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District leaders field questions on closings

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

Here are highlights of an hour-long press briefing Wednesday with Superintendent William Hite, Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn, and Danielle Floyd, who headed up the School District’s facilities planning process, on the rationale and the process for closing 37 school buildings and relocating or reconfiguring dozens of other schools in the District.

Talk about the academic performance of the schools that are closing versus the receiving schools. Are all of the students who are going to be reassigned going to higher-performing schools? What message would you have to parents where that is not the case?

William Hite: Our work moving forward is to make sure that we do three things: One is to ensure that there is a safe route to school and a safe environment in school. The second is to dramatically improve the academic offerings at all of the schools that are receiving students. … And then the third is to dramatically improve their environment or the facility. So the thing I would communicate moving forward is that in order [for] all students [to achieve] at high levels, we have to create the programs and opportunities at all of our schools regardless of where [students] attend.

Do you know how many students are being moved to lower-performing schools?

Paul Kihn: We are currently doing that. We don’t have a final assessment of that, but we do know that the vast majority of students are going to schools that are basically the same performance as their current schools. There are a number of students that are going to better-performing schools, and there is a small number of students who are going to be going to schools that are currently lower-performing. I think Dr. Hite is expressing a commitment to focus on those schools in particular to ensure that we bring up the academic outcomes in those schools. The message to parents is clear, and we will be developing that over the next several months, in collaboration with them: What is the specific plan for those schools to ensure that the outcome is good.

Can you talk about the safety aspect, walking to schools?

Hite: We’ve actually worked already with the police department and we worked specifically with the crime unit and really analyzed all of those routes, particularly at those middle and high schools, and the police provided us with a set of recommendations about the types of resources that they will be assisting us with to ensure safe corridors to school and to ensure safe environments within the schools.

Who was involved in crafting this list?

Kihn: It was an incredibly comprehensive and complicated effort run by District staff. It was led by the Capital team and the Facilities Master Planning team, but it was cross-functional, so we had, for the past many months, groups of 30 or 40 internal staff gathering regularly to review the data and reporting back on their building visits and their conversations, and it was run by the internal staff using data from the visits as well as analysis of the schools.

What are the chances of reversing some of these decisions based on the community feedback you get?

Hite: Well, considering some of the information, and you can see where we started and the number of schools we started with and the number of schools that we landed on, and then where we are today, we already changed out many of the schools that were part of the recommendation. And so this is the recommendation that represents all of that analysis that Paul just described, and it’s our recommendation moving forward. Naturally we want information from the community; if there are opportunities to have some sort of learning in those meetings where individuals have better ideas on how we can do this and it makes sense, then naturally we can amend our recommendation moving forward. But right now this represents our best recommendation.

Kihn: Based on the facts that we have and the process we’ve gone through, this is the best set of recommendations. If people have other facts or different facts or we’ve misunderstood something, there is a chance that we would reconsider, but we’ve gone through an elaborate process here, so the intent is not to change the recommendations.

What will be done with the closed facilities?

Kihn: We have a plan to dispose of property. So the 37 buildings, there will be a process that will be publicly articulated where they will be sold with community input about what will happen to them. We’re thinking of doing that in an expedited way, so that these buildings do not remain closed and unoccupied within communities and become blights in the communities, so we have a strand of work that is trying to accelerate the process of disposing of the buildings.

Can you tell me what are the principal components of the $28 million (in savings)?

Hite: Most are staffing. There are utility costs as well, there is a cost that we use to maintain the building. But most of the savings is in staffing: Significant numbers of staff are in support positions at these schools.

I think what we’re hearing is that for the vast majority of students, they won’t be going to a school that is … better and the savings relative to the District’s overall budget, while not insignificant, are relatively marginal. Given the amount of confusion and disruption that these [closings] are likely to cause, can you make the case for why this is necessary and valuable at this scale at this time?

Hite: Sure, and I don’t consider the savings to be marginal at all. I think that the savings are very close to what is in our five-year financial plan. One of the things I think is really important is that our inability to achieve any one of those categories then puts us in financial risk. I’ll use an example: Our financial plan for this year includes a $300 million bond, getting concessions from labor, the number of schools closed in order to realize a set of savings, so all of those things play together … which means that the savings is a part of our fiscal plan. If we don’t realize those savings, then we would have to find other ways to get that amount of revenue from other types of actions, and we don’t have many actions left. Unless, I mean there’s always an opportunity to lay off more people or run class sizes up. This district has already experienced, unfortunately, a lot of those draconian types of measures and so we don’t have a lot of options. … This actually has to happen.

This is not unique to Philadelphia. This is happening in large, urban centers all over the country, and part of the realization of these large, urban centers is that they can no longer sustain the type of physical inventory that is not in use, and we’re realizing the same thing here. It’s not just the one-year savings, it’s the run-rate savings over a five-year period, and when you look at that amount of money over a five-year period, it’s pretty substantial.

Superintendent, to what degree are you chasing a moving train here? You’re closing all these schools this year to get to an average of 80 percent [utilization], but if you look at something like Strawberry Mansion High School, which is severely underpopulated, merging with Ben Franklin, which is also severely underpopulated – if all the students from Strawberry Mansion go to Ben Franklin, are they going to be at 80 percent? Or are they going to be somewhere in the 60s?

Hite: Well, Ben Franklin will be, after this … closer to capacity. … The goal is really to improve all of the academic options for students and to improve those programs that exist at Franklin or anywhere else that’s receiving students, and I think that is what will ultimately drive future capacity and enrollment in the schools.

Are you closing any schools that you would not consider to be low-performing?

Kihn: We are moving a couple of schools that we would not consider low-performing, so we are closing the facility, but not the program.

Which would those be?

Danielle Floyd: Abigail Vare Elementary School, Lankenau High School, Motivation, AMY at James Martin. I believe that is it.

I wonder if you can speak to the equity dimension of this, in terms of neighborhoods and in terms of impact on African American students.

Hite: We are running that analysis, but I don’t know if we have those data yet, but we are doing that analysis to determine if there is a disparate impact on certain groups.

Can we talk about the difficulty of this decision, why these moves are necessary…?

Hite: I’m not a superintendent that is walking around looking for districts where we need to do school closures. … These actions are actions that should have been taken years ago, and I think that many superintendents, understanding the difficulty to be associated with school closures, chose to kick it down, and kicked it down to let someone else deal with this, and now we have no choice. If we don’t choose to take these actions now, we actually have no money to spend, and so the difficulty, yes — will it create anxiety and a lot of emotion? Oh, absolutely, it will, but perhaps if these decisions were made years ago, when many of our students were selecting out of some of our facilities, then it would have been just as hard, but not at this level of magnitude. And now, my team and I, we’re coming in and have to play catch-up on something that was, as far as I am concerned, clear to everyone in this city and in this District, that this at some point has to happen, and so I’m the one who is making the recommendation.

Would I have liked to begin after three months in the School District of Philadelphia to be really talking about other things? I would much rather do that, but this is where we are, and because I’m in this role, it is my responsibility to make these recommendations.

Here is the list of proposed closings and relocations released at the press briefing:

School to close – Facility to close (28)

  • Carroll, Charles H.S.
  • Cooke, Jay
  • Douglas, Stephen A. H.S.
  • Duckrey, Tanner
  • Fairhill
  • Ferguson, Joseph C.
  • Fulton, Robert
  • Germantown H.S.
  • Gompers, Samuel
  • Hill, Leslie P.
  • Kinsey, John L.
  • Leidy
  • McCloskey, John F.
  • McMichael, Morton
  • Meade, Gen. George C.
  • Morris, Robert
  • Overbrook Elementary
  • Peirce, Thomas M.
  • Pepper, George M.S.
  • Reynolds, Gen. John F.
  • Shaw, Anna M.S.
  • Sheridan West Academy
  • Smith
  • Strawberry Mansion H.S.
  • Taylor, Bayard
  • University City H.S.
  • Whittier, John G.
  • Wilson, Alexander

Facility to close – School to relocate (6)

  • AMY at Martin (co-located with Penn Treaty MS)
  • Carnell Annex at Fels (grades 7-8 to St. Bernard in Dec., then to Harding M.S.)
  • Lankenau H.S. (co-located with Roxborough H.S.)
  • Parkway Northwest (co-located with Leeds M.S.)
  • Phila. Military Acad. at Elverson (merged with Acad. at Leeds at new site: Roosevelt)
  • Vare, Abigail (to G. Washington)

Facility to close – School to be absorbed into another (3)

  • Bok, Edw. W. Technical H.S. (CTE programs relocate to South Phila. H.S.)
  • Communications Tech H.S. (CTE programs relocate as an academy within Bartram H.S.)
  • Robeson H.S. (programs relocate to Sayre H.S.)

School to relocate – Facility stays in use (2)

  • Motivation H.S. (to Turner M.S. building – current site stays in use as Penrose Elem.)
  • Phila. Military Acad. at Leeds (merged with Acad. at Elverson at new site: Roosevelt) – current site stays in use as Leeds M.S.

School to close – Facility stays in use (5)

  • Lamberton, Robert H.S. (facility stays in use by Lamberton Elem.)
  • Pratt, Anna B. (facility stays in use for pre-K)
  • Roosevelt, Theodore (facility to house Phila. Military Academy)
  • Vaux, Robert H.S. (facility to house a new elementary school)
  • Washington, George Elem. (facility to house A. Vare Elem.)