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Community confronts Hite at closings forum

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

As it surely had to, the issue of safety surfaced as a major topic today at the first community forum on the District’s plan to close dozens of schools across Philadelphia.

The forum at South Philadelphia High School drew about 300 people – parents, teachers and activists. Security measures were in effect — participants passed through a metal detector, bags were X-rayed, and city and District police officers milled in the lobby and took seats at the back of the auditorium.

The event began with a moment of silence honoring the children and teachers slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

South Philadelphia High itself, on Broad Street at Snyder Avenue, was itself the scene of an explosive series of incidents of student-on-student violence three years ago.

The District’s new chief safety officer, Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey, vowed to put in place “extra processes, strategies so that our students, our administrators can be in a safe environment … and keep intruders and suspicious persons — keep those situations away from our students.”

But speakers from the audience warned that school closings would imperil students because of longer, more arduous commutes or clashes between students from rival neighborhoods.

Activist Orlando Acosta warned that closing schools would further harm struggling neighborhoods.

“Community—that’s the key,” Acosta said. “You put different people, different neighborhoods in one school, you’ll have turf wars.”

Another speaker, Johnny Patterson, agreed. Speaking directly to Superintendent William Hite, he warned of dire consequences when teenagers lose their home school. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Safety concerns aside, speakers were both eloquent and forceful.

Venard Johnson, a community-based education consultant, challenged the entire proceeding. “You call this a meeting? Why here? Why not in the neighborhoods that are being impacted. And why the fast-track? Slow down the process. Why schedule the week before Christmas?”

Hite responded that “we’re trying to share with everyone the criteria we used." And he noted that more meetings in various sections of the city are scheduled for January and February.

Dana Moussa, whose child attends Wilson Elementary in West Philadelphia, which is on the closure list, challenged any idea of "pushing him into another school with 50 kids to a class." Instead she offered up an alternative. "Here’s a solution: Build smaller schools in our neighborhoods. It’s as simple as that."

Parent Tracey Carter, whose son Troy attends Bok Technical High School in a special education program, where he is receiving training as an office worker, made an emotional plea: “We have a lot of upset and confusion here. … You must involve parent groups. I see lives being wasted.” Bok, in an aging facility, is slated to close and reopen as an academy within nearby Southern.

Spanish teacher William Hodgson also spoke up for Bok. “The vast majority of our kids care about their grades … are respectful … and don’t want to lose what they have.” Instead of being closed, Hodgson said, Bok “should be a model for other schools about what’s possible.”

Matthew Gilliam, a senior at University City High School, reminded Hite that they had met when the new superintendent toured the school a few weeks ago. “You asked me how many AP courses I’m taking, and I told you: I’m taking four. What changed your thinking about University City?”

“Nothing has changed my opinion,” Hite responded. But, he said, the high school was built for a student population of 2,600, and now just 500 are enrolled.

“We need to offer better options for all our students and we can’t with so many empty seats,” he said. “This is about providing better options.”

Gilliam was among about two dozen students and teachers at the meeting in support of University City.

Hite and his senior aides rarely found a sympathetic ear, but Wendell Jackson, who has grandchildren in the public schools, applauded that line.

“I see both sides,” Jackson said. “We need to close some of these schools. I can see that downsizing is necessary. But some of the schools are like the main frames for their communities. I think the District needs to keep one high school and one elementary school in every community.”

Parents and students sat together as a bloc, holding posters supporting George Washington Elementary in South Philadelphia, which is slated to close, with Vare Elementary moving there.

Joseph Moylan, president of the Pennsport Civic Association, made a forceful plea to keep Vare Elementary open in its current location. Vare, he said, was Pennsport’s “last bastion of hope.” If Vare closes, there will be “no elementary options whatsoever” in that community, he said.

Connie Langland is a freelance writer.