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School closings to be announced in October

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

Sweeping changes for School District facilities are on the horizon, but few of them will happen this year.

Thursday evening’s presentation on a proposed three-year facilities master plan indicated that the District plans to shed up to 50 buildings, radically overhaul the grade configurations of schools across the city, change the way it delivers programs like career and technical education, and continue its uneasy collaboration with the city’s growing charter school sector.

But the draft plan unveiled during an open session of the School Reform Commission included only a limited set of recommendations to take effect in the 2011-12 school year. No buildings are slated to be closed next fall, only four schools would be affected by proposed consolidations, and just seven surplus properties are set to be listed for sale.

“This is not the right time to just launch into closing buildings, renovating, and everything else unless you have a good plan,” said District Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery.

The draft plan released on Thursday, which Nunery described as a “work in progress,” is a response to the District’s 70,000 empty seats, hodgepodge of grade configurations and program offerings, and widely varying building utilization rates.

Currently, the District enrolls roughly 155,000 students and uses about 67 percent of its building capacity, officials say. By 2014, enrollment is expected to drop to 145,000, but the District wants to reach 85 percent utilization, which would mean shedding over 40,000 seats.

Although the District is facing a projected budget shortfall of $629 million next year, officials said the primary goal of the “rightsizing plan” is not to narrow the gap, and cautioned against expecting major savings resulting from the plan.

"Even though the economic impact would help us, it would be better if the communities are stronger," said Nunery.

The full plan, which will detail all of the proposed closures and other changes, is now expected to be made public in October. That timeline will allow for three months of public comment before the SRC votes on the plan in January 2012.

“It’s an entire package that we would present to the SRC. We’re not going to do it piecemeal,” said Danielle Floyd, District deputy for strategic initiatives.

A new direction

Big changes are set to begin in 2012-13, including what appears to be a total policy reversal regarding middle schools and small high schools.

An “educational framework” to guide the facilities plans, laid out by Associate Superintendent of Schools Penny Nixon, calls for a renewed focus on middle schools serving grades 6-8, which had been vanishing from the District.

“One of the most important things [is] that we felt…that students needed the opportunity to have three years to prepare for high school,” said Nixon.

Overall, the plan calls for moving towards just four grade configurations (K-5, K-8, 6-8, and 9-12) wherever possible, a direction that was warmly received by Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky.

“In a world where choice is an important component of the educational system, it just will work a lot better if there is more standardization of the grade configurations,” said Dworetzky.

The District currently has schools with 25 different grade configurations, officials said.

The framework also calls for a move away from high schools serving fewer than 1,000 students.

“Small schools come at a cost,” Superintendent Arlene Ackerman told the SRC.

“There is a place where small schools become fiscally not viable, and we have them at the expense of another school.”

Ackerman added that the District believes the key elements of small schools, such as personalized learning, can be created in schools serving 1,000 or more students.

"School size guidelines" outlined by Nixon called for 450-600 students in K-5 elementary schools; 450-800 in K-8 schools; 600-800 in middle schools; and 1,000-1,200 in high schools. "Some exceptions will remain," said Nixon.

The elimination of middle schools and the creation of small high schools were two central tenets of the District’s $1.7 billion capital program, initiated by previous CEO Paul Vallas.

“I think this is really the setting forward of Dr. Ackerman’s vision, and it is more consistent with good educational practice,” said Nunery. “Finally, we’ve got a superintendent who is trying to put things in an order and make sure that there’s a sequence [and] logic to it.”

Also part of Thursday’s draft plan was a call for dramatic overhauls of how the District delivers key services like early childhood education, special education, and career and technical education.

Potential changes to special education were not clearly spelled out, but changes to early childhood services would include discontinuing pre-K programs in high schools and middle schools and moving pre-K classes out of off-site leased locations.

And a major overhaul of the District’s CTE programming is in the works, with District officials citing the misalignment of current CTE offerings with current growth industries, as well as questions about the success of CTE programs based in neighborhood comprehensive schools.

"We’ve got to meet the labor market where it is," said Nunery, citing "health services, hospitality services, and technology-related fields" as "high priority occupations" with which CTE programs should align.

Cost estimates for those plans were not provided.

Immediate impact

In its effort to achieve some immediate efficiencies next fall, two pairs of District schools are slated for consolidation.

Lamberton Elementary and Lamberton High, which share a building, as well as Hancock Elementary and LaBrum Middle are to be merged into single schools under one administration. Neither will involve the closure of any buildings. The District did not indicate whether the two consolidations would be subject to public hearings and go through the process required under state law when a school is closed.

One traditional District school, Ellwood Elementary, will lose a grade, going from K-6 to K-5, allowing the closure of a leased annex.

The District also intends to close Elkin Annex this year, temporarily relocate and renovate Bridesburg Elementary, and list seven unused school buildings for sale.

Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch tentatively forecast that the District could generate $12.5 million in savings and revenue for next year from the proposed changes.

In addition, the SRC is being asked to adopt a new “target utilization resolution." The new resolution would formally call for the District to reach a “utilization goal of 85 percent” by 2014.

Officials are also proposing the SRC adopt revisions to the District’s existing “rightsizing policy,” originally adopted in August 2009. According to the plan, prior to implementing any closures, consolidations, or other “rightsizing actions,” the District will take an extensive series of steps, including:

  • Provide adequate notice to students and families
  • Ensure equal or better educational options
  • Notify and inform teachers of placement options
  • Create transition plans and determine transition costs
  • Develop a safety plan
  • Determine impact on transportation

And District officials are asking the SRC to adopt a new “Adaptive Reuse Policy” to guide the sale and disposition of surplus properties and future closed buildings. [Editor’s note: Notebook news partner PlanPhilly will be taking an extensive look at the proposed policy soon.]

Despite the budget crunch, officials were adamant that the primary goal of sales of buildings is not to make money. Educational and public reuses of District facilities would be prioritized over private uses, in part by allowing the SRC to issue discounts off of fair market value for educational and public uses.

“We think there are going to be some neighborhoods that can use those buildings in very wise ways to benefit that local community,” said Nunery. “We could use the cash, there’s no question. But I think this is the ‘doing well by doing good’ theory.”

Nunery acknowledged that charter schools are likely to be among the primary suitors for District facilities up for sale.

“What we hope to do is say, ‘We have areas of the city that are underserved or overcrowded – would you consider growing there?’” he said.

Some charters will be growing next fall as part of the plan. Two current Renaissance elementary schools – Smedley and Mann, both run by Mastery Charter Schools – are slated to add 6th grades next year, and Simon Gratz High, recently awarded to Mastery as part of the second round of the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative, is poised to add grades 6-8, most likely beginning in 2012.

“We’re thrilled,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon. “It makes sense for the kids, and it sounds like it makes sense for the District.”

Ethel Allen Elementary, a District-run Renaissance Promise Academy, is also slated to go from K-6 to K-8.

Officials provided no cost estimates for the further expansion of the Renaissance initiative, already the subject of some uncertainty.

The District has rescheduled its upcoming series of community meetings to solicit public feedback on the plans and proposed policy changes. They will begin Tuesday, April 12 from 6 -8 p.m. at Bartram High, 2401 S. 67th Street.

Officials also said that community members would be represented in the evaluation of proposals for the re-use of District facilities.

The SRC is expected to vote on revised policies at its May 18 meeting.

Additional reporting by Celeste Lavin.

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