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A full day of testimony on school closings

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

by Dale Mezzacappa and Benjamin Herold for the Notebook/NewsWorks

[Updated 3/3, 7:53 p.m.] Community responses to the School District’s recommendations on school closings got underway Saturday morning, starting with a drum circle and rap by students from E.M. Stanton Elementary, one of the schools District staff has proposed to shut down.

The all-day series of public hearings, covering 10 schools, was streamed live.

The Notebook provided online coverage, summarizing the District’s position on why each school should be closed, highlighting comments from the community on each plan, and any response from the commissioners.

The hearing schedule was:

E.M. Stanton Elementary

The hearings began with what has become the most controversial recommendation — closing E.M. Stanton Elementary. About 100 Stanton supporters, including many children, nearly filled the left side of the auditorium. A string quartet practiced "We Shall Overcome" outside as people filed in.

Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd presented the District’s reasons for Stanton to be closed: low student enrollment of 237 students, 33 percent of which comes from outside the neighborhood; an 87-year-old building not suited to modern educational needs; and the availability of space in Arthur and Childs, which are more modern buildings nearby.

She acknowledged that the staff has made the most of the building and partnerships with neighborhood and arts organizations to create a high quality academic program, pointing out that it has made Adequate Yearly Progress for eight years and has a School Performance Index of 2.

"Considering what it lacks in amenities, the Stanton staff to their credit has established partnerships to complement the academic program," she said.

The supporters “believe the program should be replicated and used as model for other district schools,” she said, to loud applause. “Parents did not believe schools identified for reassignment are equal to or better to justify closing Stanton.”

She also acknowledged the counterproposal presented by Stanton supporters, which involves an outreach program to increase enrollment and adding an autistic support program.

"The staff believes that some portions of the proposal have merit," she said.

The school’s defense began rousingly with a drum circle and rap performed by students under the direction of teaching artist Nana Korentemaa. SRC members joined in the applause for the presentation.

Korentemaa said she has worked at Stanton for seven years. "E.M. Stanton is a high-performing school where every room is used for teaching and learning with dedicated parents and community members," she said. "Its motto is: Academics and arts equal excellence."

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said: "This is an opportunity to show the world what’s right about public education." He said he was confident through marketing they can reach the enrollment goals and noted the development in the area

"I am strongly commmitted to engage in public-private conversations with individuals who are developing in that area," he said.

"For me, the most important thing is maintaining…quality education. We can use this as a model for all schools." He described as a positive the fact that students come from outside the catchment area to attend, and thinks young professionals in area can be encouraged to buy into Stanton.

Karl Myers is a young alumnus of the school, a new student at Cheyney, who described himself as "raised by the teachers at Stanton."

"It is people like the teachers of Stanton School that make our community a better place," he said. He called Stanton "a beacon of hope in our community."

Rasheea James, a student at Stanton for nine years – since kindergarten – said that her family has attended the school for generations. "Closing it down would be like closing many students’ hearts." She called it an "inspirational place."

Parent Temwa Wright suggested that if the District closes Stanton, charter operators will line up to occupy the school. She said that Independence Charter School renovated and modernized a similarly old building. "What they were able to do, we should be able to do in a neighborhood public school," she said.

The defense concluded with a soulful rendition of "We Shall Overcome" by a student string quartet and their music teacher, Russell Kotcher, which brought smiles and applause from the audience and the SRC.

Wright then gave the SRC members energy bars for their long day ahead.

"So the record now includes evidence of attempted bribery," SRC chair Pedro Ramos joked.

SRC members reserved comments until the conclusion of all the hearings.

Harrison Elementary

Speaking for the District, educational planner Bill Montgomery began his presentation by summarizing the community’s objections to closing the school. Among them: the school is an anchor in the community, the effect of charter schools on its enrollment, and hopes to put other programs in the building.

He summarized the reasons for closing: the building is underutilized, it would be expensive to repair, and there is declining enrollment. This, he said, is due to a reduced birth rate, and an "increase in other educational options in this area." He said it is only at 39 percent of capacity. Other nearby schools can absorb the students, he said, and each of them — Ludlow, Spring Garden, and Dunbar — is also underutilized. He said that 44 students in the Harrison catchment area already attend one of those three surrounding schools.

Three people spoke asking to keep the school open, and about 20 people appeared to have come out for the presentation on Harrison. Joy Woods Jones of Temple, who operates an afterschool program called "Grandma’s Kids After School," said that many parents have not spoken up for the school because they feel "disempowered." She said it would be "dangerous" for the students to travel through other neighborhoods to get to new schools.

State Representative W. Curtis Thomas said that Harrison should be kept open, among other reasons, because the library has just had a $300,000 investment.

He emphasized that "North Philadelphia seems to be bearing the brunt of schools scheduled for closing, and it’s important for people to know why." He said the school is situated among many different public housing developments.

He said that this area of North Philadelphia between Fifth and Broad, and between Spring Garden Street and, roughly, Wyoming Ave., have long been neglected by the District, and suggested that a federal lawsuit may be an option if Harrison closes.

He also said that the receiving schools perform no better on academic indicators than Harrison. "So what is the point" of moving them, he asked.

Parent Washika Campfield also implored the District to maintain continuity of education for the children. She said she is satisfied with her son’s education. "To feel his eagerness to learn puts my mind at ease to send him to school each day; knowing that he’s learning something new every day at an early age makes me content," she said.

Pepper Middle

Bill Montgomery summarized the reasons for the closing recommendation, primarily a declining student population. Despite a capacity of 1200, it has an enrollment of fewer than 500, and many of those students live closer to Tilden Middle, which is also underutilized. He said most Pepper students use TransPasses to get there.

The three middle schools in the area, he said –Pepper, Tilden and Shaw — have a combined capacity of 3,444 but are utilized only at a rate of 30 percent. The plan is to drop a grade each year starting in 2012-2013 and close completely in 2016.

Two speakers urged the SRC to keep the school open. Parent Sharon Pollard said that she has sent eight children there, including one with special needs, all of whom had a good experience. "I feel welcomed, I’m treated like a part of the family," she said. She particularly noted sports and nutrition programs.

Teacher Ernestine Dancy, a 33-year veteran, noted the school’s modern, handicapped-accessible building, as well as an outstanding sports program, a garden, its grounds, and several partnerships.

"This is a unique school," she said.

Supporters also showed a video highlighting sports and other activities at the school, including peer tutoring, computer science, use of the nearby Tinicum Nature Preserve, and gardening. The video also conveyed the school’s family atmosphere.

Commissioner Feather Houstoun noted that Tilden Middle School, which would receive many of the students now at Pepper, showed a significant decline in academic performance in 2011, and she asked for more information on what plans were in place for academic intervention at Tilden.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky questioned the decision to phase out the school rather than close it immediately and asked for cost comparisons of phasing out the school vs. immediate closing.

FitzSimons High

This proposal involves the closing of FitzSimons, the closing of the high school at nearby Rhodes and conversion of Rhodes into a middle school, and the reassignment of the FitzSimons and Rhodes high school students to Strawberry Mansion High School. Rhodes and FitzSimons are both single-sex, Rhodes for girls and FitzSimons for boys. Rhodes and FitzSimons share the same feeder area.

Danielle Floyd summarized the District’s reasons for these recommendations: All three buildings are severely underutilized and enrollment at each is declining. She said the FitzSimons building is especially old and crumbling, with prohibitive costs for repair or replacement.

She noted, however, that while the population trends within the feeder patterns could sustain the schools, 75 percent of students in the area choose schools outside the neighborhood, including selective District schools, charters, and private schools. The result: The three schools have a collective capacity of 4,200 but a combined enrollment just over 1,000.

The main community objections expressed at hearings so far included concerns regarding safety, since there are longstanding neighborhood divisions and rivalries.

Five people spoke to question the plan, including several who urged the maintenance of single-sex programs within Strawberry Mansion. They included State Rep. Vanessa Brown, whose district includes the area.

"I believe the District has the responsibility to offer different options" to parents, said Brown, a product of Girls High. She suggested that three separate programs be maintained at Mansion.

"When we talk about closing schools, I know it is hard to think past the money," she said. "But we must think how we can we not just close a school, but preserve what is happening inside those walls."

Two parents talked about how their children thrived in a single-sex environment. Wanda Rhodes said that she couldn’t understand why the District was closing all the schools in her neighborhood.

"My kids go to those schools," she said. Her special-needs son, she said, has thrived at FitzSimons, and she fears he will be hurt at Mansion.

"If we can’t have schools around there, how can students have a good education?" she asked the SRC members. "They’ll be running out in the street, killing people, robbing people, not having a good education, and no schools where they can go to. Strawberry Mansion is not a good school."

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky said that he would like to see more research on the issue of single-sex education.

Sheppard Elementary

After a short lunch recess, the hearings resumed with another District recommendation that has sparked an emotional community response: the proposal to close Sheppard Elementary in Kensington.

District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd presented the District’s case: At over 100 years old, Sheppard is “one of the oldest schools in the District’s portfolio.” The facility lacks the “necessary spaces and amenities to deliver a modern-day educational program,” she said, and eventual upgrades to the school’s sound-but-aging infrastructure would be expensive.

Floyd acknowledged Sheppard’s strong academic growth and high levels of parent satisfaction at the school, as well as community concerns about the quality, size, and distance of DeBurgos and Hunter elementaries, the two schools to which the District proposes to reassign Sheppard students.

A group of about 75 purple-clad Sheppard supporters responded with two video presentations and over a dozen emotional testimonials in support of the school.

“I want my baby to come here,” said parent Yvette Caban, holding her 17-month old daughter Eve in one of the videos.

Jada Gonzales, a Sheppard graduate who is now in a 5th grader at Conwell Magnet Middle School, told the SRC she was shocked and saddened when she heard that her old school had been targeted for closure.

“I realized other students were going to miss out on all the experiences I had when attending Sheppard,” she said, citing her participation in chess club, cheerleading, a “discovery science” program, and meditation and yoga classes while in grades K-4 at Sheppard.

“Sheppard may not have a great heating system or a gym, but the educational environment in the school overcomes all those things,” said Gonzales.

The Sheppard supporters closed with a video about their partnership with Home Depot, which resulted in an organic community garden at the school and a series of workshops for students and parents.

“It has transformed their lives in so many ways,” said teacher Jamie Roberts in the video.

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos thanked the Sheppard supporters and acknowledged the school’s principal, James Otto, before closing the hearing without further comment or question from the commissioners.

Philadelphia HS for Business

The auditorium at 440 emptied out after the Sheppard hearing closed, leaving fewer than a dozen member of the public on hand to hear the District’s rationale for closing the educational program of the Philadelphia High School for Business and Technology at the end of the school year.

“The present enrollment for the four-year high school is 136 students,” said District educational planner Bill Montgomery. “Over past seven years, enrollment has never exceeded 180 students,” he added noting that the school’s academic and extracurricular offerings have been limited as a result.

Montgomery also said that few parents, community members, or school staff participated in the three community hearings held by District staff over the recent months. A request that the school be phased out is not feasible because there are only 33 current 11th graders, he said. But a request that current 11th graders be able to have Philadelphia High School for Business and Technology be the school of record on their diplomas could be accommodated, he added.

John Sherman, the father of a current freshman at the school, was the only individual to testify during the hearing – easily the shortest of the day so far.

“I wish the school could stay open, but I see the reasons why having it closed,” said Sherman. “I wish I could have seen more parents and staff from school here, but it’s pretty obvious that everyone at the school has given up.”

Earlier in the day, Rep. W. Curtis Thomas made brief remarks about the school, reiterating his concern that the school closings were falling heavily on the North Philadelphia neighborhood he represents.

Sheridan West Academy Middle

The afternoon continued with another poorly attended hearing, this one on the District’s recommendation to phase out Sheridan West Middle School in North Central Philadelphia.

The school’s low enrollment, as well as available space in nearby Jones Middle and Penn Treaty Middle schools, will allow the District to save money by reducing the number of grades served at Sheridan West over each of the next three years, said District educational planner Bill Montgomery.

Students from Webster Elementary, currently the only feeder to Sheridan West, will now be given the option to attend either Jones Middle or Penn Treaty Middle.

“All current students will be graduating from [Sheridan West] prior to the closing,” said Montgomery, who added that the phaseout plan likely accounted for the low parent and community turnout at both the hearing and a series of three District-run community meetings about the recommendation.

The first of only two speakers on the proposal, parent Savannah Marion, expressed concern about the distance that some families will have to travel to get to Jones or Penn Treaty.

And District Home and School Council representative Carmela Cappetti testified that the District would be better off closing Jones and keeping Sheridan West open.

“I wouldn’t send my dog to Jones,” said Cappetti. “They opened Sheridan West so kids didn’t have to go over to Jones. Now you’re going to force them to [go]."

School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos acknowledged the concerns about Jones, but pointed out that earlier this week it was designated for turnaround via conversion to a charter school as part of the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative.

“It’s a school that the District is putting an intensive effort to turn around, in this case through an outside provider,” said Ramos.

Drew Elementary

During another comparatively short hearing, District educational planner Bill Montgomery laid out the District’s case for closing Drew Elementary in University City.

Operating costs at Drew are significant, he said – a reality made worse by the fact that the school can hold 616 students, but currently enrolls just 241. In addition, said Montgomery, there is ample space in four nearby elementary schools.

“There continues to be significant drop in student enrollment in this area,” Montgomery said. “The community is changing form residential family housing to college student housing.”

The District’s plan calls for offering Drew students the option to enroll next year in Lea, Locke, or Powel elementary, as well as MYA, a middle school with grades five through eight. Each is located in a nearby neighborhood. Although MYA is a selective school, current Drew students will be guaranteed the right to enroll there next year, said Montgomery.

Drew parent Khadijah Begume, one of just three individuals to testify during the hearing, wanted to know if her 3rd grader would be guaranteed admission to her preferred reassignment option.

“It’s Powel that I want him to get into,” said Begume. “I’m not comfortable with Locke because I haven’t heard any good things about that school.”

An extended exchange between Begume, her daughter, District staff, and the SRC ended with the conclusion that Begume’s son could enroll at Powel – but that 31 Drew students who are receiving ESOL instruction may not be afforded the same option.

“We are looking to cluster [ESOL students and services] at Locke,” said District Assistant Superintendent Lissa Johnson.

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos expressed concern with that proposal, however.

“So you’re limiting their options because they’re [English Language Learners]?” Ramos asked before instructing the District’s general counsel to look into the legality of the plan.

Ramos also highlighted the PSSA scores of the four schools to be affected by the plan, noting that Drew compares unfavorably to each.

“It doesn’t seem to be one of the situations where students are moving to schools that would be less well-performing,” he said.

Should the proposal be approved, the District will draw new boundaries incorporating the area currently served by Drew into the catchments of Lea, Locke and Powel.

Levering Elementary (closure) and AMY Northwest (relocation)

During the final session of the marathon day, what started as a consolidated hearing involving related proposals to close William Levering Elementary in Roxborough and move AMY Northwest into the Levering building turned into a dizzying flurry of alternative counterproposals.

The District wants to close Levering because it only has 184 students across grades K-8, many of whom don’t live in the school’s catchment area.

“We do not believe there is a population to sustain neighborhood enrollment in future years” at Levering, said Danielle Floyd, the Deputy for Strategic Initiatives.

Most of Levering’s students would be reassigned to either Cook-Wissahickon or Dobson Elementary schools, both of which are higher-performing than Levering.

The District also wants to move AMY Northwest out of its current leased facility in Mount Airy and into a larger District-owned facility that would allow the school an opportunity to grow its enrollment.

“If Levering is approved for closure, we propose the facility be repurposed to serve AMY,” said Floyd, who added that AMY Northwest’s current lease costs the District over $200,000 a year but is set to expire this summer.

But a number of parents, advocates, and school staff have a variety of concerns. Some Levering supporters don’t want their neighborhood school to close. Parents at neighboring Cook-Wissahickon Elementary are concerned that their school is already overcrowded and would not be able to effectively accommodate an influx of students from Levering. And many from AMY Northwest are concerned about the increased travel time that a move to Roxborough would require.

As a result of the various concerns, many are hoping that the jigsaw puzzle pieces will be fit together in one of a number of different ways.

State Representative Pam DeLissio spoke to a previous community-generated counterproposal calling for Levering to be kept open, but transitioned to a K-5 school so that it can be co-located in its current facility with AMY Northwest.

DeLissio called it “a plan I could support,” but said she had been told recently that District staff had determined it was not feasible.

Floyd confirmed that, saying that the District’s primary concern was that a K-5 Levering would serve fewer than 100 students.

“What kind of educational program would those students have?” asked Floyd.

Levering parent Julie Melnick and Cook-Wissahickon parent Carol Haslan also proposed a new alternative involving several pieces:

  • Closing the educational program at Levering
  • Relocating Cook-Wissahickon into the Levering building
  • Merging the schools’ respective catchment areas so that Levering students could attend the new, larger, Cook-Wissahickon
  • Relocating AMY Northwest into the vacated Cook-Wissahickon facility

“The Cook-Wissahickon program is going to be absorbing a lot of the Levering kids regardless. That’s a moot point,” said Haslan. “If [the District] puts both populations together, [the Levering] facility can house the whole thing and be an amazing community school.”

The commissioners seemed interested, asking a number of clarifying questions.

“I think they are a thoughtful, creative group and I’d be interested in seeing it run up the flagpole and see what happens,” said Rep. DeLissio in response to a question from the commission about possible community support for such a plan.

SRC Chairman Ramos committed to doing just that.

“I think in every instance we’ve been very pleased with not just critiques but counterproposals and ideas that seek to solve the problem we’re trying to solve in a different way,” said Ramos.

“We appreciate it and will commit to giving [the counterproposal] a rigorous analysis before any decision.”

The District’s Floyd said she would be meeting with stakeholders this week and would have a written analysis to the SRC, and the public, before March 22.

The SRC is scheduled to take its final votes on March 29.

The Notebook is partnering with PlanPhilly to cover this process and inform and help foster dialogue. This coverage is supported by a grant from the William Penn Foundation.

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