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How much do we understand about school closings?

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

Schools must close. Some buildings in Philadelphia are just too expensive to maintain. The process will be painful — this much we can all agree on.

As I listen to the public discourse and read different editorials supporting or opposing school closings, I am disappointed by the lack of knowledge as to the specifics of recommended closures. Those who call for no school closings at all, as well as those who agree with all proposed closings, have not dug deeply enough into the School District’s plan. I support closing schools that are poorly utilized, are in poor condition, and have high operational costs. It is what school districts do, both in times of fiscal security and insecurity. Some of the recommendations in the District’s Facilities Master Plan meet these criteria, and some do not.

Reviewing all of the data has been no easy task. You can see most of the data on the School District’s website. Recently, at a series of ongoing public forums, the District has been using PowerPoint presentations to give some explanations for why individual schools were recommended for closure. I wish that the District had, and would, include all the schools’ profile data in those presentations. Doing so would afford families a better understanding of the reasons why a school should close.

The Great Unknown up till now has been how schools rank in each of the four factors (academic performance, utilization, building quality, and costs) that the District used to make school-closure assessments and how schools would compare to each other in these rankings. Yet despite not having all the facts that the District does, we can still ascertain that some of the recommendations make sense, while others don’t.

For instance, the recommendation to relocate the Carnell Middle Years program and Lawton’s 6th grade to underutilized Harding Middle School is a reasonable one. Moving the Middle Years program (grades 7-8) to Harding is a necessity: The old Fels building that housed the program is structurally unsound and unusable, with the District renting space at St. Bernard’s for the remainder of the school year. Moving Lawton’s 6th graders makes sense, because the school is above optimal capacity at 96 percent. (The District’s stated goal is for schools to be around 85 percent utilization.) Although these actions will decrease the budgets of Lawton and Carnell, they will greatly expand the academic possibilities at Harding. Planning on what can be done with the additional funds going to Harding is something the District officials should be articulating now in order to make their case.

One clear example of a decision that does not meet the criteria is the recommendation to move 6th graders from Pennell and Logan Elementaries to Wagner Middle School. Adding these students to Wagner, which is below half capacity, will get the school’s utilization rate closer to 60 percent than the District’s target of 85 percent. Both Pennell and Logan are located in buildings that are in better physical shape than Wagner’s, according to the District’s assessment of the facilities’ condition and costs. With 6th-grade enrollments at Pennell and Logan trending down, the likelihood of achieving long-term, optimal utilization at a bad building is unlikely as well as cost-prohibitive.

A better deployment of resources would be to close underutilized Wagner and add students to nearby schools like Rowen and Ellwood. This improves utilization of the “better” buildings throughout the feeder pattern. Creating programs to attract students to Howe, Logan, and Pennell, and turning them into K-8 grade span schools would be better than shifting 100 students around the eastern part of Northwest Philadelphia. Moving forward with the current relocation proposal would not achieve any of the District’s stated goals of the Facilities Master Plan.

Here’s another head-scratcher: shifting the 6th grade out of Cramp Elementary and into Stetson Middle School, which was taken over by Aspira, an education management organization, during the Rennaissance process. The District has made it a priority to standardize grade spans across the system. But schools like Mastery-Smedley, Tilden, and Feltonville will still not be in the K-5, 6-8, 9-12 grade spans, even if the plan is implemented in its entirety. So, it would appear, grade-span standardization is a priority, but not a necessity.

There are 95 5th graders at Cramp this year. Moving them from a District-operated school to a Renaissance charter will cost about $665,000. (The cost of a new charter seat is about $7,000, according to District officials.) Cramp students already feed into Stetson Middle School for 7th grade. Is decreasing the resources at Cramp and spending even more money on charter seats with the same AYP status really worth the trouble in the name of grade-span standardization?

I agree with the education interest groups that we Philadelphians need to rally behind Superintendent William Hite’s plan and do the work that must be done to improve schools. But these decisions are too important to be made before the choices are thoroughly understood. I sincerely hope that those who call for blind support of all Facilities Master Plan options, or refuse to accept that buildings outlive their usefulness, take the time to review all the relevant documents and refine their positions.

Timothy Boyle teaches at the Academy for the Middle Years Northwest and is the operations director for Teachers Lead Philly.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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