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
Saying the struggling Philadelphia School District is “out of time and out of options,” new Superintendent William Hite has unveiled a sweeping plan to close 37 school buildings by next fall.
All told, the District will call for 44 schools to be closed or relocated and nearly two dozen more to undergo grade changes.
Based on recent enrollment figures, roughly 17,000 children might be moving to new schools.
North Central, West, and Northwest Philadelphia would be hit particularly hard, with high-profile buildings including Strawberry Mansion, University City and Germantown high schools slated for closure.
Hite said the closings plan presents the city with tough choices – and a historic opportunity.
“At the end of this process, we believe that we will have a system that better serves all students, families, and stakeholders,” he said.
But as details of the closings leaked out earlier this week, community backlash brewed. A coalition of labor and community groups planned a protest rally at District headquarters for Thursday afternoon, and activists began lining up to denounce the plan.
Most of the displaced students will be reassigned to schools that perform no better academically than the schools being shuttered. The savings from the closures – about $28 million annually – are meaningful, but far from a game-changer.
“Is this worth the disruption of thousands of families?” asked the Rev. LeRoi Simmons of the Germantown Clergy Initiative and Parents United for Public Education.
Hite, on the job for just three months, acknowledged that the closing recommendations will cause “controversy and angst.” But he was adamant that the cash-strapped district has no choice.
“If we don’t take some of these actions now, we actually have no money to spend,” he said.
The School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote on the recommendations in March, after a series of public meetings and community forums that will kick off Saturday.
The case for closing schools
The School District is broke.
This year, the District borrowed $300 million just to pay its bills. Over the next five years, officials project a cumulative deficit of $1.1 billion.
If approved, the school closings would help plug that hole. Officials project that the moves would save the District roughly $28 million in personnel and maintenance costs next year, with those savings recurring in future years.
Any savings will be partially offset by millions of dollars in transition expenses and new investments in the receiving schools.
Whatever the exact figures, Hite said that eliminating wasteful spending on “empty seats” is critical to the District’s continued survival.
“If we don’t realize those savings, then we would have to find other ways to get that amount of revenue,” said Hite, citing a new round of layoffs or increased class sizes as possible alternatives.
After years of steady decline due to population shifts and the mass exodus of students to charter schools, officials want to raise the District’s “utilization rate” to about 80 percent. Only 67 percent of the seats in District-run schools are now occupied, they said.
Improving the quality of public education in the city is the other main rationale for the aggressive closings plan, Hite said. Long term, District officials say, the “rightsizing” effort will allow the District to give more money and attention to fewer schools.
In the short term, however, most of the students being displaced by the closings will end up at schools that are no better academically than their current schools. Some – including the 900 students now attending Bok Technical High, who would be reassigned to troubled South Philadelphia High – will end up at schools that perform worse.
Hite promised that the District will be “investing millions of dollars on educational program enhancements” and renovations at the schools receiving new students.
In a statement released Wednesday, activist group Parents United for Public Education preemptively blasted the plan.
“National studies have shown that districts do not improve academically or financially though mass closings,” reads the statement. “The [Philadelphia] District has failed to demonstrate what it will do differently from other cities to address those concerns.”
A massive jigsaw puzzle
The scope of the proposed changes is dizzying.
All told, buildings housing 21 elementary schools, 11 high schools, and five middle schools would be shuttered.
That’s the easy part.
In some cases, the administrative staff and academic program in a closed building would be disbanded; in others, staff and programs would be moved into a new building. In a few instances, select programs or academies would be spared and relocated; the career and technical programs at Bok, for example, would be relocated into South Philadelphia High.
The District also wants to create four new K-8 elementary schools. Each would involve a complicated series of moves.
In North Philadelphia, for example, the district would close Vaux Promise Academy, a high school, and send the school’s 278 current students to other high schools. Then, the District would close Meade and Reynolds Elementary schools, both of which are nearby. The 735 children currently attending those schools would be reassigned to a newly created Vaux Elementary School. To compensate for the closing of Vaux High’s academic program, a new Promise Academy would be created elsewhere in North Philadelphia.
One school, Motivation High in Southwest Philadelphia, would be moved wholesale into a vacated middle school building.
Two other high schools – Communications Technology and Robeson – would be folded back into neighborhood high schools (Bartram and Sayre, respectively) to operate as academies.
And three schools would be “co-located” inside of existing buildings. In one example, Lankenau High would start sharing space inside Roxborough High. Both schools would retain their current administrations and academic programs.
In addition to the closings and relocations, 22 schools would undergo grade changes.
In Northwest Philadelphia, for example, F.S. Edmonds, Pennypacker, Emlen, J.B. Kelly, and Wister Elementary schools would all lose their 6th grades and become K-5 schools. Those changes are part of a complex series of reorganizations that includes a merger and relocation of the city’s two military-themed high schools. This merged operation would be housed at the current Roosevelt Middle School, which has been targeted for closure.
Hite acknowledged the potential for widespread confusion.
“We have no doubts that this announcement will likely spark tremendous controversy, angst, emotion, and concern,” he said. “Most importantly parents and students may be unconvinced that such drastic measures are necessary.”
Hite said the District has already begun troubleshooting potential problems. He said officials would emphasize safe school environments and safe routes to and from school as part of its transition planning.
Some activists criticized the lack of transparency in the District’s process for arriving at the proposed closings.
“I resent the fact they didn’t have any conversations with the stakeholders in the community,” said Simmons, who has provided support services to students at Germantown High for a decade.
“It doesn’t seem the School District cares. They’re looking at figures on a piece of paper.”
Others reiterated their concern that outside consultants from the Boston Consulting Group, paid for with private dollars, exerted undue influence over the selection process.
“BCG has had unprecedented access to building information, financial data, and high level decision makers while parents have had to settle for limited information in public forums,” reads the statement from Parents United, one of the groups that filed an ethics complaint last week over BCG’s role in the district.
Over the coming weeks, District leaders and members of the School Reform Commission are certain to keep getting an earful.
Beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday at South Philadelphia High, Hite will present the plan directly to the public at a series of four community meetings. And starting in January, District staff will also host a series of 16 community forums to gather feedback on specific recommendations.
Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said, “There’s a chance we could reconsider” some of the proposed closings. But Kihn narrowed that window almost as quickly as he opened it.
“We’ve gone through an elaborate process here. The intent is not to change the recommendations,” he said.
Last year, the SRC ultimately approved eight of the 10 school closings recommended by District officials.
The commission has already waived a portion of the Pennsylvania school code, allowing for an expedited vote on the recommendations.
This story was reported as part of a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.