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Groups press civil rights complaint on school closings

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

A coalition comprised of an array of political, religious and civic leaders on Monday reiterated its call that the School District to impose a one-year moratorium on closing schools, presenting an analysis showing that the proposal to shutter 37 buildings disproportionately affects Black and Latino students and those with disabilities.

At the same time, they announced that the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education will investigate its complaint that last year’s closings of eight schools schools was similarly discriminatory.

The School Reform Commission’s plan will "create educational deserts in African American communities," said Quanisha Smith of ACTION United at the press conference held at the historic Bright Hope Baptist Church. "We don’t want these closures to occur before we have time to pursue alternatives."

The coalition of advocacy groups and unions known as PCAPS, joined by State Rep. Curtis Thomas and Council members Jannie Blackwell and Blondell Reynolds-Brown, said that four-fifths of the students impacted by the closings are African American. About 56 percent of the students in the District are African American.

In addition, they said, 24 of the schools have students populations that are 90 percent or more African American, and 22 of the schools have a higher percentage of students with disabilities than the District average.

"The School District has posited that low utilization levels are a central factor in the recommendation of closure, and that many schools with low utilization also have a majority of African American students," the statement said. "However, PCAPS believes the District has failed to demonstrate how displacing these students would improve their educational outcomes."

Kevin Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope, said that Superintendent William Hite’s overall reform plan, which includes the proposed closures, "doesn’t express a heart for our children." There is "no vision" behind the closings, he said. "Dr. Hite’s plan raises more questions than it answers."

He said that state and local officials should level with the public and tell them that "the balance sheet" is more important than their futures.

Dawn Hawkins, a parent from the L.P. Hill school, said that the "loss of schools will cause tremendous hardship and disaster in our neighborhood." Both Hill and the adjoining Strawberry Mansion High School are slated to close. All told, 11 schools in North Philadelphia west of Broad Street are set to close, on top of several that were closed last year.

"It’s always black and Latino neighborhoods that are targetted," Hawkins said. "It’s not only an educational issue. It’s a civil rights issue."

Jerry Mondesire, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, cited as problematic individual proposals, like the one that would send students from Gompers in West Philadelphia to Beeber Middle School, which has been on the District’s persistently dangerous list.

He described the proposal as a "rush to judgement" that did not adequately take into account how the closings will impact students, school workers, and communities.

State Rep. Curtis Thomas, who represents parts of North Philadelphia that have already seen closures and will see more under the District’s proposal, delved into some history. He pointed out that a longstanding desegregation case against the District was settled because the reform plan adopted under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, called Imagine 2014, was deemed to be sufficient to address educational inequities and needs in low-income minority communities.

That case "found that poor kids in Philadelphia were systematically denied access to equal education," he said. "If [Ackerman’s plan] is no longer relevant, we’re in big trouble. The closings plan "will not only aggravate [inequity] but increase segregation" and deny students access to a quality education, Thomas said.

Councilwoman Blackwell, who introduced a nonbinding closings resolution that overwhelmingly passed Council on Thursday, said that the District didn’t take into account new housing construction and neighborhood impact, and ignored potential safety problems. She said she plans to hold Council hearings on the closings on Feb. 12 — "Lincoln’s birthday."

Reynolds-Brown, while acknowledging that the District does need to deal with underutilized buildings, added that she feels that the District hasn’t paid enough attention to safety issues.

In response, the District issued a statement saying it had not yet reviewed the analysis but " understands that a higher proportion of students in under-enrolled, low-performing schools are African American, and these are the schools that are most affected by the recommended facility closures. It is also important to note that students at these schools will benefit from the facilities and academic programs improvements that are part of the Facilities Master Plan."

School closings in urban areas and their civil rights implications is a national issue. On Tuesday, many members of the coalition will join advocates from 17 other cities in Washington, D.C., to testify at a hearing before the USED on the subject of school closings and their disparate impact on low-income, minority students. Such closings are occurring on a large scale in Chicago, New York, and other cities.

The letter from the USED’s civil rights office notes that the decision to follow up on the group’s complaint about the closings that took effect this year "in no way implies that OCR has decided their merit" – only that enough information was presented to investigate.

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