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Live blog: School closing hearings Day 2

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 staff is reporting all day Friday on Day 2 of hearings.The hearings are scheduled to run from 8:30 a.m. to 6:50 p.m. Watch the hearings live here and leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Highlights of the afternoon session: Washington Elementary, Lamberton, Pepper, Robeson, Wilson, University City, and Germantown each had a full slate of defenders in this afternoon’s testimony. Parkway Northwest, Communications Tech, Motivation, and Vare have had no speakers come to speak on their behalf in the first two days of hearings.

SRC members seemed to be particularly interested in why Robeson was targeted for closing, after hearing a parade of eloquent students talk about how Robeson had helped them grow and insist that the great majority of them will not move to Sayre. Commissioners also questioned why the high school program from Lamberton was being moved to Overbrook High. And they questioned the rationale behind the decision to move Vare into the Washington building, with a name change and the need for Washington faculty to move.

6:45 PM With no speakers from the Northeast area, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos adjourns the session until Saturday morning.

6:35 PM The day’s proceedings wind down with more speakers from George Washington Elementary who plead on behalf of this school and its staff, citing it as high-performing and with a stable team of teachers.

6:16 PM Dworetzky asks for an analysis of the costs involved with moving a CTE program like Bok. “We do need that information,” he tells staff. Kihn said the District will provide a breakdown of moving costs for each of the schools to be closed.

The evening’s final two speakers have until 6:35 to arrive. In the meantime, the commission is taking a break.

6:10 PM Commissioners are now talking about the naming and branding issues when schools are combined. Is there a way to merge schools and preserve their identities? Could Vare and Washington be merged instead of one of them being closed? Commission Pritchett: Could the Bok name and brand be preserved in merging it into South Philadelphia High School. Superintendent Hite said he thinks so.

5:55 PM Speaker Brenda Mims questions the decision to close George Washington Elementary and bring the Abigail Vare Elementary program there. She said the Vare program is nearly identical, “so why shut our program down?” Ramos promises her that someone will ask staff for an explanation.

With no more speakers present, the SRC moves directly to the question about George Washington. Danielle Floyd says that the enrollment has steadily declined, 72 percent of students don’t live in the catchment, and only 77 students from the catchment attend the school. Floyd says that Washington is a larger facility with newer amenities to support the program. So the decision was made to close the Vare building and relocate it to Washington, with the 77 students who live in the catchment being absorbed in that school. The other students will be offered admission at Nebinger.

Ramos asks what will happen to the teachers and is told they will have the right to follow their students to other schools.

Dworetzky asks why so many come from outside the catchment. Floyd said that because it made AYP, it was identified as a school choice option under No Child Left Behind. But those numbers are fairly small — a total of 54 since 2006. There is also an autistic support program. “Minus school choice and autistic support … the other reasons, I don’t know.”

“It seems like a lot of other people have elected into that school,” Dworetzky notes, to applause from Washington supporters in the audience.

Ramos asks, “Why close the school to open the school under a different name? Why not call it Washington and merge Vare into there?” Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn explains that it was “clearer” that if the program of Vare was moved into Washington, that it would be called Vare.

5:50 PM Hearing resumes on South-Central, staring with Bok Spanish teacher William Hodgson pointing out that Bok was built in the 1930s during the WPA using top materials, including marble, oak, and sandstone. He called it a “spacious and magnificent building.” He also notes that Bok was cited in 2012 as one of the best CTE schools in Pennsylvania. “At Bok, both students and staff are held accountable for student learning,” he said. “It makes absolutely no sense to close a school which is demonstrating behavioral and academic success. … Closing Bok is really throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” Bok, he said, has been providing students with needed skills for 76 years.

5:20 PM George Washington Elementary parent Michael Kirk asks why the school is being closed since it is relatively high-performing. He seeks answers to questions, but is told that this is a hearing in which he is giving testimony, as opposed to being able to get questions answered.

The hearing breaks until 5:45 p.m.

5:13 PM The hearings move on to the South-Central region. Jeanina Dix, parent, speaks on behalf of Smith Elementary. Her son is in learning support. She asks whether her son will get the same level of support in another school. Betty Beaufort, a Point Breeze community leader and member of the Smith School Advisory Council, says that Smith is a “great school” with an extensive community network and partnerships. She also notes that students have won writing awards and asks that the school be kept open for safety and academic reasons.

4:57 PM Carl S. Moore, scheduled to speak for Leidy School, says he has 17 grandchildren. He asks why Leidy is closing when housing is built nearby. He says that he was active in the civil rights movement and that he promised his grandson that he would fight to keep Leidy open.

Moore gets upset and overturns the table, threatening SRC members, and he is escorted out of the room by security. Some adults in the room applaud. Ramos expresses his disappointment at this. Venard Johnson, a mainstay at the SRC meetings, boils over in frustration. “It’s time to shake the devil off. … Poor teachers, our kids are failing, you know the teachers are poor, you leave them there. I’m sick of it. … I can’t take it anymore. I’m tired of all these people coming into here and judging us. I’m sick of it.”

4:51 PM A contingent of students cheer on speakers on behalf of Lamberton. Marriah Yancey says that some of her classmates told her they would rather drop out than go to Overbrook.

Lamberton 11th grader Aaliyah Hamilton touts the school’s architecture program and says that despite data on low proficiency levels on the PSSA, “we have one of the best schools in the city.”

4:48 PM The SRC moves on to consideration of the West planning areas, with speakers scheduled on Leidy and Lamberton.

4:34 PM Richard Leezi talks about the Wilson Community School that Wilson operates with the Netter Center at the University of Pennsylvania, including an extensive afterschool program. Penn and University of the Sciences also provide mentors. “What Wilson Community School has done cannot simply be cut and pasted into another school.” He said that he fears the public education system “will be sold off to the private interests.” Penn Alexander has overflow, he says. “Why can’t those students be sent to Wilson?”

Ladoya Landfair, a teacher at Wilson, said that students look to Wilson as a place where they can be safe and come for guidance. She said that former students came back to check in with their old teachers, indicating that the staff established a rapport with them. And students that now go to Lea come back to Wilson for afterschool, she said. “We have established a community,” she said. She also suggests that Wilson absorb overflow from Penn Alexander.

Pastor Cedric Jones, of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, said that his church has a vision of eliminating educational inequities in the area. “This is doable with Wilson serving as the model elementary school. …. You have a valuable, yet underdeveloped asset in Wilson. … See the children, not the dollars,” he concludes.

A group of students and parents came with the speakers to support keeping Wilson open and cheer on the speakers.

Ramos asks for more demographic information from the Planning Commission to make sure that the District isn’t planning to close schools in areas where the school-age population may be increasing.

4:27 PM Hearings for the Southwest region resume with Horace Clouden speaking on behalf of his extensive proposal that, among other things, would keep Pepper open. Venard Johnson speaks on behalf of Shaw, for which he is the first advocate. He says that Shaw has been thrown a “curveball” by the District and presents several alternatives for changing feeder patterns in the region. “We think you’re making a big mistake.” His alternatives include one that would send some students from the Penn Alexander school. If Shaw is closed, he asks that the community be consulted on its future use before Shaw is sold.

3:40 PM Hearings take a brief recess. Will resume at 4:10 p.m.

3:33 PM Testimony commences on behalf of Wilson Elementary School with Lucille Fletcher, a block captain who lives across the street and whose entire family has attended the school. Wearing a leopard hat, she describes Wilson as “very academic,” a school that raised money to put a playground in the schoolyard. “If you close Wilson, who will benefit? University of the Sciences, the University of Pennsylvania, or a charter school?” She suggests making Wilson a magnet school with a good principal and good teachers “who are educating the children.” She asks Hite, a newcomer to Philadelphia, to explain how he knows enough to close so many schools. He doesn’t answer.

3:20 PM On to University City High. Junior Rhonda Davis says that the school has done a “180-degree turn” since she started there as a freshman and that she has found support and nurturing that eluded her in the eight different schools she attended before. She said that UCHS has more AP courses than other West Philadelphia high schools; she said she has taken seven AP courses. “I’m hurt that my school will be wiped away. I will always be a University City Jaguar no matter where I end up.”

Senior Tiara Parker says that she transferred into UCHS as a 10th grader, and considering transferring out, but stayed and received the support she needed to be on her way to college. She applied to 23 colleges and has been accepted to two. She has been active in a community nutrition program. “This school has a legacy. … I’m glad this school has put me on the right path.”

All the University City students are dressed in their Promise Academy uniforms, with blazers and/or ties.

Russell Davis, sophomore, says that Ben Franklin is a better option for them than what had been previously offered. But he asks: “If schools like Strawberry Mansion meet the standard for staying open, why can’t University City?” Strawberry Mansion had been slated to close, but received a reprieve in Hite’s revised plan. Davis asks for an explanation of the standards used to determine which schools came off the list. He cites facts and figures, from building utilization to violent incidents. He refers to the “exile” of the University City family.

Eros Ulthman notes University City’s ties to Drexel, and its connection to the neighborhood and partnerships that help 9th graders transition into high school and that promote entrepreneurship.

SRC members have no questions for them.

3:14 PM Cecelia Thompson speaks up for Pepper, noting its extensive campus and amenities for special education students, with ramps and elevators, comparing it favorably with Tilden, one of the schools where students have been reassigned. Student Emily O’Donnell, who is on the football team — the first female ever — said that Pepper has “the best learning environment.” Kautuaba Gartei says it would be a “disaster” to close Pepper. She notes that boys and girls are separated, providing a “hassle-free education, if you know what I mean.” Pepper offers great teacher support on a six-acre campus. Although she acknowledges that test scores are low, she says: “If you look closely at our scores, you will see they rise after participating in a Pepper education.”

2:57 PM Hearing begins for Southwest; four students from Robeson again plead to keep their school open. Tatiana Myers says that students will not attend Sayre, which has more violent incidents and lower academic performance indicators. “We refuse to allow this proposal to dictate our future.” She calls the decision to close Robeson “irrational” and says, "If Paul Robeson merges with Sayre, the District has failed to do its job.”

Dorian McKenney points out that the Robeson building is in better condition and just got a new roof. Jonathan Tegram says that small schools are more successful than larger ones. Because 90 percent of Robeson students surveyed said they won’t go to Sayre, “Sayre will still be empty, and you will just have closed our school for nothing.” Kayla Bradford described how her 9th grade was rocky, but the school helped turn her around — she attributes that to Robeson’s small, caring atmosphere. Sayre is more dangerous and larger, she said. “Please keep us together in the Paul Robeson building… where young ladies like me can get a second chance.”

The SRC members continue to question the rationale for the decision to close Robeson. SRC Chair Ramos comments that these were four “very powerful student speakers” and commends them for their thoughtful comments. He asks commissioners if they have questions for the students.

Commissioner Dworetzky asks Hite how the academic factors figured into the decision to close Robeson. Hite confirms, as one student said, that the driving factor was the low utilization rate at Sayre. “If you put the two together, it just about fills Sayre,” Dworetzky says. Someone comments from the audience: “If they go.” It is also correct that Sayre is on the persistently dangerous list, Hite acknowledges.

Pritchett asks Hite to comment in light of the students’ eloquent testimony. Hite says that they’ve had several meetings with Robeson students and know well their arguments. “This is one of those recommendations that as we look at it systematically, it looks like an easy decision but it becomes very hard considering the tremendous performance of the students at Robeson.”

2:45 PM Hearing resumes for the Northwest planning area, with testimony from the Rev. Robert Shine, pastor of Berachah Baptist Church, speaking on behalf of Kinsey Elementary. He quotes a Masai greeting: “Are the children well.” He concludes that they are not. He adds, “You can’t shift them around to some unknown place. … It is almost like separating them from their parents.”

2:24 PM The hearings take a brief recess. Will resume at 2:45.

2:20 PM Elvita Williams asks the SRC to keep Kinsey open, saying that the school has a family atmosphere and the receiving schools are in more dangerous neighborhoods.

2:13 PM Mary Laver speaks on behalf of St. Vincent de Paul, a Germantown Catholic church that is part of the POWER faith-based community organizing group, which includes 36 Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations. She advocates relocating Fulton in Germantown, or implementing a one-year moratorium on closings while studying alternatives around the country. (PCAPS has advocated for a community school model based on one in Cincinnati.)
“We are very concerned that a shutdown of Fulton, combined with a shutdown of Germantown and Roosevelt, will put the entire neighborhood at risk,” Laver said. She said that only two Fulton students don’t walk to school, while the receiving schools are too far for the children to walk while too close to get busing (within 1.5 miles).
“The neighborhood will be deprived of anchor institutions that have stabilized the neighborhood for years.” She predicts an increase in crime.
She says that Fulton offers a warm, welcoming atmosphere with a good principal and strong parent leaders.

1:52 PM Speakers now speaking on behalf of Roosevelt Middle School. Daniel Heim, a teacher for 15 years, said that the staff would like to remain in this “unique” neighborhood. He cites several programs — peer tutoring, an honors program, behavioral support, a school newspaper, debate club, and others. “These programs are the signs of a healthy school emerging.” He says that Roosevelt students will be “unwelcome” at Leeds. He speaks in favor of the proposed K-12 Germantown campus.

Volunteer Marcus Mcknight talks about a SEPTA initiative that helps students learn about geography and pleads with the SRC to keep Roosevelt open, saying that the uncertainty about their futures is harming students’ ability to do well academically. He concludes: “Let’s keep the Germantown village intact.”

Lori Goins, a parent and founder of a mentoring organization, also pleads with the commissioners to keep the community together. “It is time to rethink our approach to keeping children safe,” she said. She says that the children of Roosevelt are not “gangsters,” but the future of the city and potential doctors, lawyers, and even, perhaps, a future president.

1:32 PM Vera Primus, president of the Germantown High School alumni association, is the first speaker as the public hearings resume. She said Germantown has been failed by the District. Between nearly $10 million from the Department of Labor (DOL), and extras from the Promise Academy model, Germantown is improving, she said. “Why relocate to King, where performance has declined?” she asks. Richard Cox, a retired clergyman, spoke on behalf of First United Methodist Church of Germantown, which is across the street and has run an afterschool program for years. He said a student approached him and said “you mean I can’t come back here next year? I repeated 9th grade twice before I passed it. How do you expect me to get through 10th grade?”

Commissioner Feather Houstoun wonders about the end of DOL grants funds, Title 1 cuts, and possible sequestration — meaning far less federal aid to the District. She asked, “What does that mean?”

Hite paints a grim picture. He said that the DOL grant, directed toward schools designated persistently dangerous, was used to reduce class size, among other programs; those grants are ending for Germantown and other schools, Hite explains. “We are facing significant reductions in Title 1 funding, DOL grant is coming to an end, and all this is happening at the same time. … The fact they are all expiring between now and the end of this calendar year, it will impact many of our schools.”

Hervoline Mitchell, a teacher for 35 years, points out that the school will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, and points out its storied history and pantheon of illustrious and successful graduates. She said that after a period of instability brought on by the District’s revolving door of leadership, a turnaround occurred during the last five years. The Promise Academy designation, plus the DOL grant money, led to a turnaround — improved test scores, attendance, higher graduation rate, and removal from the “persistently dangerous list.”

Ramos asks about the DOL grant. He wants to know over what period of time and how many students were served.

The hearings are scheduled to resume at 1 p.m.

Highlights from the morning session: Some school communities from the North-central region have been well-represented in testimony on the first two days. Others have been no-shows. L.P. Hill, Ferguson, and Carroll have used all or nearly all of their available speaker slots. (Two speakers per school were allowed on Thursday night, four each on Friday and Saturday.) At the other extreme, in the first two sessions, we have not as yet heard testimony in opposition to the closings from Fairhill, Whittier, Pratt, Sheridan West Academy, or Douglas High School. Those schools will have one more chance to speak out on Saturday. The lack of testimony from several schools in the North-central region meant that the SRC had ample time for discussion Friday morning, took a 30-minute morning recess, and still finished the session an hour early.

Commissioner Dworetzky has emerged as the most assertive of the commissioners in questioning the rationale for a number of the moves. In particular, he has raised questions about why schools that are highly utilized are being moved and what are the academic benefits of closing them. He has also pushed for information on the costs of moving specific schools — information the District has not yet released.

10:58 AM Before closing out the morning session (one hour ahead of schedule), Chair Pedro Ramos said the District has made a significant investment at Clemente, which opened less than 20 years ago, it is a well-kept, modern facility and that is is important to have the right people at the school.

10:45 AM Commissioner Dworetzky asked about the Taylor School and the rationale for closing the school given the 92 percent utilization and having over 500 students. Hite said the rationale is the low utilization rate in schools in the geographical area overall. Hite said Clemente’s utilization is very low and it has available space to assume students from Taylor. Dworetzky asked if there are other options for filling Clemente that were not proposed. Danielle Floyd responded that in looking at other schools in the area there weren’t other options available on the table. Clemente became a 6-8 school and enrollment has dropped to about 500 students over time. In 2006 the school had 985 students. The building’s capacity is about 1,500 students. Dworetzky asked how academic achievement of Taylor and Clemente compare. Floyd said we shouldn’t be comparing the schools because they do not have comparable grade groups. Dworetzky also asked about what the District should be thinking about in terms of cost of moving Taylor. “Do we have an estimate of what the cost will be to move the school?” Paul Kihn said part of cost will be what to do with Clemente building and part would be the moving costs. Cost estimates for moving individual schools have not previously been published but Kihn promised to provide the numbers for Taylor. Dworetzky made clear that he doesn’t see an improvement by moving Taylor to Clemente, but also indicated he doesn’t know how he will vote on this yet.

10:42 AM A parent from Carroll High School talks about having two daughters currently in Carroll and a son who graduated from Carroll. She said the staff seems like neighbors: “They are very friendly.” She’s concerned about transferring students to Penn Treaty. She said District should consider the staff at Carroll and not just the state of the building.

10:37 AM A learning support teacher at Taylor Elementary School is the first speaker once hearings resume. She said her small size makes them invaluable to students. She said the families want to have a neighborhood school where they feel comfortable. She said though Taylor is an old building, they do have modern features. There has been extensive outreach that the school has had for over 20 years in the community. Taylor has worked with the Hamels Foundation, which donated a $330,000 state-of the-art playground to the school.

10:10 AM The commission takes a 20-minute break … one more speaker from the Northcentral region is expected.

9:50 AM Testimony resumes with two teachers and a parent from Ferguson Elementary. Ferguson is one of the schools that has been well-represented in the first two days of hearings. The first teacher describes how the school was disrupted by the end of the partnership with Temple University as an education management organization and was left without adequate materials. She says that there has been progress since new literacy materials – Imagine It – were put in place. “We are on a trajectory to success.” One of the school’s three autism support teachers tearfully explains how important stability is for her students. “We need more than four months to transition them, to get them ready…. These 20 kids need you.” She cites a lawsuit settled earlier this week which found that the District was improperly moving students with autism without consulting their parents.

9:48 AM Hite notes that administratively he has the right to assign principals, but that if layoffs of principals must take place, he doesn’t have the same control. “The reduction in force is the process that requires us to use seniority as a decision-making factor.”

9:40 AM Dworetzky sums up one of the concerns behind his questioning: “Closure of a building — to me, I’m not sure what that does for academic performance.” Thursday night, Dworetzky had expressed concern about the decision to close three Promise Academies, a turnaround strategy that he has been enthusiastic about.

9:32 AM Commissioner Dworetzky questioned why Carroll is being closed, given 78 percent occupancy. He asks whether academic performance is an issue, Hite says academic performance in the school is “below average” and that there was an issue of school utilization in the region that could be addressed in part by closing Carroll

9:23 AM Running ahead of its schedule, the commission moves into discussion mode and takes up the criticism of its plan for Carroll. Superintendent Hite acknowledges that the idea of moving to Penn Treaty came from students at Carroll. He said he supports the idea that staff would move with students to the new school, even though it is not a co-location (Carroll would no longer exist). Deputy Kihn points to seniority provisions in the teachers’ contract but says that if all the teachers want to move to Penn Treaty, “we can get close to 100 percent” of the teachers to go. But the administration would not move to the new school, unless administrative positions opened at Penn Treaty.

9:13 AM Well over an hour ahead of its schedule, the SRC moves on to the North-Central region east of Broad Street. Three speakers from Carroll start it off. A Carroll student points out that the District’s plan to move students to a new “middle secondary” school at Penn Treaty doesn’t ensure that the teachers, principal, and staff will all get to move with the students.

9:03 AM Next up are two speakers opposing the closing of Reynolds Elementary — a neighborhood pastor and a graduate and parent. None of the other schools from the region are represented. Two hours were alloted for this region, but the testimony is over in half an hour.

8:50 AM The hearings get underway with a section on North Philadelphia west of Broad Street. The first four speakers are teachers and parents from L.P. Hill, one of the schools that was represented by two speakers on Thursday — Hill has used all its available speaker slots. Together with adjoining Strawberry Mansion High School, the Hill community has put together a proposal to create a preK-12 Ruth Wright Hayre Educational Complex in response to the planned closing of both schools. But Mansion has been spared. Speakers say that new leadership has stabilized the school in the last two years.

8:45 AM SRC Chair Pedro Ramos opens the hearings, lays out the ground rules, and explains that he will be managing time "more strictly" and the commission will be engaging in less dialogue than in a typical SRC meeting.

Commissioners will hear up to four speakers per school for the schools proposed to be closed or relocated. The testimony is organized geographically by planning area. Here is Friday’s schedule:

North-Central(west of Broad) 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
North-Central (east of Broad) 10:30 AM-12 PM
Northwest (high schools) 1:00 PM-2:00 PM
Northwest (elem/middle) 2:00 PM-3:00 PM
Southwest 3:00 PM-4:45 PM
West 4:45 PM-5:45 PM
South-Central 5:45 PM-6:35 PM
Northeast 6:35 PM-6:50 PM