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Closings: Do no harm

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

One principle that School Reform Commission members cited in their decisions about school closings earlier this year was “Do no harm.” Commissioners rejected a staff recommendation to close two schools, E.M. Stanton and Sheppard, when confronted with evidence that the schools were solid performers with strong community support.

Now District officials say they need to close dozens more underutilized schools by next fall. The SRC’s commitment to do no harm will be sorely tested.

We think the only way to ensure smart decisions is to scale back the project and slow down the process.

Why? The District’s usual measures of school performance heavily rely on PSSA scores. Those results cannot be taken at face value because of possible cheating. The District and SRC need to establish reliable indicators for judging whether schools are successful.

Some other reasons it’s smart to slow down:

• The most deteriorated, underutilized schools are concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods. These communities need assurances that they will not be further devastated by closings.

• Some underutilized schools may be saved by finding mixed uses for the buildings. But no process is in place for helping communities find alternative uses for vacant space.

• The District’s central office has been decimated by budget cuts and will be overwhelmed by massive transfers of students and staff. The process was rocky this year, when only eight schools were closed.

• The District has not adequately explained how the closings will save money. Other districts have found that expected savings are eaten by transition costs.

Finally, we urge taking time to tap community wisdom. The impact of these decisions will be with us for our lifetimes.

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