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More questions for Hite at second forum on school closings

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

By Connie Langland

More students, teachers and community members found their voices Monday night at the District’s second of four community forums on the looming school closings. They challenged Superintendent William Hite on whether the plan makes sense, questioning whether it assures student success and safety and supports programs that are working, even flourishing.

Hite even got chided for apparently texting during the meeting by John Hopkins, an 11th grader at Robeson High School for Human Services, which would be moved to Sayre High School under the plan.

Hopkins questioned why so many closings were contemplated now when the District has had financial troubles for years, then pointedly noted: “You’re just sitting there texting instead of answering these questions.”

Hite quickly refocused his attention and took the microphone to respond. “I’m asking the same question,” said Hite, who has been at the helm for just three months. “No one chose to take these actions when many families were choosing to opt out of district schools” over the past decade.

Hopkins stood his ground. “This is bigger than closing a school down. You’re closing a family down.”

Monday’s forum, held in the Sayre High School auditorium in West Philadelphia, drew about 200 students and adults. Along with Hite, about 20 senior administrators were on hand to answer questions, standing virtually the entire time at the front of the auditorium.

Time and again, students and teachers from Robeson, University City High School, Bok Technical School and the Military Academy at Elverson echoed Hopkins’ viewpoint: Students have formed strong bonds and found academic success inside their schools and they foresee upset, even violence with relocation.

David Kipphut, deputy superintendent for career and technical education, attempted to reassure students from Bok and the other career-oriented programs.

“Students are going to be able to complete their programs in other buildings with better facilities,” he said, adding that one outcome might be “greater opportunity for more students to access those [relocated] programs.”

Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey, the District’s new safety chief, sought to quell concerns and predictions of student clashes.

“We have to learn to respect one another. The world isn’t West Philly. It isn’t University City. It isn’t Paul Robeson, or Sayre. We have to find ways to live together,” she said.

Amara Rockar is active at Lea Elementary in West Philadelphia, which is staying open but will be affected by an influx of students from schools that are being shuttered. Rockar, a local schools activist, noted that 23 elementary schools are slated for closing across the city. “We believe elementary children deserve to be able to walk to their school,” she said.

Repeatedly, speakers expressed skepticism of and frustration with District bureaucracy. “What are we here for? You don’t listen, not for the last 10 years,” said Naeemah Felder, of the Southwest section of the city.

Hite responded that she made a good point. “Customer service is something we have to improve. We have to answer the phones. We have to return phone calls. We are working on that,” he said.

Theodore Yale, a science teacher at Elverson, took the microphone to reiterate what one of his students had said earlier — that many students in his school would have a commute of up to two hours to reach the new combined military academies at Roosevelt Middle School in Germantown.

“There’s one facility that you can’t build and that’s location,” said Yale. Elverson now is in a convenient locale near Temple University and the Broad Street line, he noted.

Among others, Anissa Weinraub, English and drama teacher at the alternative school El Centro, swept her arm wide and spoke directly to Hite.

“We learn as teachers that actions speak louder than words. Look around this room. People are hurt, discouraged, disappointed,” Weinraub said. If “you don’t want people yelling at you,” she told Hite, “show moral leadership. Get all of us on your side. What commitments do you have to all of us in this room?”

Hite agreed that rallying students, parents and teachers to his side was his goal as well, but the deficit crisis looms. Said Hite: “We are completely out of time."