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Hite stands firm on closures plan, but hints at possible changes

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

by Bill Hangley Jr.

The last of the Philadelphia District’s school-closure meetings wrapped up quietly at Northeast High on Wednesday night, where District officials made plain once again their intention to stay the course on a plan to close or relocate 44 schools by September.

School Reform Commission member Feather Houstoun told the audience that despite a recent City Council vote in favor of a one-year moratorium on closings, her support for the plan hasn’t wavered.

“At this juncture I would not vote for a moratorium,” said Houstoun to a smattering of boos. “I have heard nothing that suggests that [it] would change the outcome significantly a year from now. I have had people say to me they need more time to plan the closures. And I think the planning of the closures, the content of that, happens when the decision has been made.”

Houstoun did not close the door to adjusting Hite’s plan. “I may hear something when Dr. Hite and his team come back and talk to us more,” she said. “I know that’s not a happy answer, but I’m telling you the truth as I have always told you.”

While avoiding any specifics — “we haven’t had a lot of time to analyze,” he said — Hite hinted that the closure meetings could result in some changes to his recommendations. His staff will be “thinking differently about what buildings to use as receiving schools as opposed to the ones we recommended,” he said.

Hite promised that the next round of planning, which will include as-yet-unscheduled public meetings in February at each affected school, will deal with specific school-by-school issues.

He said his team will also be focusing on several broad “themes,” including safety, transportation, and special education. More information on all three areas would be available before the SRC votes on a final closure list on March 7.

Hite was also pressed for more information about the District’s plans for new Renaissance charter schools and Promise Academies. Although he confirmed that such plans are in the works, he shared no new details.

The Northeast meeting drew only about 100 attendees — not surprising, as no actual closures for the region are proposed. Instead, the District recommends shrinking two elementary schools (Carnell and Lawton) and sending their middle school students to Harding Middle School, while adding grades at Stearne Elementary.

The District also proposes moving the Alternative Middle Years (AMY) program from James Martin School in Port Richmond to the Penn Treaty Middle School in Fishtown (about two miles south). Hite heard testimony from a string of parents and AMY staff suggesting that families won’t follow the program if it moves.

“If you take something good, and put it someplace not so good, you’re not going to make it better, you’re going to bring it down,” said one parent.

Hite said he hopes AMY doesn’t lose its current support and promised a closer look at its transportation policies. But he indicated that families who have grown used to having good programs nearby should expect to make some sacrifices.

“Buildings don’t make the program — the adults in the building who are teaching the students, the parent participation, all of those things together are what are producing the results we’re seeing at a school like AMY,” he said. “There’s a reason we want to expand that type of program to a larger space.”

Just what kind of financial support will be available to expand or improve AMY or other relocated schools is not yet clear. Hite and his team have repeatedly indicated that money “freed up” by closings and consolidation will allow them to improve academic options District-wide. They have $19 million set aside next year for that purpose. Those funds, however, will be spread thin, as they’re earmarked not only for improvements at all of the District’s remaining schools, but also to support three as-yet-unnamed Renaissance charter transformations.

Hite promised additional information about programs, transportation, and transition costs in the “school-by-school” plans, but how detailed those plans will be remains to be seen.

Those kinds of promises didn’t do much for students like Isaiah Santiago, a junior at Northeast, who came to Wednesday’s meeting to ask Hite how closings were going to help schools like his, already cash-strapped and crowded.

“I play the trumpet, which I bought myself, no help from the school,” he said. “I want funding for my school, so I can progress, just, in my life. There’s holes in the walls, full of trash. The music stands don’t even work.”

In the face of comments like that, Hite and his team remained firm in their position that the closure plan is a financial necessity.

Later, Hite acknowledged that the first year’s savings won’t be as big as the $28 million routinely promised, due to the as-yet-unknown cost of the “one-time investments” needed to relocate programs and fully decommission buildings. He promised that the SRC would get an overall assessment of those one-time costs before it votes.

He also said that specific school-by-school costs — the cost of moving CTE programs into new buildings, for example — may not be available. “What this will cost will have to be part of the conversation,” Hite said. “It may not be school-by-school, it may not be that granular, but we would want the total cost. If it’s going to cost this amount of money, we’ll have to say it’s going to cost this amount of money.”

Hite said the 13 school-closure hearings had been “emotional” and “painful,” but it was a process he knew was coming when he took the job. “There’s nowhere in the country where someone is going to make a recommendation about closing a school and people are going to be happy about it,” he said. “This issue is wrought with emotion, with fear, with anger, and we understood that coming in.

“I don’t take it personally — I understand what people are struggling with,” Hite said. “We’ve tried to be as respectful as we possibly can.”

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