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Live blog: School closing hearings Day 3

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 is reporting all day Saturday on the final day of hearings.The hearings are scheduled to run from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Watch the hearings live here and leave your thoughts in the comments section. Live blogs from the previous days’ hearings can be found here and here.

5:10 PM No more registered speakers are present. “This is the last session of the hearings,” Ramos says. Additional testimony on any school can be submitted to the SRC until 5 p.m. March 4, he says. “Having no other business … these hearings are adjourned. Thank you for your participation. I appreciate the presence of so many familiar faces.”

4:50 PM Testimony resumes with CTE teacher Yvonne Harris speaking on behalf of Vaux High. She calls it a “highly effective” school that’s now much better than its past reputation: smaller classes, co-teaching, and climate improvement have it on the right track. She cites its 89 percent attendance.

Commissioner Dworetzky notes that anyone interested in data for Vaux or any other Promise Academies can find it on the District’s Renaissance website.

Sharrie Speight, a Vaux parent whose son arrived from a charter where he didn’t get the attention he needed, praises the school. She cites its medical clinic and its plans for a culinary institute, and praises its rising test scores, attendance and graduation rates. “I ask that you hear our cry,” she says. “Most of these children have no one to speak for them … This is not just an educational center, it is a safe haven. Our children need stability.” She calls for a moratorium on closings so that the school can continue to improve.

The first speaker of the hearings representing Whittier Elementary is Bill McDermott, a computer/MG teacher. “I’m here today to talk about the plant we’re being sent to, because in my opinion it’s not ready for elementary students.” Urinals are too high; classrooms have little room for storage. They also lack cubbies for coats and backpacks. "They’re just four walls. It’s just not set up for little children to thrive in.” Cites his experience in a K-8 school and notes that “having 5-year-olds with 15-year-olds is not good. … They got run over, they got bullied. It’s a bad situation.” He also worries about the plan to move Whittier’s computers and technology, and isn’t confident that it will go smoothly.

Danielle Floyd reiterates that the District is planning the transition and will invest in Rhodes to make it elementary-ready. She assures commissioners that technology will be safely and efficiently transferred. Hite confirms McDermott’s assertion that Whittier’s computers will be “reimaged” — i.e. wiped clean — as part of the relocation, but asserts that the District will develop a process to back up hard drives so that teachers like McDermott won’t lose important work. Commissioner Dworetzky requests that Hite make this plan a part of the record. “This seems like a legitimate complaint,” he says.

3:45 PM Plan is to break until 4:30. Only two scheduled speakers remain.

3:15 PM For the third day in a row, there is a full slate testifying in support of L.P. Hill. Danita Bates, community activist in North Philadelphia, speaks on behalf of L.P. Hill and “all the schools in North Philly” slated to be closed. She requests a moratorium on closings and says she expects the District to keep closing schools in the years to come. “It is important to know that even if your school is not being closed, it’s closer than you think.” Keith Harris, community activist and ward leader, also speaks on behalf of L.P. Hill. “My son graduated from L.P. Hill,” he says. “The school has been an institution in the Strawberry Mansion area. … To close the school will disrupt a lot of K-8 children” and be a “slap in the face” to the community. Tanya Parker, an L.P. Hill parent and community activist, notes that the neighborhood is full of empty lots, drugs, and dysfunctional families, and that students traveling to new schools will face all sorts of new dangers.

John Hernandez, a student, speaks on behalf of Fairhill Elementary. It’s the first testimony heard this week on behalf of Fairhill. “It’s a great school, and many students are trying their best,” he says. “Kids will have to walk longer, and parents will have to drive longer, and this could cause them to lose their jobs.”

Representing T.M. Peirce, Hortencia Vasquez, Anna Seabrooks, Ann Guise, and Verde Fisher speak. Peirce also had a presence at the hearings Friday night. Guise has run the “Bright Lights” initiative at Peirce for 20 years. “I’m not nervous — I’m shaking because I have Parkinson’s,” she jokes, but quickly gets serious: “Consolidation is selfish, immoral, and cowardly. … I find it just plain wrong. Surely the leaders of this city can find a way to solve the financial shortcomings. … The ones punished are the most vulnerable,” she says, shaking violently. “Closing these schools is not the answer to fiscal irresponsibility on the part of adults. … It is an outrage and I continue to be furious about it.” She gets a standing ovation, and leaves on the arm of one of her program’s former students.

Fisher, a Peirce staffer, praises the school’s community and extracurricular activities. “Our school runs well because of the rich social fabric.” Seabrooks, also a teacher, notes that Rhodes Middle School, a proposed receiving school, lacks the infrastructure needed for “little ones” — bathrooms, urinals, water fountains are “too high for little hands to reach. … There’s no way [Rhodes] will be ready to serve 1,000 new students … It’s not a realistic goal,” she says. “The School District has overlooked costs … needed to make these drastic changes. You can’t tell me in good conscience that Rhodes Middle will be ready next year to be Rhodes Elementary.” Vasquez, a Pierce parent, praises the school and worries about the long, potentially dangerous walk to Rhodes. “Twenty percent of our students are already late. … Rates of absenteeism are likely to increase,” she says.

Commissioner Houstoun asks about the plans for modifying Rhodes. “Can you give us some evidence of why you’re confident that the school will be ready?” Floyd says they’ve done two “preliminary” walkthroughs at Rhodes and talked with architects to plan kindergarten classrooms, bathroom modifications, new furniture and so on; she says they have a preliminary estimate for the cost but does not share it.

3:00 PM Resident Shelah Harper speaks on behalf of Germantown High. Notes that Germantown is finally settling down after years of leadership turnover, and the prospect of merging Germantown and King students — she described them as serious rivals who frequently fight — is very troubling. “There is a major concern about safety. There is a major concern about Germantown’s historical significance.”

Douglas Tolbert, a Germantown alum who mentors students there, encourages the SRC members to visit the school and support the Germantown/Fulton consolidation proposal. “I realize this is a risk to take — but I assume that you were all appointed to this commission because at one time in your lives you took risks. … Do not let this SRC be known for closing down schools. Let it be known for taking a risk. … I urge you not to take the easy way out. You are all successful people because you did not take the easy road.”

Dworetzky notes that Germantown is a Promise Academy, and asks what happens to the special training teachers got while there once the schools close. “The training goes with the teachers, wherever they may go,” answers Hite, who notes that King is also a Promise Academy. Dvoretzky asks, if Fulton moved into Germantown, would Germantown remain a Promise Academy? “It could,” says Hite. Dworetzky asks what consolidating Fulton, Roosevelt and Germantown would do to capacity; staff answers that it would bring Germantown close to full capacity.

Dworetzky notes that the Germantown community has raised important issues. “There’s a Promise Academy there that we started and had high hopes for,” and requests additional information from staff about the impact on all area schools, if the Fulton/Germantown consolidation were to go through.

2:45 PM Carol Williams, principal of Ferguson Elementary, talks about how the school’s enrollment dropped because of the demolition of nearby public housing. She shares plans for new housing to be built nearby, including about 200 units being developed by Association of Puerto Ricans on the March, a CDC, that “will bring families into the Ferguson area. … This is my first year as principal. My goal has been to increase scores and create a safe environment. … Please allow us to continue what we’ve started.”

Brenda Sacko, a grandparent of a Ferguson preschooler. “If Ferguson is taken away, we lose again,” she says. “These children can’t walk from one area to another safely. … It’s hard for working parents. Should I go to work, or should I make sure that my child gets to school safely?”

Dworetzky asks about the housing developments. “Is that something we’ve taken into account in our recommendations?” Floyd says, “We’re looking at that number right now, to verify. It did not come up when we were doing our initial review of schools.” Dworetzky notes that “that’s obviously an important factor — we don’t want to be embarrassed.” He requests an evaluation of the housing’s impact on demand for the school.

Marshall Kimble, a Ferguson grandparent and noontime aide at the school, says, “The staff is like a family,” and praises the principal. “That school is just great. I stay there all day long, and they only pay me for three hours. … Just give it a chance.” Pamela Wright, a ESOL teacher, notes that the school is “well-equipped to handle a diverse population” and provide good bilingual services.

2:30 PM Sharon Mitchell, School Advisory Council member, speaks on behalf of Fulton, and asks the commission to consider the Fulton SAC’s standing proposal: To allow Fulton to move into Germantown, become a K-8, and keep its students and staff together. “We believe that this is a safe option for our children,” she says. “We realize the District is seeking ways to save money, therefore, the parents of the Robert Fulton school are willing to volunteer to clean and repair a section of Germantown High.”

Commissioner Pritchett asks staff what they think of this proposal. Floyd notes that Fulton is in “warning” status for academics. She says that relocating the school to Germantown would save some money, since the Fulton building would close, but some additional costs would be incurred by preparing Germantown High and by expanding Fulton to a K-8. Germantown is a slightly older facility that Fulton. And obviously this proposal would require Germantown to stay open.

Terena Clements, a Kinsey parent, speaks on behalf of her school. Kinsey students are being asked to go to one of six schools. “Why are we the only school on the list that is split into six schools? What if a family has three children and they end up in three different schools?”

Commissioner Pritchett asks how this will be handled. Danielle Floyd promises that the District will provide parents with information they need to make good choices.

2:15 PM Ramos reconvenes hearings on the North-Central regions, both east and west of Broad Street.

Anthony Antrom, a resident, professional truck driver, speaks on behalf of Vaux. “I’ve been looking for work for the last three years,” he says. “They really shouldn’t close any of the schools.” Suggests that schools be used as community spaces to help people with their taxes. Suggests that the District do a better job promoting nutrition. Suggests that the District raise more money from professional sports teams. “How are you going to get blood out of a turnip, when there’s no blood in the turnip?” he asks.

“Mama” Gail Clouden, longtime community activist, speaks on behalf of Vaux. “Take a look at the building,” she says. “When we walked through, we saw the most beautiful things. … They renovated it because it’s a Promise Academy. How do you keep putting money into things and then shutting them down? It just doesn’t make sense. … We keep stopping and starting, and promising these children that are already broken. … Every time these promises are broken, you break them a little more.” She mentions a health clinic in the school, and Dworetzky asks for more details. Staff explains that the clinic does pay rent, but will likely need to move — staff wouldn’t recommend keeping the building open just to keep the clinic there.

Dworetzky notes that Vaux is a Promise Academy — will departing students be relocated to other Promise Academies? None of the recommended new schools will be Promise Academies next year, Kihn answers, but Strawberry Mansion High will be planning to become one the following year.

2:10 PM Ramos reconvenes hearings on the North-Central region, as registered Northwest speakers have not arrived.

2:10 PM Ramos asks whether anyone scheduled for North-Central is prepared to speak now, as registered Northwest speakers have not arrived.

2 PM We’re in a recess as we wait for more Northwest speakers to arrive.

1:30 PM First up is Eric Howard, a student at Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds. He says students feel it will be “unfair” to remove them from the community and break up the relationships they’ve built there. Notes that the Leeds location has easy access to excellent athletic fields, and that the neighborhood is safer than Elverson’s. “Our problem is not with the merging of the school. Our dilemma is that we’re leaving a positive environment,” he says, one that attracts students from across the city who want to get out of more dangerous neighborhoods. “Moving to a not-safe environment will have an impact on our learning abilities.”

Next up are Joshua Levinson and Theresa Capecci, teachers at Leeds. Levinson asks that Leeds stay where it is: “It’s safe, and accessible. Students feel safe. … They come early in the morning and stay late into the night.” The athletic fields and Leeds’ spacious gym are key to the ROTC program, used for drills and so on, they say. Capecci notes that the Elverson gym is smaller than Leeds’, built for elementary students and not appropriate for high school students. “The lack of a proper gym at the Elverson building is really going to impact the students. … More space is necessary.” Levinson notes that crime rates in the Temple area are much higher than those in East Mount Airy. “Our students are not feeling comfortable with having to leave Broad Street and having to go back to their neighborhoods,” he says.

Ramos asks whether they’re aware that one of the city’s popular magnet schools is right across the street from Elverson. “I understand that anything that’s unfamiliar seems a risk,” Ramos says. The teachers say they’re aware, but Capecci adds that the biggest issue is that Elverson was built as an elementary building and not appropriate for high school students.

Orlando Acosta, a community resident, speaks briefly on behalf of Fulton. He notes it was built in 1937 and is operating near full capacity. “It doesn’t economically make sense to close Fulton because of where they’re at capacity-wise,” he says.

1:20 PM Commissioner Dworetzky has a question: Since commissioners are asking staff to provide a variety of information during these hearings, can we make these requests part of the public record, in order to make sure staff responds to them? Paul Kihn says he’s capturing those requests and promises a timely response, in time for the commissioners to consider the answers before they vote on closures on March 7.

1 PM Northwest planning area hearings begin. While we wait for all speakers to arrive, Ramos apologetically asks that the audience bear with “15 minutes of excruciatingly boring” testimony from general counsel Michael Davis, who wants to formally enter into the record a series of “exhibits” concerning individual closures (each exhibit represents a batch of closing-related information). Davis reads off a list of exhibit names for a number of schools, but does not share the content; this is a formal exercise.

11:45 AM Hearings are recessed until 1 PM.

11:22 AM Next up are three speakers representing Wilson in West Philadelphia, which is slated for closing.

Sarah Inman, a Wilson parent, says “Closing Wilson sends the wrong message to our students. It tells them that their hard work is not valued. It tells them that they’re worth less than money.” She criticizes the catchment design and the fact that Penn Alexander is turning away students — 16 kindergartners this year, she says. She cites her own son’s good experience; he went in as a struggling reader and has improved dramatically. She notes that the merger of Wilson and Lea “poses significant safety risks. … There have been no adequate safety measures made” for transportation and in-school issues. She cites the school’s academic success and extracurricular offerings. “We may be small, but we are thriving … an asset to the community and an asset to this school district.”

Audrea Headman, Wilson mom in the Penn Alexander catchment, speaks passionately. She tried to get into Penn Alexander but failed, after waiting in line. “At Wilson, the staff welcomed me with open arms. … I started to cry because all I wanted was to give my daughter a good education, and they made it so easy.” The school has made AYP for 5 of 7 years — much better than Lea, she says, which has been in corrective action for six years.

Abby Slakoff is also a Wilson parent. She also lives in the Penn Alexander catchment, but couldn’t camp out to get a spot. “Having my child out there in the cold with me was just not an option.” She got waitlisted and never got an official, promised reassigment; she ended up walking to all the neighborhood schools on the first day and got a friendly reception at Wilson, and signed up. “I can’t even explain how much he has academically advanced over the last five months.” She praises the principal, Dr. Harrison, “who takes time to know each and every student and their parents. … It is always nice to drop off my son in the morning and know that he’s getting the best of care.”

Commissioners ask Kihn about programs at Ben Franklin: Is it a Promise Academy? No — it’s a typical comprehensive HS, he says. Teachers from UCHS will “have the right” to follow students, he says. Students will have the right to go to Sayre, Overbrook, High School of the Future.

11:07 AM There are four speakers now up from University City High School, where opposition to the District plans has been strong. Speaker Allyson Even is a Penn student who has spent four years volunteering at the school. She detailed a litany of broken promises to students at the school and argued: “What the District is offering these students is not good enough. … It has the potential to be among the best neighborhood high schools in Philadelphia.” She called for making the school a community school.

University City social studies teacher Andrew “A.J.” Schiera is next: “Our school is a high-quality academic option, not a failing school.” There are ways to keep it open, such as co-locating at Ben Franklin, he said. A vision that can only be successful if the UCHS community stays together, he said: “We are filled with problem-solvers — we can help you make that plan.”

Dewayne Drummond, a Mantua resident and the president of a Mantua civic association, cites a poem from his grandmother’s wall: “Don’t quit.” He’s bought the poem itself, a poster, and reads it aloud: “When the funds are low, and the debts are high, and you want to smile, and you have to shy … rest if you must. But don’t you quit.” He notes that Obama is “pumping this theory of from cradle to college. UC sits in the area where there are the most prominent colleges … This is a time for us to gain national attention and promote what’s out there … Don’t quit on UC.”

He’s followed by a singer, Lambert Walker, a UCHS alum class of 1979: “I’ve learned how to live holy. I’ve learned how to live right, I’ve learned how to suffer,” he sings in a clear, strong voice. He cites UCHS’s legacy of succcesful alums: doctors, politicians, businesspeople. “That’s the legacy we have at UC, and it can continue … I’ve been out of the city, and I drive back, and I see all kinds of people working construction, and I don’t see people of my color working there. Where’s the vo-tech? … Work with us!” He’s worried about universities getting after the real estate. “We can do this,” he tells the commissioners. “You can build new prisons, but you can’t build new schools? BBWW — that’s my mantra: Bring back what worked. I demand it, we demand it, in the name of Jesus.”

10:56 AM Commissioner Pritchett asked why not have the Comm Tech program move into Pepper instead of Bartam. Floyd said the District looked to figure out where the best place was to relocate the commercial arts programs at Comm Tech and decided on Bartram. Under questioning, Floyd said the District did not look into the costs of relocating the CTE programs at Pepper and agreed to do that analysis. Ramos asked whether closing Bartram was considered as an option and staff said it was not — there are nearly 1,000 students at Bartram.

10:25 AM The next group of four speakers is from Pepper Middle School, which has also had speakers present each day of the hearings. There is a crowd of supporters of Pepper present, holding banners. Parent Naeemah Felder started her remarks by asking, “Where is the mayor? Where is the mayor? Where is the mayor?” Commissioner Sylvia Simms pointed out the presence of Lori Shorr, the mayor’s chief education officer, but Felder said the mayor himself should be attending. She put forward an alternative to the closing of Pepper: “We welcome the merger of Comm Tech with Pepper.” Leah Clouden reiterated that suggestion to merge the two schools, which are close to one another, stating that it would be a waste of the $5 million that went into an air conditioning system at Pepper two years ago.

The testimony on Pepper is punctuated by a fiery speech by Pastor Darien Thomas about the importance of Pepper to the surrounding Eastwick community: “Let us talk about how we address this problem so we can keep this school open. … Don’t close Pepper … for the children’s sake.”

Commissioner Feather Houstoun voted against the closing of Pepper last year and clearly still has doubts: “I’m still troubled by the closing of a school that offers things offered by no other school in the District.”

10:15 AM The testimony on the Southwest planning region gets underway. The first two speakers are defenders of Paul Robeson High School, which has been well-represented throughout the three days of hearings. West Philadelphia community leader Frances Aulston said the Robeson school community draws inspiration from its legendary namesake. She said Robeson “does not fit the profile” of schools targeted for closing and questioned why the students would be relocated to a lower-performing school. Aulston cited the school’s high student and staff attendance and the scholarships won by graduates. Safety at Sayre is also a concern of the speakers. Two more speakers from Robeson are still on the agenda.

9:50 AM The West planning region discussion gets underway. No speakers are on hand to address the closing of Leidy School. But Lamberton High School is again well-represented, with a full slate of four speakers, three of them students, who speak passionately about what the school has to offer, its strengths as a small school, and recent improvements. They question whether the school’s closing will bring any savings. The proposal to move students to Overbrook High School is a nonstarter for them.

Commissioner Pritchett asked what the District means in its recommendations by stating that Lamberton is too small to “provide a comprehensive high school experience.” Kihn cited as examples a full-time art and music teacher and a dean of students. Dworetzky repeated his request for detailed calculations on the savings, since no building will be closing.

9:43 AM The next speaker, Robert Schloss, is a social studies teacher and football and track coach at Bok. He gave a comprehensive critique of the District’s decision to close the school and merge it into Southern. He argued against transferring students to a significantly lower-performing school, Southern. Bok is nearly full and the enrollment is stable, and Schloss said some other solution should be found to the underenrollment at Southern. He cited the high cost of moving the CTE facilities out of Bok. He pointed out that neighboring Southwark is heated by the Bok boiler. He concluded, "Bok is a source of pride that cannot be replicated by moving into another building." Questioned by the SRC about the boiler issue, Floyd said the District would start the project of putting in a heating system into Southwark next year. Commissioner Dworetzky asked for information on the cost of that project.

9:32 AM Cristina Rodriguez, a parent from George Washington Elementary, speaking through an interpreter, is concerned that the closing of the school, with Vare moving in, means the closing of the preK program at the school. “Don’t change our school’s programs,” she said. Josefina Romero, the parent of a 9-year-old at George Washington also talks about how important Washington is to her family; the staff of the school are “very important people for all of us.”

Paul Kihn responds that the preK program will stay at the school. However, Washington students that don’t live in the catchment area will get reassigned to other schools. Relocating the Vare program to the Washington building will take up more seats than are available there. Under further questioning, District staff acknowledge that moving Vare students into Washington will only slightly exceed the building capacity of 596. Dworetzky pressed Kihn on offering Washington students: “an opportunity to stay.” Kihn responds: “We would make as many seats as available accessible to the current families” [at Washington]. The idea raised Friday of merging the two schools and rethinking the naming of the school is still under investigation.

9:12 AM The hearing for the South-Central region is underway and the crowd in the room has grown to about 50 people. For the first time in the hearings, there is a group of speakers from Abigail Vare Elementary. The first of four speakers, Marge Patronis, school-community coordinator at Abigail Vare School, said a 77-square-block area of South Philadelphia would be without a school after the closing. She said that Vare students will have to walk as many as 12 blocks to get to their new school, George Washington, raising safety concerns and deterring involvement in afterschool activities. She said the school enrollment has remained steady over the years and noted that while the building is more than 100 years old, the school’s facility condition index is good: “There are schools older than ours that are being kept open.”

Ursula Lacovara, a Vare parent, argued that the Vare building is “in very good condition” and in better shape than George Washington by the District’s own statistics. It is the only school in the Pennsport area, she said. Facilities deputy Danielle Floyd explained that the low cost of renovating Vare reflects that it is a small building and Washington’s facility is larger and therefore more expensive to repair.

Parent Eileen Gargano asks why the District didn’t merge the Nebinger and Washington schools, which are closer to one another, instead of closing Vare.

8:58 AM Tomika Anglin is the first speaker in three days to speak about Northeast Philadelphia, where Carnell Annex is slated to be closed; she noted that there are 21 overcrowded schools in the area but little discussion of the problem. She called the failure to address the issue through changes in grade configurations “puzzling.” She said that the plan to shift students from Carnell into Harding Middle School did not make sense academically, given that Harding has been in Corrective Action status for years.

Gail Clouden, the education activist known as Mama Gail, echoed the concerns, suggesting that the process should have started with the problem of overcrowding. She said that many of the students in the overcrowded school are coming from out of the area.

Ramos acknowledged that the District has not been focused on the overenrolled schools and their capital needs. He asks District staff to what extent that’s a result of students coming in from out of the area. Deputy Paul Kihn says the staff does not have that information at hand but can provide it.

8:53 AM SRC Chair Pedro Ramos opens the hearings. About 20 people are in the audience. Ramos acknowledges that some members of the audience have been present all three days. All five commissioners are present but Superintendent Hite is not; Ramos says that Hite has two School District engagements today.

Today’s schedule:
Northeast 8:30 AM-8:45 AM
Southcentral 8:45 AM-9:30 AM
West 9:30 AM-10:30 AM
Southwest 10:30 AM-12:15 PM
Northwest (high schools) 1:00 PM-2:00 PM
Northwest (elem/middle) 2:00 PM-3:00 PM
Northcentral (east of Broad) 3:00 PM-4:30 PM
Northcentral(west of Broad) 4:30 PM-6:30 PM

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