This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Bill Hangley Jr. and Dale Mezzacappa
At three days of hearings on school closings, members of the School Reform Commission raised significant questions about several of the District’s school-closing proposals, most in response to points raised by students, parents, community members, and in some cases, principals of the affected schools. As the March 7 vote nears, we are providing a summary of some of the issues that SRC members seemed most interested in.
The Germantown/Fulton combination: Cost-effective?
Supporters of Germantown High have been among the most organized school supporters, presenting an alternative plan to move nearby Fulton Elementary into Germantown High’s “Fifties Wing” instead of closing the elementary. Fulton supports this option, and District staff concede that combining the two schools would bring the Germantown building to full capacity. Among other things, Germantown supporters have argued that closing the school would have a major economic impact on the struggling Germantown Avenue business corridor.
During Day Three’s testimony, District staff agreed that substantial facilities costs could be saved by closing Fulton and moving it into Germantown High, although they also noted that significant costs would be involved in upgrading the Germantown High building. Asked by Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky whether Germantown could remain a Promise Academy if it stayed open, Superintendent William Hite replied: “It could.” Community members also raised the issue of creating an “education desert” in central Germantown, because the District’s plan would eliminate Roosevelt Middle School as well as Fulton and Germantown.
The Promise Academy dilemma
The plan to close the Promise Academy at Germantown High was an issue that was clearly vexing to Dworetzky and of concern to other commissioners. And the District plan involves shutting down two other Promise Academies besides Germantown — University City and Vaux high schools. Dworetzky questioned displacing students from schools that are on an upward trajectory — where will they go? If a new Promise Academy opens elsewhere, it does nothing for the students whose Promise Academy is being closed.
Ferguson Elementary: Will new housing change the equation?
Supporters of the North Philadelphia elementary school argued that when looking at its low utilization rate, the District did not take into consideration the planned construction of 200 units of new low-income housing nearby, a project of a community development corporation called Association of Puerto Ricans on the March. District officials conceded that they had not considered the impact of this housing. "[It] did not come up when we were doing our initial review of schools,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Danielle Floyd. Ferguson supporters argued that their recent enrollment declines were due, in part, to the closure of nearby public housing. Commissioner Dworetzky asked staff to reconsider the closure recommendation in light of this new information. “We don’t want to be embarrassed,” he said.
Pepper: Will its unique location and partnerships save it?
Pepper Middle School’s supporters were vocal, diverse, and organized — a reflection, in part, of the unique network that it has developed, partly due to its location near the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Philadelphia, as well as its expansive campus, rare in an urban setting. Pepper’s partners and supporters include community groups, the staff at Heinz, and representatives of the University of Pennsylvania. They’ve presented an alternative plan that would build on those partnerships. Among the proposals that could bring the school to a higher capacity, one option would be to move the Communications Technology CTE program to Pepper, not Bartram High. Commissioner Feather Houstoun voted against the closing of Pepper last year and indicated that she has concerns: “I’m still troubled by the closing of a school that offers things offered by no other school in the District.”
Co-locations and mergers
In several cases, the commissioners had questions about decisions to close schools and merge the students into other schools. Commissioners showed interest in the possibility of mergers that preserve the identities of the original schools.
On the high school level, the District wants to merge Bok into South Philadelphia, Robeson into Sayre, Lamberton into Overbrook, and University City into Ben Franklin. Students from Bok, Robeson, and Lamberton have made the case that most students have no intention of moving to the new schools.
SRC members seemed particularly concerned about the plan to close Robeson, given the students’ and teachers’ passionate defense of their school. Among other things, Robeson has developed a contending track team, almost all of whose members are also academic achievers. Across the board, Robeson’s academic performance exceeds Sayre’s, and Sayre has been on the persistently dangerous list.
The plan for Bok also prompted questioning. Southern’s achievement level is clearly lower than Bok’s. Commissioner Pritchett suggested that the Bok "brand" should be preserved, because the school is known for its CTE program. In Bok’s case, there is also the cost of moving or replacing all the CTE equipment. Another complication is that the Bok building provides the heating for Southwark Elementary across the street, meaning that Southwark would need a new system built. Dworetzky, concerned about the costs of these transitions, asked that the cost information be made part of the public record.
University City students came on all three days, saying that, over the last few years as a Promise Academy, the school had become more cohesive and was improving its academics. The students unfailingly wore their uniforms. Although they felt the offer to move as a group to Ben Franklin was better than the previous plan that would have scattered them around, they did not see how the plan would allow the school to keep its identity.
The elementary merger possibility involves Abigail Vare and George Washington. The current plan is for Washington to be closed and Vare to be relocated there. Many speakers from both schools questioned the logic of this. Washington has been making adequate yearly progress and it attracts many students from outside its catchment. Officials responded that Washington does not do a good job of enrolling enough students from within its catchment. The way the District plans to do this now, Washington’s teachers and most of its students would be reassigned. But Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn seemed to backtrack on that when encouraged by commissioners to try to accommodate nearly all the students from both schools. Vare supporters, however, do not want to lose their building and recent strong performance. Washington supporters do not want their school wiped off the map.
T.M. Peirce: Too long a walk?
Commissioner Wendell Pritchett particularly seemed concerned about the long walk that students would face if Peirce Elementary in North Philadelphia is closed. Several teachers and other supporters spoke on behalf of the school, which is attended by the granddaughter of the SRC’s newest member, Sylvia Simms. Superintendent Hite promised to take the walk with Simms.