This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner
It was all Philadelphians could talk about Thursday. The School District of Philadelphia wants to close one-sixth of its schools, a move that would affect about 17,000 students.
Inside the school administration building at 440 N. Broad St., an expectant silence fell over dozens of District employees lining the indoor balconies as a row of TV cameras trained their lenses on Superintendent William Hite.
"We are recommending the closure of 37 buildings and changing the grade configurations of 18 schools," Hite said.
The news had leaked out hours before. But for many, the magnitude of the District’s school-closing plan was still sinking in.
Hite looked into the cameras.
"We are about to embark on a very difficult process," he said. "As an educator, and as a parent, I realize that the recommendations will be shocking, painful, emotional and disruptive for many communities."
44 schools and 17,000 students affected
Under the District’s plan, 44 schools would be closed or relocated. Roughly two dozen more would undergo grade changes. Other schools would be merged or "co-located" with existing schools. All told, roughly 17,000 students would be displaced.
Standing at the lectern, flanked by a dozen members of his staff, Superintendent Hite argued that the upheaval would be worth it.
"At the end, we will have a school system that is better-run, safer, and higher-performing," he said.
An alliance of labor and community groups known as Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools rallied on the steps outside District headquarters, chanting "Save our schools" and decrying the lack of public input in the development of the recommendations.
Parent Lisa Jackson is the mother of a 9th grader at Lankenau High. She came out because she’s upset that her son’s school could be relocated inside Roxborough High.
"I’m sad about the School District," said Jackson. "The powers that be see fit to dismantle it piece by piece."
Unions blast plan
Teachers’ union president Jerry Jordan blasted District leaders for closing neighborhood schools instead of fighting for them.
"They’re not talking to the people, and they’re not really working and pressing on the elected officials in Harrisburg to fund Philadelphia schools," Jordan said.
District officials say the case for mass school closings is straightforward: City schools are broke, and the District needs the savings to balance its books and provide kids with a better education.
Inside City Hall, Mayor Nutter praised Hite and his team for making tough choices that their predecessors avoided.
"Their decision was one that says, ‘You cannot kick the can down the road any farther,’" Nutter said.
The mayor said that Hite has his "full and unequivocal support."
Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, also backed the school-closing recommendations.
"This is fundamentally about putting more of the city’s children in higher quality public schools," he said. "Closing low-performing and under-enrolled schools will allow the city to put more resources into quality instruction."
The ‘myth’ of privatization
Gleason said there’s a "myth" floating around the city that the school-closing recommendations are part of a larger agenda to privatize public education.
"In fact," Gleason said, "they’re the byproducts of parents choosing to leave schools that have been failing for years and years."
The school-closing plan will, no doubt, be hotly debated over the coming weeks.
District officials will host a series of community meetings. The first will be Saturday at 10 a.m. at South Philadelphia High.
The School Reform Commission is expected to vote on the recommendations in March.
But standing outside Bok Technical High in South Philadelphia on Thursday, 18-year-old Brandi Reed wasn’t thinking about any of that.
Bok is one of the 11 city high schools now on the chopping block.
Reed said that her mom graduated from the school. This spring, Reed expects to graduate from Bok, too.
"Where are we going to have our class reunions?" she asked.
This story was reported as part of a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.