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Live blog: SRC school closure hearings

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

Welcome to the live blog of the SRC’s public hearings on the school closings plan. The Notebook’s Dale Mezzacappa is on hand at District’s headquarters reporting on both the hearings and the preceding SRC action meeting. The public hearings begin at 6 p.m. and are scheduled to end at 10:35 p.m.

9:37 PM There are no speakers scheduled for the Northeast planning area, so the hearings end nearly an hour ahead of schedule.

9:31 PM Sharon Burke, a 7th- and 8th-grade teacher at George Washington Elementary School, is the night’s last speaker. She says that GW has a diverse staff and student body, high utilization and relatively high academic performance, making Adequate Yearly Progress for seven out of the past nine years. The building has room to expand. “My question to you today, why are you closing the program at George Washington Elementary School.” A reason given previously is that 78 percent of the students come from outside the catchment area — Burke says that is a sign of success and she adds: “We are being punished for being a school choice school.”

Ramos points out that of 170 students in the GW attendance area, only 70 attend. He asks Hite if he has any idea why the school is more attractive to students outside the catchment area than inside. Hite says that there is only 51 percent utilization across Washington and the neighboring schools, and that Washington’s enrollment has been declining, which led to the recommendation of closure.

9:09 PM The South Central hearing starts nearly an hour ahead of schedule. The first speaker is Tracy Carter, a parent at Bok Technical High School. She has a child there, and says she is also speaking on behalf of special education. She starts by saying that Bok has recently gotten several awards while South Philadelphia, where Bok students will be transferred, is in “Corrective Action 2” status (under No Child Left Behind), due to low academic performance. “Special education is not something you can pick up and put down,” she notes. She said that Bok created special programs for special education students; her son is working in the office doing tasks like shredding and mail delivery because that is what interests him. “You haven’t proved that you are going to do anything by closing Bok … and putting students in a school on the dangerous list.” The District plans to duplicate Bok’s CTE (Career and Technical Education) programs at nearby South Philadelphia High School.

Carter’s testimony triggers a lengthy discussion on Bok, CTE, and details of the relocation plans. Commissioner Dworetzky notes that Bok is at 97 percent utilization and he asks Deputy Commissioner Kihn if CTE programs cost more per student. Kihn said that since all those students are being offered another CTE program, that there shouldn’t be additional districtwide savings as a result of closing CTE as opposed to a non-specialized school.

Dworetzky: “So how are there savings in closing a school with 97 percent utilization?” Hite responded that, primarily, the savings come from lowered administrative costs.

Danielle Floyd points out that the seventh and eighth floors of the Bok are not being used and are “compromised” by water and other damage. Floyd says that the plan is to have all the Bok CTE programs relocated to Southern, including an expanded culinary unit, in addition to adding carpentry, electrical, commercial art, computer technology, and several others.

Ramos also asks for a written response “for the record” regarding the concerns raised about special education by Carter.

9:03 PM Hearings for Southwest resume with the arrival of other speakers. Janice James, who lives in the University City area, says that it has “agonized” her to see this process take place and she is contemplating legal action. “A lot of stuff is taking place where colleges are in the area … and they want to take over those places … this is not conscionable. You wouldn’t want this done to your families.” She mentions Penn and University City, Gompers and St. Joseph’s University. She gets scattered applause. She urges a moratorium and re-evaluation. Ramos points out that Gompers as well as Elverson, near Temple, were taken off the closing list.

8:57 PM Ramos asks Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, to explain what the city is doing to provide additional services to displaced students. She says that the city has done an inventory of its programs, including behavioral health, and what would need to be done so students are served in their new schools. It is also looking at safety and the possible need for additional police presence along new routes to schools. She says that folks in the planning commission and commerce department are starting to think “proactively” on how to move any vacated buildings so they don’t sit abandoned for any length of time.

8:50 PM Questions from the SRC continue. SRC Chair Pedro Ramos asks about efforts to maintain partnerships with groups like the Hamels Foundation, which built a playground at Taylor Elementary. Hite: “We’re going to meet with the foundation to determine where and how we relocate their contribution.”

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett asks about the distances that T.M. Peirce students would have to walk. “I looked at the map. Those distances are pretty long,” Pritchett said. Hite’s response: We are looking at each route individually. If there are safety concerns, we are considering where we would have to provide transportation to assure students have safe passage to school. He said that he plans next week to walk with new SRC member Sylvia Simms, whose granddaughter attends Peirce, along the route those students would have to take to Rhodes Elementary School at 29th and Clearfield, one of the schools to which they would be relocated.

8:38 PM: Well over an hour ahead of schedule, the SRC takes some time to ask questions of the staff. Commissioner Dworetzky asks Hite to explain why Promise Academies are closing. There are three targeted for closing: Vaux, Germantown, and University City High Schools. Hite responds: “We didn’t figure in the fact they were Promise Academies; we looked at utilization and other factors that we used” for evaluating all schools. Dworetzky asks whether the savings are greater in Promise Academies; he posits that if the District is spending $1,800 extra per student at a Promise Academy, then the savings should increase by that amount. Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn says that this is essentially correct. Dworetzky asks whether it would be possible to quantify the extra savings from closing Promse Academies; Kihn said he would do that.

Dworetzky also asks for more clarification regarding savings from closing Lamberton High; Kihn responds that in a larger school, staff can be allocated differently. A class of 12 at Lamberton could be combined with a class of 18 at Overbrook in Spanish 3, for example; however, if the total was above 33, a second teacher would still be necessary. Kihn said the savings assumptions are an average based on the experience from last year’s closings.

8:34 PM Sydney Coffin, a teacher at University City, who had a private school education himself, said that he has learned more teaching in West Philadelphia than he did at Yale and other elite institutions that he attended. ”There is something wonderful in every student I have met at University City High School. … There’s no longer a barrier between students and teachers.”

8:24 PM It is now Pepper’s turn. Michael Nairn, a Penn professor who works with Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition, admits that he had his own prejudices about the Pepper students, only to discover that they were smart and knowledgeable. The organization has recommended converting Pepper to a middle school augmented by special admission high school focused on sustainability and environmental science. “All along it was STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.”

Terry Williams, president of Eastwick Friends and Neighbors, says that Pepper is a “marvelous situation for urban kids. I grew up in an environment of concrete. It would be a big mistake to close Pepper when so many urban kids need that kind of exposure.” He said its campus and environs are near the airport and the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, providing opportunities where “our children could benefit academically and environmentally.”

8:16 PM Southwest hearing commences a half-hour ahead of schedule. The schools covered are Alexander Wilson, Pepper and Shaw Middle Schools and Communications Tech School, Robeson, University City, and Motivation High School. Andrew Saltz, representing Paul Robeson High School for Human Services, describes himself as a “teacher and a taxpayer.” He said whoever drew the reconfigured map to “save seats” never spoke to families. Nine in 10 Robeson students said they would not relocate to Sayre, where they are scheduled to relocate, Saltz said. “Do this, you will be back here in a year with more empty seats. … You are asking my students to move from a school where they’ve had some success to one that barely graduates one in two students. … Programs are not people.”

Walter Pegues, the athletic coach at Robeson since 2003, said it has transformed itself from “a neighborhood school to a diamond in the rough.” He described himself as bewildered why Robeson is being “vanished. … This just doesn’t make sense. There is nothing in this closing or merger than will benefit Paul Robeson students at all.” He says that 98 percent of his track team have gone on to college, in addition to winning many local and state meets. He said they come from all over the city to join Robeson’s track team.

8:10 PM Kevin Wimberly, who works for a behavioral health agency at the Kinsey school, arrives to speak, bringing the hearings back to the Northwest area. He says that the collaboration between his program and the staff there has changed the school. It has served more than 120 students in four years, he said. Some with behavioral problems have become school leaders and made significant academic progress, he said, and now he’s concerned about splitting the students up among six other schools.

7:52 PM: All the speakers from West are here, so that hearing starts more than 90 minutes early. The limit is 10 speakers per school — two tonight, four tomorrow, and four on Saturday. Leidy Elementary and Lamberton High School are the affected schools.

Mykia Thrower, citing low achievement in city schools, suggests a “clean sweep” of teachers and administrators, with recent college graduates (like herself) able to take certification tests. She lives in the Leidy area.

Two students talk on behalf of Lamberton. Jordan Vynum says that since the building will remain open for the lower grades, the District will not save any money. “We’re a very small high school. Moving 140 kids will not do anything for this massive debt.” Dave Joseph, a freshman, says that being forced to move will not benefit his education.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky asks what is the benefit for closing the high school. Danielle Floyd explains that the third floor, where the high school is located would remain empty. Plus, Lamberton has low achievement ratings, Floyd said. Dworetzky asks where the savings will come from. Floyd explains that it will come from "instructional savings." Dworetzky asks why. Hite starts to explain, but Dworetzky says he understands the issues related to economy of scale. "It’s not obvious to me how there’ll be savings from this move," Dworetzky says.

7:47 PM: Joi Harris, member of Bethlehem Church of God, which has adopted Kinsey, said that the school “has come a long way” and urges that it be kept open. Her church has built partnerships with other community organizations to work in Kinsey. “This is a school the community is rallying to keep,” she said.

7:41 PM: Christina Moresi is the youth program coordinator at Wyck, a historic 18th-century house and garden near Germantown High School where students get lessons in environmental science and history “and the opportunity to play outside.” At Wyck, she said, students often get their first experience with farming, “playing in leaves,” and an opportunity to exercise. She urges that Germantown High be kept open and that Fulton students be relocated there. She quotes Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

7:33 PM: SRC commences the portion of the Northwest hearing that concerns Fulton, Kinsey and Roosevelt. Before Christine Palermo begins, Ramos says that the SRC is continuing to grapple with Head Start, pointing out that the contemplated program changes are not part of the Facilities Master Plan. He suggests that this is not the proper place to talk about Head Start, while noting that there is “overlap” on the issues. Palermo proceeds to make an impassioned plea for Head Start, especially asking that they be kept in public school buildings. Germantown families will travel far to go to a private child-care center in which they will not get as good an education. In the 19144 zip code, there is only one high-quality partner site, she said. “This is fiscally and educationally irresponsible,” she concludes.

7:23 PM: Karen Lee, parent of a student at Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds, presents violent crime statistics from the Police Department in the vicinities of Leeds, which is in Mount Airy, vs. Elverson, in North Philadelphia. She says that the Elverson area is more dangerous, with more robberies, rapes and aggravated assaults. Ramos says that District officials will look at the data to determine the per-person rate. Rashon Moore, parent of another Leeds student, says that he decided to stay in Philadelphia, even though he works in New Jersey, because of PMA@Leeds, which has immeasurably helped his older son. He says that while realizing that schools must close, even Elverson’s own committee that favored locating the combined military academy there recognize that the Elverson building is not ideal. Moore concludes by telling the commissioners: “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes. I appreciate the work you have to do.”

7:15 PM: The Rev. LeRoi Simmons, Germantown activist, is representing Enon Tabernacle Church, and presents a thick report from Enon’s series of meetings around the city. The report is also on Enon’s and the School District’s websites. State Rep. Stephen Kinsey is the first elected official to speak; he presents a proposal on behalf of Germantown High, Roosevelt Middle, and Fulton Elementary. Closing all three schools will “impact 1,300 students within a one-mile radius of central Germantown,” he says, adding that 500 small businesses will be impacted. He presents a letter signed by elected officials and other community members. “We recognize schools have to close,” Kinsey says. “We’re willing to concede the closing of Fulton school. We’re also willing to concede the closing of Roosevelt. But we’re asking that these students be relocated to Germantown (High). … All we’re saying is let’s not eliminate public education in central Germantown.”

7:14 PM: There are no more speakers scheduled for this planning area, so the SRC convenes the hearing for the Northwest are 30 minutes ahead of schedule. The first section addresses the high schools: Germantown, Parkway Northwest, Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds.

7:09 PM: Taylor parent and Head Start teacher Magdalena Cancel: “I don’t know what you’re thinking. You’re moving our babies with older children.” Head Start helps students to socialize, she said. “Kindergarten doesn’t have time. … We just got a playground, and now you are telling us we’re closing? Insane. That’s where the anger is coming from. We don’t know until it’s already done.”

7:02 PM Two students speak to save Charles Carroll High School in Kensington. Zac Caufman, also a member of Youth United for Change, says, “Small schools do work.” Shyann Williams touts the learning environment, saying that teachers are able to relate to students one-on-one. “Filling up small schools will not give us the education we deserve.” Closing Carroll and Douglas will make the Kensington multiplex schools overcrowded, she says.

7:00 PM Hearing starts for the area of North Philadelphia east of Broad Street, where Ferguson, Fairhill, Taylor, Sheridan West Academy, Carroll, and Douglas are targeted for closing. The segment begins with teacher Yvonne Bowersox and 8th grader Natalia Tucker speaking on behalf of Ferguson Elementary School, which also has a Head Start program. Bowersox cites accomplishments of graduates and its special programs, including an orchestra. Tucker said that Ferguson helped her get into special admission high schools and touts the college-prep AVID program. She says that teachers give students “tough love,” and asks the SRC to keep Ferguson open for the sake of her 1st-grade sister.

6:30 PM The segment on North Philadelphia west of Broad Street is supposed to run till 7 p.m., but no other speakers are present. Running ahead of schedule, the SRC takes a 15-minute break.

6:29 PM: Gita Farbman, speaking now for children in Head Start. Reynolds, slated for closure, has a Head Start program. She said that many families now feel that the District is no longer prioritizing early childhood. She urges the SRC to reconsider the plan to privatize some Head Start programs, urging them to continue to locate them in public schools.

6:26 PM: Antoine Little, parent and activist, speaks on behalf of T.M. Peirce. He says that the walk for some of these students will take 45 minutes. He invites Hite to take the walk. “I’m begging you to take this walk with me. If you consider the human side of things, you will reconsider all that you plan to do.”

6:22 PM: Quibila Divine, of the Women’s Christian Alliance, education chair of NAACP, thanks the District for making new recommendations. But she adds that the new proposals would still make some elementary school children walk a mile each way to and from school. “When I look at the map, you see dots, but I see children.” She wants T.M. Peirce kept open.

6:19 PM: Linda Cliatt-Wayman, principal of Strawberry Mansion, urges that L.P. Hill be kept open. “North Philadelphia is desperately in need of stability, institutions its residents can count on,” she said. She wants the SRC to invest in a preK-12 educational complex at the Hayre complex. Applause from the crowd. Quotes John Dewey; “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

6:15 PM Kala Johnstone, principal of L.P. Hill, is the first to speak. She notes that Hill is co-located with Strawberry Mansion High School in the Ruth Wright Hayre Education Complex and calls on the District to spare Hill, as it has spared Mansion. She says that Hill has a valuable preschool program that should be expanded. She quotes President Obama that every dollar invested in good early childhood saves money later because students do better in school and have better life outcomes. She also says that no teachers put in for a transfer last year and that violent incidents have decreased by 60 percent, and math scores have increased.

6:10 PM Hite concludes his testimony, saying that school closings on this scale represent a “turning point” for the District and the city. The first hearing is for the North-Central planning area, in which L.P. Hill, Reynolds, T.M. Peirce, Whittier, and Pratt elementary schools, and Vaux Promise Academy High School are slated to close. In this area, Strawberry Mansion, Meade, Morris and Duckrey elementary schools, originally slated for closure, were spared. In this area, Hite said, building utilization is 43 percent.

6:00 PM Hite continues his presentation explaining the rationale for closings in all the areas to be considered tonight. Speakers wait quietly and patiently.

5:40 PM The School Reform Commission hearing on closings opens with a presentation by Superintendent Hite. He acknowledges that the District “lacks the resources to provide students the education they deserve.” He said he knows the process is painful but says that the interests of students are still paramount. His revised recommendations, he said, “strike a balance between the urgency of saving the District and the need for better collaboration for families and school communities.”

5:25 PM Outside just before the closing hearing started, more than 100 students, parents and others blocked traffic on Broad Street for about 15 minutes, holding up pictures of Gov. Corbett and Mayor Nutter that had stickers with the names of closed schools “pinned” on them. Among the angry chants: ““Hey, Corbett, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.” Organizers said that they continue to press for a moratorium on all closures but have essentially given up on the SRC and are now focusing their protest efforts on the mayor and governor.

Protestors block traffic on Broad Street. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

The protesters are clearly not mollified by Hite’s revised recommendations. “Nobody’s safe,” said Sodany Williams, a parents of two students at Gompers Elementary School. Gompers, originally slated for closure, will stay open. But she is concerned that Beeber Middle School is now slated for closure and that 7th and 8th graders in the area will be sent to Overbrook High School. “That is a 9-12 grade school that is already failing,” she said.

Here’s the schedule for Thursday night’s school closings hearing, the SRC’s first of three on closings:

The first segment of the meeting is the District’s presentation. Then the testimony begins with a maximum of 10 speakers per school, with a three-minute time limit per speaker.

Northcentral(west of Broad) 6:00-7:00 PM
Northcentral (east of Broad) 7:00-7:45 PM
Northwest (high schools) 7:45-8:15 PM
Northwest (elem/middle) 8:15-8:45 PM
Southwest 8:45-9:30 PM
West 9:30-10:00 PM
Southcentral 10:00-10:25 PM
Northeast 10:25-10:35 PM

The SRC’s business meeting adjourned, with the SRC due to reconvene shortly.

5:15 PM President of School Advisory Council at Alcorn complains about poorly trained teachers at the school, referring back to the resolution that Venard Johnson complained about before. Superintendent Hite assures her that this $66,000 is from the School Improvement Grant, in response to something the principal has requested for Alcorn. Hite agrees it is late in the year and that ideally it would have happened earlier. The Alcorn principal himself appears to explain that he decided to use new SIG funds made available in December. President of SAC says she likes the principal, but continues to argue that the school does not have highly-trained teachers and often uses substitutes. Commissioner Wendell Pritchett acknowledges that little progress has been made at the school this year. The resolution to spend $66,000 on the professional development passes unanimously.

5:04 PM Crowd quiets as SRC passes resolution to settle a dispute with the IRS for $714,000. Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky votes no. New commissioner Sylvia Simms votes no on a resolution to give a $110,000 contract to Frontline Solutions International, LLC to support the School Advisory Councils in Renaissance schools between now and the end of the year.

4:45 PM Protesters interrupt commissioners repeatedly as they pass resolution to stop doing business with vendors who are delinquent on their property taxes.

4:40 PM One speaker, Venard Johnson, complains about a resolution to provide professional development to teachers at Alcorn Elementary School, saying that the school’s future is uncertain and that the money will be going to teachers who “don’t care about our kids.” Protesters chant from the back of the room.

4:30 PM Protesters stand in front of commissioners waving signs and chanting. They disperse before speakers and voting on resolutions begins.