This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Common sense dictates that the School District should be looking for opportunities to close crumbling schools that are half-empty and underperforming. In a cash-starved system with a shrinking population and aging facilities, we can’t afford not to.
Officials acknowledge that closing schools is painful but say that once we get through it, we’ll all be better off with a streamlined system – and the District will be poised to improve its fortunes.
Unfortunately, reality does not match that narrative. Many of the schools on the closings list don’t neatly fit the crumbling, half-empty and low-performing profile. A dozen are more than two-thirds full. Several are high performers academically, and others are on an upswing.
To families faced with losing their schools, officials have been unable to offer concrete examples of what will be gained. The District’s process and plan seem poorly thought out and risk alienating thousands of families and staff.
The criteria for closing school A instead of school B are still unclear. There is no evidence that a consistent standard was used. Also, with so many schools and so many variables at play, it seems District staff failed to fully consider the complex of factors to ensure that valuable and necessary programs are preserved.
Perhaps the District’s biggest blunder was in treating the people closest to the schools as potential adversaries who must be kept in the dark rather than as knowledgeable partners in developing recommendations. Staff held numerous rounds of community meetings without discussing plans for specific schools. When such profound changes are drawn up without tapping community wisdom, the resulting hostile response can come as no surprise.
Even though it’s unclear that there will be significant savings in the short run, realistically, there’s no backing away from some action on school closings this year.
But in its current form, the plan will further deplete scarce public assets in poor and African American communities, and the chaotic process will only accelerate the flight of students into charters and other alternatives. This could well put the system into a death spiral.
To avoid such dire results, the District must quickly and radically revamp this process. Superintendent Hite could change the dynamic by:
- Affirming public feedback and taking bad ideas off the table right now. For example, scale back the closings in North Philadelphia; no neighborhood should have so many schools wiped out in one blow. Don’t shut McCloskey, a high-performing elementary school that is not far under capacity. Don’t send Gompers and Overbrook elementary students to Beeber, a struggling school that’s also been labeled persistently dangerous.
- Making a realistic assessment of how many transitions the District can manage at a time. Last year, staff struggled to oversee six closings. Stagger proposed closings, thereby giving some communities a year or two to come up with alternatives.
- Immediately providing detailed transition plans for the closings still on the table for 2013. Get specific on safety, transportation, and academics so families, schools and the SRC can evaluate them before action is taken.
- Assisting communities like University City High School that are developing counterproposals. Embrace the idea of community schools and collaborate on how to bring other services into underutilized buildings instead of closing them.
Community members are not simply saying “No.” They are crying out for a real voice. The District would be wise not to turn a deaf ear.