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Confidential document lists dozens of possible closings, consolidations

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

by Benjamin Herold and Dale Mezzacappa

District officials have identified more than 20 schools as prime targets for closure next year, according to a confidential document (part 1, 2, 3, 4) obtained by the Notebook and authenticated by a District spokesperson.

For months, District officials have declared that they were not far enough along in their planning to share school-specific recommendations with the public. But the comprehensive 35-page "options report," dated March 18, details a preliminary but sweeping strategy based around 84 possible action steps including school closures, consolidations, boundary changes, and grade reconfigurations.

For instance, in the heart of North Philadelphia, where student enrollment has been steadily declining, Benjamin Franklin High and up to eight elementary schools have all been identified as potential closure targets. In South Philadelphia, Furness High School along with Nebinger and E.M. Stanton elementary schools could all be shut down. The report recommends that South Philadelphia High School be demolished and replaced with a smaller building.

Despite the report’s obvious significance and a request from Mayor Nutter for "all documents and studies relating to the District’s facilities master plan," the District did not include it among the materials sent to City Hall on June 15. The mayor’s request was part of a new educational accountability agreement among the city, state and District.

That agreement specifically states that the District should provide any "proposed school site closure list" and "all reports generated by outside consultants.” Both categories would clearly seem to apply to this document, which was prepared by the URS Corporation, a District consultant on the facilities master plan.

The mayor’s press secretary, Mark McDonald, said he could not comment on the document or why it was not included in the materials provided by the District. It is unclear if the mayor’s office was aware of the report’s existence when it made a request for documents on June 5 and signed the accountability agreement on June 9.

The District issued a statement on Friday reiterating that the recommendations are by no means final and are likely to change before being made public and sent to the School Reform Commission for action. That is now scheduled for October.

On Saturday, spokesperson Elizabeth Childs released a stronger statement, saying it would be “misleading” to make the document public “as it does not reflect the District’s current thinking on feasible options.” She also said that school officials are in “constant communication” with the mayor’s office and City Council. But she did not directly respond to a question about why the document was withheld from the materials sent to City Hall.

Contrary to the official statement, a source who is familiar with the report and the District’s internal discussions described many of the District’s proposals as “very close” to final.

“It is an options list, not a final closure list,” said the source, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal. “But the decisions for next year that would be announced in October are pretty solid.”

Regardless of the ultimate choices, the document’s sheer magnitude provides a compelling look into the massive changes in store for neighborhoods across the city and the schools that have long been their anchors.

As part of its facilities master planning process, the District is trying to realign its physical plant to the new demographic realities of a city that has been experiencing dramatic population shifts, declining numbers of school-age residents, and an ongoing exodus of students to charters. Its goal is to shed 35,000 empty seats in closed and underutilized school buildings.

When so many school closings are anticipated, there is no good time to break the news to those who will be most affected. But so far, the District has chosen to play its cards close to the vest.

In the winter and spring, for example, it held three rounds of community meetings without sharing any information at all about specific schools. And the District’s timeline for unveiling the final set of closings and other actions assures that the public discussion sticks to the bare minimum allowed by state law before an official school closing vote – three months.

Although it is now clear that the dozens of school closing possibilities in this document had been proposed and vetted in March, none were included in a set of facilities recommendations made to the SRC on April 7. A likely reason for delaying any specific closure recommendations was that the District hoped to ensure that parents and City Council members would support its efforts to win additional funding rather than protest plans to close local schools. City Council on Thursday passed a temporary property tax increase that will provide the bulk of $53 million in new funds to help the cash-strapped District close its staggering $629 million budget gap.

When told by a reporter about the confidential document, a handful of Council members had varied reactions.

Councilman-at-Large Bill Green – one of the District’s most vocal critics – said it was "disturbing" that the list had not already been shared with Council and the Nutter administration.

"If this document was not included in what they gave the administration, then that’s a serious problem,” said Green. “The whole reason an accountability agreement exists is because the people involved don’t trust each other. And the first set of documents that are delivered don’t include something that was specifically requested? That’s a real problem."

But Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who was instrumental in securing the property tax increase for the District, had no problem with the document being kept under wraps until it is completely finished.

"It seems an appropriate thing to do,” said Brown. “These are sensitive decisions. …You can’t throw bombs out there when the final decisions haven’t been made."

Undeniably, the report contains a list of possible recommendations that are likely to be controversial.

The proposals are divided into six geographic planning areas and are listed as “options.” In some cases, more than one possibility is suggested.

At least 18 elementary and middle schools are being looked at for possible closing, some next year and some the year after. Among them:

  • Blankenburg
  • Drew
  • Dunbar
  • Fitler
  • Gideon
  • Harrison
  • L.P. Hill
  • Levering
  • Nebinger
  • Overbrook Elementary
  • T.M. Peirce
  • Pepper
  • Shaw
  • Sheppard
  • Sheridan West
  • E.M. Stanton
  • Waring
  • A. Wilson

There could also be big changes to the city’s high schools. Among those slated for possible closure are:

  • S.A. Douglas
  • FitzSimons
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Furness (with students sent to South Philadelphia)
  • Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds (or the Academy at Elverson)
  • Randolph Skills Center (with students sent to Dobbins)
  • Rhodes
  • Robeson (with students sent to Sayre)

Schools that could see new buildings include South Philadelphia and University City, and Meade and Reynolds in North Philadelphia could be replaced by a single new school.

On paper, many of the proposed actions appear logical. But each school has its own story.

E.M. Stanton, a small school at 17th and Christian streets in South Philadelphia that was targeted for closure in 2003, has an active local community that raised money and recruited volunteers for an arts program and tutoring. Through partnerships, local artists come in to offer drama, dance, music, and visual arts. Plus, its test scores put it among the highest-performing schools in the city with a predominantly low-income African American population. Recently, more middle class residents moving into the neighborhood have started looking at Stanton as an option.

“Stanton is truly a turnaround school,” said Susan Kettell, a member of Bainbridge House, a faith-based community near the school and a former Stanton teacher who has helped build up the arts program. “Nine years ago, we weren’t doing so well, but now we’ve made [federal learning goals] for eight years in a row. I am surprised why they would want to mess with a school that is succeeding. It blows your mind.”

Some suggestions affecting popular magnet schools like Science Leadership Academy, which is now located in expensive rented space, could also prove politically daunting. One possibility has it moving to a closed middle school building in Grays Ferry, away from its Center City location and farther away from the Franklin Institute, with which it is partnered.

Another recommendation would limit the popular magnet program within Northeast High to just Northeast residents. Still another would downgrade Constitution High School, now a citywide admission school affiliated with the National Constitution Center, to a program within another school. Constitution is in a rented space near 7th and Market.

As details emerge about what the District is considering, stakeholders are likely to have strong feelings about how the actions will impact their schools. But thus far, the District has largely avoided seeking out the kind of community input that could lead to deeper understanding of each school and its neighborhood – and result in the type of buy-in that could ultimately help its plans succeed.

“The community has to start to grapple with this,” said the source familiar with the report’s recommendations. “The conversation has to start to happen or we’re going to miss the opportunity to ‘rightsize’ the District.”

Patrick Kerkstra of PlanPhilly and Notebook editor Paul Socolar contributed reporting.

This story is the product of a reporting partnership on the facilities master plan between the Notebook and PlanPhilly.