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Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.

Bill Hangley Jr. / The Notebook

A message on repeat: Closings are painful but will pay off, Hite says

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

by Bill Hangley Jr.

The pattern of the District’s regional schoolclosing hearings is now clear: After parents and students share worries, fears, and even angry accusations, District officials respond with calm assurances that a painful but necessary process will pay off in the end.

Wednesday night’s Southwest region session, the fourth of nine planned meetings, was no different. About 200 people attended the meeting in the cavernous, Art Deco-style auditorium at Bartram High to learn more about a reorganization plan that proposes three closures in the area: Communications Technology High School, Pepper Middle School, and Shaw Middle School.

The frustrations voiced by many in attendance were familiar to anyone who had been to similar sessions at Dobbins High and Martin Luther King High. Students worried about safety, the loss of valued teachers and programs, and the challenge of being uprooted from familiar territory. Meanwhile, adults questioned the District’s budget decisions and motivations, offered alternative plans, and suggested that the closure decisions were made without their communities’ needs in mind.

Naeemah Felder, a local parent who sent three children to Pepper, shared a typical reaction to the District’s closure plan: “You didn’t ask me. You didn’t ask none of the communities that pay taxes to support this,” she said. “You’re targeting our areas. You’re targeting us.”

Superintendent William Hite, a steady, unflappable presence throughout the closure meetings, responded with his now-familiar assertion that budget pressures mean closures must happen, but that the District will be flexible where it can.

“We will not be stubborn about the recommendations,” Hite told the audience. The District will be glad to consider community suggestions, he said — as long as they deliver the same kinds of savings as the existing plans.

Hite also repeated his promise that, in the end, consolidated schools will be able to offer more options to students. As things stand, he said, “one school may offer art. Another school may offer languages. When we’re able to combine schools, we can combine all of those programs so that all students can have those types of offerings.”

The goal, Hite said, was to stem the tide of students leaving District schools. “We’re trying to stop individuals selecting out of the District schools, into other options,” like charters, he said.

The crowd at Bartram included vocal contingents from Communications Technology (or Comm Tech, for short) and Pepper. The District’s proposal for Comm Tech, a special admissions school of about 400 students, is to move it into Bartram High, making it a special academy within the larger school.

Mikeya Sills, a Comm Tech junior, told Hite that she worried about fights and violence when the two student bodies mix. “How can students dedicate their entire focus on education when they’re so worried about what’s going to happen to them when the bell rings?” she asked. “How are we going to be safe?”

“Every school is going to have a plan for engagement,” answered Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student services. “In some of our schools, we’re going to use restorative practice techniques. … There are a variety of efforts that we’re going to use to make sure that students are working well together.”

Much will depend on principals, Lynch said. “Every school has rules, every principal establishes the climate and safety environment for those schools, and that’s what we expect to happen moving forward.”

Comm Tech junior Micia McBurnette said she feared the program will lose students by moving. “No offense to Bartram, but a lot of students told us that they don’t want to go to Bartram, and that just kills their dream of being in the CTE [Career & Technical Education] program. A lot of our students came to Comm Tech to get away from Bartram. … You can’t change how people’s minds are.”

Nor is she confident that the District will make good on its promise to smooth the transition. “They say they’re going to work with the kids, but never came to our school and talked to us [about the closure],” McBurnette said. “They just gave us a piece of paper — our principal handed it out — and that was it.”

Micia McBurnette (left) and Mikeya Sills, juniors at Communications Technology High School. District officials, however, said Comm Tech could actually improve as a result of the proposed move. David Kipphut, a deputy administrator in charge of the District’s CTE programs, says that Comm Tech’s current space is small and outdated and that the move into the massive Bartram building could help it expand significantly.

“We’ve already looked at spaces here in the building where we could retrofit and actually create new studios,” Kipphut said. “They’re operating right now in a former elementary school — it’s cramped. The design classes could be double what they are now. We’ve actually hired an architect to design and build the [broadcast] studio so that it’s state of the art. … We want to make sure all our programs have industry standard opportunities.

“The program is excellent at Comm Tech — it’s the facility that’s bad.”

An equally animated contingent from Pepper called on Hite to spare their 700-student school. Among Pepper’s supporters was Debbie Beer, a staffer at the nearby John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, which runs a series of science programs for students that she fears will be lost with the closure.

“The proximity of the school to the refuge is very important — the students can walk,” Beer said. “Heinz Refuge serves students from all over the city, and other districts, and always, busing is a challenge. The teachers can’t get their students to Heinz. Pepper’s students walk over twice a month — we have programs, we’re following the curriculum closely — it’s wonderful. They’re drawing, they’re learning, they’re doing a bird census. You see their eyes light up in a way that rarely happens inside four walls.”

Heinz is part of a collaboration among local community groups and nonprofits — including the University of Pennsylvania and the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition — that is trying to build an endowment for the school and sharpen its focus.

“We would love to see Pepper become a STEM [Science, Technology and Math] magnet school,” Beer said. “A lot of people are helping us build the program and partnerships and run with it.”

Hite and his staff listened politely to dozens of speakers, sympathizing with their concerns but returning consistently to two themes: closures must happen, but the resulting schools will be stronger.

Still, the disappointment was palpable among those who believe their schools are being unnecessarily shuttered. In the crowd was City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who said her West Philadelphia constituents aren’t happy about the situation at all.

“They’re very upset,” Blackwell said. “They feel left out of the discussion, left out of being part of the solution. They just don’t know what to do.

“At all the meetings I’ve been to, [residents] agree that they’re willing to consider some, but not all of these closings,” said Blackwell, adding that City Council plans hearings on the subject in February. “There seems to be no rhyme or reason [to the District’s choices]. And no matter what happens, when you go to these meetings, you don’t really get answers,” she said. “Everybody believes Dr. Hite is a good man. But everybody believes he’s just here to deliver a message.”