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School-closing announcements loom

A confidential leaked document listed 26 schools being considered for closure. Many more may face changes under the District’s facilities plan.

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

At almost 100 Philadelphia schools, an uncertain future should soon become clearer.

On June 25, the Notebook published online a confidential draft District document that identifies more than two dozen schools as possible targets for closure. Dozens more are listed as possible targets for consolidation, grade reconfiguration, renovation, or boundary changes. All told, the document lists 84 potential steps the District might take in order to meet its goal of shedding 34,000 empty seats by 2014.

At the time, District officials stressed that no final decisions about school closings had yet been made. They are expected to publicly announce their final recommendations in October.

But for months, some students, parents, and staff have been on edge.

At Furness High School in South Philadelphia, Felly Velicia was upset to learn that the school she just graduated from is one of eight high schools that District officials have discussed shutting down.

"It’s going to make me sad if other students can’t share what I experienced," said Velicia, an immigrant from Indonesia. She said she finally found a home at Furness after difficult stints at two other schools in the area.

Built in 1914, Furness’ facilities are in bad shape. Staff members said that the combination of a leaky roof, asbestos, and rodent infestation have resulted in the school’s fourth floor having been sealed off. According to the District’s calculations, Furness is utilizing only 47 percent of its capacity. Almost three-quarters of the high-school-aged students in the school’s catchment area opt to attend other schools.

Nevertheless, many still hope Furness is spared when the District reveals its final plans.

"I hope they would see that the school has a niche, is doing well, and provides services to students that other schools in South Philadelphia don’t," said Donna Sharer, a veteran District educator who has been at Furness for two years.

"But I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of looking at public input."

After the District’s October announcement, there will be a three-month window for state-mandated public hearings at any schools where closure is proposed. The School Reform Commission (SRC) is tentatively scheduled to vote on the proposed steps in early 2012.

The coming changes are part of the District’s facilities master plan – a comprehensive effort to realign the District’s physical plant to account for the massive demographic shifts that Philadelphia has experienced in recent decades, as well as the continuing exodus of students to charter schools.

The draft document obtained by the Notebook, titled "Preliminary FMP Options Report" and dated March 2011, is the most extensive look to date at the options under consideration. Prepared by the URS Corporation, a District consultant on its facilities master plan, the report was discussed that month by high-level officials, including then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, then-Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery, other members of the District’s senior leadership team, and the District’s associate superintendents.

A District spokesperson criticized the Notebook‘s decision to publish the document, saying that it was "misleading" to make the list public "as it does not reflect the District’s current thinking on feasible options."

For almost a year, through three rounds of community meetings, District officials have not released any lists of affected schools, maintaining that they are not far enough along in their planning to share school-specific closure and consolidation recommendations with the public.

In June, Mayor Michael Nutter specifically requested "all documents and studies relating to the District’s facilities master plan" as part of the new educational accountability agreement among the District, city, and state. But then the District failed to include the report among the documents it submitted – a move that the mayor’s office later said it had endorsed.

Many Philadelphia City Council members support the District’s move to downsize its physical plant, but some have expressed concern that their councilmanic districts are going to be hard-hit.

The report contains preliminary proposals to close three elementary schools, one middle school, and a small high school in Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s district.

"I don’t think it’s fair and I don’t think it’s right," Blackwell told PlanPhilly.

According to the document, North Central Philadelphia, which has experienced a massive population decline in recent years, will likely be one of the hardest-hit regions of the city. More than one-fourth of the 34,000 seats proposed to be eliminated are in that part of the city. As many as four high schools and six elementary schools in the region have been targeted for possible closure.

One of those is T. M. Peirce Elementary.

"Peirce is at a size that is manageable and it works well. There are a lot of advantages to smaller schools," said Ann Guise, who for more than 20 years has run a youth empowerment program called Bright Lights in the school that raises students’ awareness of African and African American history.

She said rumors about what will happen to Peirce – and that students might be sent to nearby Whittier instead – have been unsettling.

"There will be a void in the community if Peirce closes," she said, "and I really can’t get my mind around what it would be like."