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Community awaits announcement of ‘unprecedented’ school closings

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

by Bill Hangley, Jr.

The long wait for details of an “unprecedented” round of school closures may soon be over.

Philadelphia School District officials have announced a press conference for Thursday afternoon at which they’ll share details of their plans to reorganize the District into a “portfolio” model that will “reduce excess capacity, standardize grade configuration and decrease capital expenses.”

District officials would not share details of Thursday’s announcement, but it is widely believed that it will include a proposal to shutter about 40 specific schools – by far the largest wave of closures in the District’s history.

“It’s unprecedented. I don’t know that any other city has closed this many schools in one year,” said Mark Gleason, head of the Philadelphia School Partnership, which favors a portfolio model that includes privately managed charter schools.

An exodus to charters is one reason for the underutilization in the District’s more than 250 school buildings. The District has lost about 30 percent of its enrollment over the last decade and there are dozens of schools that could be described as half-empty.

Gleason called the closures “inevitable” given the District’s precarious finances, but anticipates significant public opposition.

“Clearly it’s going to be messy,” he said. “But I think there’s an opportunity to focus the conversation … on redirecting resources into classrooms where they can be of the most benefit to the most students …. and how do we ensure that the schools that receive these students can best manage their arrival.”

Opponents are mobilizing, arguing that national studies show that mass school closings don’t improve districts either academically or financially.

“The District has failed to demonstrate what it will do differently from other cities to address those concerns,” said a statement from the advocacy group Parents United for Public Education.

The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) – a group of advocates that includes the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers – will host a protest rally at District headquarters on Thursday afternoon. PCAPS wants the District to hold off on school closures until it can provide detailed impact analyses for the communities affected.

“We’ve been calling for the last few months for a moratorium on closings,” said PCAPS spokesperson John McDonald. “Until we get [the impact analysis], we’re going to keep pressing. These schools anchor their neighborhoods.”

PFT spokesman George Jackson said the union will wait until a closure list is released before commenting in detail.

But, in general, he said, the PFT doesn’t believe that large-scale closures represent sound fiscal or educational policy. “If and when this is announced, us and PCAPS will be making sure that the community has a chance to weigh in,” Jackson said.

The prospect of large-scale closures was first raised by the Boston Consulting Group last spring, when it released its privately funded plan for a District overhaul. Last month, citing the need to implement closures quickly for financial reasons, the School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to give itself leeway to speed up the closure process, eliminating a required three-month waiting period between school-closure hearings and a final closure vote.

Robert McGrogan, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the principals’ union, said his members had been told nothing specific about any closure plans. But he anticipates that many principals will soon be knee-deep in controversy.

“The community’s going to be looking toward [principals] to advocate for the school remaining open – and their employer [the District] is going to be telling them, ‘We need you to tell your community that this is in their best interests.’”

McGrogan said principals were asked last week to conduct complete inventories of school property, a request he called unusual, and which he believes is intended to help prevent theft once the proposed closure candidates are announced. He’s concerned about lost jobs for principals and building staff, as well as the potential problems the remaining schools will have absorbing large numbers of new students.

“Anybody whose school is not on the school closure list, if they think they’re not going to be affected, they’re living with blinders on,” he said.

But he is encouraged that new Superintendent William Hite has not told principals to keep their mouths shut about potential problems. He compared Hite favorably to his predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, who, according to McGrogan, pointedly told principals not to publicly criticize her Promise Academy turnaround plan.

“That superintendent [Ackerman] brought my members into a room and threatened them: If they could not help their communities see that this was in their best interests, that this District certainly didn’t need that type of leadership,” McGrogan said. “Dr. Hite is an entirely different individual, and he promised me that he would never dictate how my people should behave. I think was receptive of the vulnerable state that they’re in … Some things are going to be said out of emotion. [Principals] should be without fear of reprisals for speaking the voice of the community.”

PSP’s Gleason said that as closures move forward, he’ll be watching to see whether the data show that displaced students actually end up in better schools, District or charter. It remains to be seen, he said, how effectively District staff will be able to manage the overall transition.

“This is the first big test of whether you can really get planning and coordinating between charter and District schools that leads to the best possible result,” Gleason said. “They have very sophisticated databases [in District headquarters] that can map where students live, where they go to school. They have leadership that knows the way we need to start doing business. But time will tell whether they have the capacity in terms of people.”

McGrogan said that he’ll be watching carefully to see whether the remaining schools get more resources as a result of the closures. He wants to hear a commitment from the District that closures will allow it to provide what it now claims it can’t afford, like full-time nurses. “The absence of that commitment, and just the announcement that we need to do this because it’s the financially responsible thing to do, I think would be a discredit to the entire process,” he said.

School officials have insisted for months that closures on a major scale are necessary, due to excess seats and its financial deficit. Gleason said he hopes that Philadelphians don’t get bogged down trying to stop closures.

“Through the fault of none of the people currently running the system, this is where we are,” Gleason said. “The money just isn’t there."

Hite is faced with an “extra-challenging situation” and has done a good job of listening so far, Gleason said. “What I don’t want to see the community do is tear him down for something that he doesn’t have a whole lot of choice in.”

But many anti-closure advocates are convinced that the financial argument is a cover for a more ideologically driven mission to privatize public education. They say they aren’t willing to accept the District’s proposals without a challenge.

Parents United, which recently filed an ethics complaint seeking more information about the private donors who funded the original BCG report, called the closure process “dishonest and disrespectful.”

“Parents have been left in the dark on the machinations of the school closings process,” the group said. “We’ve asked for data, maps, metrics and information for more than two years and have received almost nothing. … We watched the school district approve a massive charter expansion in the spring at a projected cost of $139 million over five years while insisting neighborhood schools close that financial hole. We do not have confidence in the process and metrics by which schools have been chosen.”

And PCAPS members hope their rally on Thursday helps push the SRC to gather and share more information before finalizing closures.

“We always have hope, so we don’t feel that train has left the station,” said PCAPS member Quanisha Smith, a staffer with the community organizing group Action United. “We just have to escalate this more and more, and show them that … we don’t want this. There needs to be more analysis. People want more transparency.”