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How to not close 37 schools: A summary of alternate proposals

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

by Bill Hangley Jr.

The School District’s deadline for alternative community proposals for its closure plan has now passed, and all 38 proposals received have been posted on the District’s website.

The alternative plans represent a wide range of responses to the District’s recommendations. Some are highly detailed blueprints endorsed by powerful officeholders and complex proposals citing multiple partners, while others are brief plans from community groups and individuals.

One consistent theme: Many schools propose addressing under-utilization by expanding their program offerings or grade spans. Some suggest bringing in new schools to share their buildings. In a few cases, schools offer alternative plans that they believe are cost-neutral and will meet the District’s overall goal of saving money.

Some highlights of the 38 proposals:

  • In North and Northwest Philadelphia, local politicians have weighed in, calling for broad reconsideration of multiple aspects of the closure plan.
  • Seven of the 11 North Philadelphia elementary schools slated for closure — Hill, Meade, Reynolds, Peirce, Pratt, Ferguson, and Duckrey — have offered proposals to keep their schools open, often citing programs that could be expanded to attract new students while suggesting nearby schools that could be closed or reconfigured.
  • Several schools explicitly cite the desire to protect and expand university and nonprofit partnerships, such as Pepper Middle (in Southwest Philadelphia), which works with the University of Pennsylvania and the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, and McMichael Elementary (in Mantua), which hopes to work extensively with Drexel.
  • Two schools propose possibly relocating to the School of the Future: Communications Technology and University City high schools.
  • Neither Leeds nor Elverson military academy wants to move to Roosevelt Middle School. Each wants to stay where it is and have the other join it.
  • Two neighborhood high schools — Germantown and Strawberry Mansion — have offered detailed proposals to expand the use of their buildings to bring them to full utilization.

Superintendent William Hite has praised the alternative proposals and says the District is listening. Hite has already said that the District will revise its recommendation to close 37 schools and relocate seven others before submitting a final plan to the School Reform Commission, which is scheduled to vote on closures on March 7.

Hite, however, continues to stress that the District’s financial shortfall cannot be ignored, and that any changes will have to fit in its overall cost-cutting priorities.

What follows are brief summaries of the proposals.

The big plans

North Philadelphia Collaboration: Back to the drawing board
This seven-page proposal, signed by a long list of partners that includes state legislators and City Council President Darrell Clarke, calls for rethinking of the proposal to close 11 North Philadelphia elementary schools. Its many detailed recommendations include keeping Duckrey Elementary open, expanding Strawberry Mansion High School and neighboring L.P. Hill Elementary, and monitoring the remaining schools in order to better plan for any future closures. The proposal allows that some closures may be necessary, but recommends that “students … not be made to walk more than five blocks,” that “schools to which students are sent perform better academically,” and that “our list of recommendations take precedence over those proposed by district administrators.” The proposal calls for increasing overall enrollment by boosting academic programs, partnerships with city agencies, and other community services throughout the area’s schools.

Northwest Philadelphia legislator: Rethink my district
State Rep. Cherelle Parker calls for multiple changes in the plans for her Northwest Philadelphia district. Her proposals include keeping McCloskey Elementary open and expanding it. In addition, she says, “I strongly advocate that the each school’s current principal, teachers, and administrative/support staff be retained to insure a smooth transition.” (A separate plan from McCloskey parents proposes bringing the school to full capacity by making it a K-8.)

Multiple West Philadelphia plans
Four separate plans deal with the proposed consolidation of Gompers and Overbrook Elementaries in the Beeber Middle School building. The “Wynnefield-Overbrook Community Proposal,” a seven-page plan signed by parents and teachers, calls for stepped-up programming in all three schools. Supporters of Gompers and Overbrook submitted their own proposals to boost attendance and overall use. An unsigned one-page proposal suggests keeping Gompers and Overbrook open and turning Beeber into a community recreation center.

Mama Gail: Reorganize the system
Longtime education advocate “Mama” Gail Clouden’s Community Education Network submitted separate proposals for five different parts of the city. Rather than address individual closures in detail, Clouden’s proposals all offer the general outlines of an ambitious plan to reconfigure neighborhood schools, such as: “Change all Kindergarten through 8th grade schools to Kindergarten through 6th grade.”

Judith Robinson: One advocate’s vision for North Philadelphia
Resident Judith Robinson submitted a seven-page “Community Development Plan” calling for “magnet quality education” in all the area’s schools. The proposal requests that Elverson, Duckrey, Meade, L.P. Hill, and Strawberry Mansion High remain open. Other suggestions include lower class sizes, diversified curriculum, healthier school lunches, free vision tests for students, and the closure of low-performing charters. It also suggests that a share of the proceeds of building sales be dedicated to neighborhood student programs: “Since North Philly … will be most greatly impacted, we the Homeowners/Residents are demanding 50 percent of the proceeds of the sales of any buildings … to enhance the education of our students.”

High schools

Germantown High: Expand to K-12
The school’s proposal is among the most detailed, citing multiple partners. It proposes to bring the building to full utilization in part by closing nearby Fulton Elementary and moving it into Germantown’s “Fifties Wing,” an addition with separate entrances. An additional, short proposal from Fulton’s School Advisory Council supports the move to Germantown, and promises that parents will be willing to volunteer to help with the transition.

Strawberry Mansion: Become a multiple-use education complex
This detailed plan proposes keeping the high school and nearby Hill Elementary open as part of the “Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre Educational Complex,” and bringing it to full utilization by bringing in adult and early-childhood education, community programs, a principal-training center and “a premier professional development center for the District.”

University City High: Expand, co-locate or relocate
The UCHS Proposal Committee recommends bringing the school up to full utilization by adding a middle school or a second, small high school (such as nearby Robeson, or a charter school), along with other District and city programs. Alternatively, it suggests moving University City into another building, such as the School of the Future.

Robeson: Expand or relocate
A short proposal says the small school was “shocked” to find itself on the closure list and rejects the “misguided” proposal to relocate to Sayre High School: “Our phone survey of January 2013 has showed that fewer than 1 in 10 students will go to Sayre. Informally, many students have expressed intent to apply to charter schools, parochial schools, their neighborhood school, or even private schools.” The proposal reflects concerns about the motivation to close: “Perhaps it is our well maintained facility (our FCI is at .11) or the rising value of our property (desired by local universities).” The proposal suggests leaving Robeson where it is, or expanding it with University City High’s ESOL programs, or co-locating with another small high school (as opposed to a neighborhood high school like Sayre).

Dueling Philadelphia Military Academy (PMA) plans
Supporters of both Leeds PMA and Elverson PMA submitted plans rejecting the proposal to merge the two in Roosevelt Middle School, but disagree about which school should move. Two short proposals from Leeds recommend moving Elverson into Leeds; a detailed, 42-page plan from Elverson suggests that “the best alternative is to consolidate the two schools at the Elverson building.”

Communications Technology HS: Move to School of the Future, or downtown Rather than move CommTech’s audio-visual CTE program into century-old Bartram High in Southwest Philadelphia, CommTech supporters believe it would be “more cost effective” to move into West Philadelphia’s almost-new School of the Future. “Part of the retrofit at Bartram must include repairing an aging, leaking roof and removing asbestos,” along with expensive electrical work, the proposal says; moving to School of the Future would boost that school’s utilization, while offering easy citywide access to CommTech’s CTE programs. An alternate version of the same proposal suggests a move to the District’s central offices 440 North Broad.

Carroll HS: Keep us open
A four-page proposal calls for keeping the school open, but adds, “If keeping us open is not a possibility, we propose that you move us, and not AMY 5 [a middle school], to Penn Treaty Middle School.”

Bok HS: One worried student
A single Bok student submitted a one-page proposal questioning the rationale for closing and suggesting several alternatives, such as moving to Audenried HS, a charter-run, District-owned building. The author adds: “I would also like to know who will be answering my questions? Who? Where? When?”

Middle and elementary schools

Pepper Middle School: Add special admissions high school
“Pepper Partners in Pride” submitted a 24-page proposal that calls for doubling the Southwest Philadelphia school’s size. The idea is to use Pepper to house a special-admissions high school focused on environmental science, along with evening adult education programs targeted at job-seekers aspiring to work at the airport and in related industries. The proposal cites Pepper’s extensive network of partnerships, and is signed by representatives of Heinz and the University of Pennsylvania.

McMichael Elementary: Partner with Drexel to develop Mantua
A detailed, 24-page plan (complete with three-year strategic outline) submitted by the McMichael Community Home and School Association suggests that the half-full Mantua school stay where it is, as it is primed to expand and build on a partnership with nearby Drexel University. “We believe we have the partnerships and the resources needed to create a strong and successful school,” the proposal says. “We have also begun conversations with potential tenants for the underutilized first floor of the school.”

Meade Elementary: Become ‘teacher led’
One of three North Philadelphia elementary schools slated to be relocated to Vaux, Meade’s short proposal calls for keeping the school open and allowing it to become a "teacher-led" turnaround. “We believe that the advantages of remaining in our current building at 18th and Oxford streets (convenient neighborhood location, child-friendly facility, program stability and continuity) far outweigh any benefits that may occur due to a relocation to the Vaux building.”

Reynolds Elementary: Renovate us, not Vaux
This short proposal claims that “Vaux is not appropriate for elementary students. It is not cost effective to make accommodations to support small children.” The authors suggest renovating Reynolds and making Vaux a middle school; or moving Reynolds to Morris.

Alternative for the Middle Years (AMY) at Martin: Don’t move us
A one-page proposal praises the Lower Northeast school’s program and facilities and says that the proposed move to Penn Treaty Middle School would drive many parents out of the program. The proposal suggests that the 400-student school could easily expand to 500, but says the school has been frustrated in the past by other District decisions: “Last year we planned to expand … Conflicting and confusing changes in transportation policy played a major role in discouraging families from applying for our high-performing citywide admissions school. Other families found alternatives in charter and parochial schools … Keep AMY at the James Martin site!”

Peirce Elementary: Stay open
This North Philadelphia school’s short proposal doesn’t call for any alternative, only asks that the school remain open. “The T. M. Peirce community has not been presented with any financial data that warrants closing our school. Our classrooms are not empty, we do not have vacant rooms, and we have an excellent Head Start Program …. We do not understand how closing this building is cost effective to the School District.”

Vare Elementary: Move Nebinger
One-page proposal from the “Vare School Community” suggests that the South Philadelphia school, in “good condition,” could be spared if nearby Nebinger Elementary (in “poor condition”) was moved into Washington Elementary instead. The proposal claims that all three schools are about half-used and have comparable academic records.

Washington Elementary: Stay open
The South Philadelphia school’s two-page proposal says, “The data speaks for itself — we do not fit the mold of closure, rather we welcome expansion!”

Pratt Elementary: Stay open
An eight-page proposal calls for keeping the North Philadelphia school open, bringing it to full capacity by opening a planned Early Childhood Center on the bottom floors.

Ferguson Elementary: Stay open
The Ferguson School Coalition’s three-page request says, “We recommend keeping J.C. Ferguson open in anticipation of the increased enrollment as new families move into nearby low-income housing units in 2013.” It says the North Philadelphia school is safer than other nearby schools.

Duckrey Elementary: Stay open
A 34-page package lists Duckrey’s many programs and partnerships, including those with nearby Temple University.

Cooke Elementary: Stay open
A community proposal opposes closure of the North Philadelphia school, citing multiple partnerships (particularly with Temple and other universities), successful academics, and strategic location (near Broad Street Subway). It proposes multiple alternatives for further utilizing the building, including housing a military academy (Elverson), additional District programs (such as for English-language learners, and other community programs.