that being able to have seven years in a turnaround program is what those students would need in order for the turnaround initiative to be successful…There [also] clearly was a utilization issue on our end.

Notebook: Who are going to be the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders who attend Gratz?

Floyd: If you look at the cluster of schools in that neighborhood…they’re not doing well, and they’re all feeding into Gratz…That building was underutilized, the cluster of schools was underperforming, and there was an opportunity via the Renaissance process to create some alignment.

[District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs]: The parents, they’re getting an option.

Notebook: So Mastery will have to recruit for those 6-8 grade students?

Childs: Well, it’s like any other charter.

Notebook: But it’s not like any other charter. It’s the neighborhood school. Right? So you’re saying the K-8s that feed into it will stay K-8s and those parents will have a choice to stay in Steele, for example, or to go to Gratz for 6th grade?

Floyd: We’re going to be looking at all of those schools. But right now, it would be an option.

Notebook: Based on how you went about making this decision, don’t you think it raises questions that this process is really not going to be guided by criteria that outsiders can really weigh and measure and predict?

Floyd: We laid out the nine different types of actions we’re going to take, we laid out criteria that we’re going to be judging them on, and I would say that our recommendation lines up with those criteria. It’s an underutilized facility, it’s underperforming, [and] we have an opportunity for greater curricular alignment.

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