This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After an excruciating day of protests and pleas for mercy, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission voted Thursday night to close 23 city schools and merge or relocate five others. (See NewsWorks footage of reaction to one closing.)
Four schools – T.M. Peirce and Bayard Taylor elementary schools, Roosevelt Middle, and Paul Robeson High – were spared.
All told, the SRC approved a total of 28 recommendations put forth by Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, including three program relocations and a merger of the city’s two high school military academies.
A total of 25 school programs will be shut down as part of the complicated set of proposals.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos.
“Nobody wants to do this, much less have to do it at this scale.”
But Ramos said years of financial “gimmicks” and “kicking the can” on tough decisions had finally caught up with the District. With a projected $1.35 billion deficit over the next five years, officials say they can no longer afford to pay for 53,000 “empty seats” in half-empty school buildings across the city.
By the time the meeting was finished, the SRC had voted to close one of every 10 district-managed schools in the city.
Among the casualties were Germantown, University City, and Bok Technical high schools. Supporters mounted passionate defenses of all three schools over the last few months, to no avail.
After the commission’s 3-2 vote to close University City, a large group of students and staff from the school, including cheerleaders in full uniform, hung their heads.
“This is a fiasco! The whole city needs to be shut down!” yelled neighborhood activist Pamela Williams.
Back in December, Superintendent Hite initially placed 37 schools on the chopping block, In February, after hosting a series of community forums and considering 38 grassroots counterproposals, Hite took 10 schools off the original closings list. But he added Beeber Middle and M.H. Stanton Elementary, whose futures will be decided later this spring.
Thursday’s votes came after a massive rally outside School District headquarters, headlined by American Federation of Teachers national president Randi Weingarten.
“Tonight, all across the country, everyone is watching Philly to say, ‘Will the powers that be stand up for the public schools?’” said Weingarten, standing atop a large concrete wall to make herself visible to the throng.
“Fix our schools, don’t close them.”
Inside 440 N. Broad St., a group of protesters then vowed to prevent the SRC entering the auditorium. Nineteen people, including Weingarten and representatives from the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change, were arrested.
“They were trying to stop the SRC vote from happening because they want to save the schools from closing,” said Andi Perez, executive director of YUC.
Those arrested were held in the building, then released after being charged with summary offenses for disorderly conduct.
Once the meeting started, a mostly somber mood fell over the room.
Thirty-one speakers testified. Many simply pleaded for their schools to be kept open.
Debra Perry told the SRC she’s been teaching kindergarten at Taylor Elementary in eastern North Philadelphia for almost three decades.
“What I want to say to you, what is not part of the facts and figures, is what is at the heart of Taylor School,” she said. “We are a family.”
Perry is a 57-year-old cancer survivor. She had never been to an SRC meeting before, and she wasn’t sure her voice would make a difference. But Perry said she didn’t want her school closed without making her voice heard.
“Taylor School is a place of quiet love,” Perry told the SRC. “After 27 years, I’m still amazed by the acts of love committed by our staff, for our kids.”
And then it was on to the next speaker.
Many accused the District of using faulty information to make ill-conceived or even dangerous closure recommendations. Several reiterated their call for a one-year moratorium on any closings.
“A vote to close schools tonight is uninformed and immoral,” said the Rev. Alyn Waller, pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
A series of elected officials, including State Reps. Stephen Kinsey and W. Curtis Thomas and City Council members Cindy Bass, Jannie Blackwell, and Curtis Jones, testified as well.
Like many, Thomas criticized the District for the lack of detail in its plan to ensure improved educational opportunities for the 14,000 students expected to be impacted by the closings.
“At a minimum, we should not send them to schools that are as bad, if not worse, then the schools they’re coming out of,” he said.
About 7:45 p.m., the commissioners started voting. In a unanimous vote, they quickly approved the closure of L.P. Hill and Reynolds elementary schools, both in North Philadelphia.
Then came T.M. Peirce Elementary.
In the first of numerous challenges to Hite’s proposals, Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky questioned the wisdom of closing Peirce, then sending an estimated 182 students to Kenderton Elementary. Kenderton was recently designated for conversion to charter because of its poor academic performance, meaning the District would have to pay more for each student even though they were going to a worse school.
“I’m concerned that one reason for the Pierce proposal is the need to increase the number of students at Kenderton to an economically supportable level for a charter operator,” Dworetzky said.
“If that’s the case, I regard it as very unwise.”
Commissioner Sylvia Simms, whose granddaughter attends Peirce, also reiterated her concerns about the long and dangerous walk that some of the school’s students would face daily if they were reassigned to E.W. Rhodes, the other option put forth by district staff.
The commission voted unanimously to spare Peirce, then quickly voted to close five other schools in North Philadelphia.
Next up was Taylor.
Dworetzky again challenged the District’s reasoning, offering hope to Perry and the rest of the contingent from the school.
He then voted to keep Taylor open.
Commissioner Feather Houstoun, clearly torn, asked for more time. The room – Taylor staff and parents standing with clutched hands, protesters with signs standing face to face with police – hushed.
After the unanimous vote to spare Taylor, Perry silently began to cry.
“I can’t wait to go back and tell my kids they can stay,” she said.
After that, though, the news for schools was mostly grim. Historic Germantown High was closed. In a surprise move, the commission rejected a proposal to close nearby Roosevelt Middle School, responding to criticisms that central Germantown was in danger of losing all its District schools. But then the SRC voted to close Pepper and Shaw middle schools in West Philadelphia.
Despite months of pleas from students and impassioned testimony from supporters, University City High was closed, too.
Dworetzky called the day “draining on everybody.”
Despite his frequent challenges and nine “no” votes, he praised Hite for a good plan with good information.
“I think the superintendent’s team has done a good job, given how much information this process entails,” Dworetzky said.
After the meeting, Chairman Ramos said that none of the commissioners was happy with being put in the position of closing two dozen schools, but that years of inaction by previous district leaders had left the commission with no choice.
“Having 53,000 empty seats has a cost,” Ramos said.
Late Wednesday, the District revealed a projection that net savings from the recommended closings would total less than $3 million in the first year due to one-time transition costs associated with the closings. That number will be whittled down even further with four schools having been spared.
But Ramos said the cash-strapped District will begin realizing significant savings in 2014-15.
“The new SRC has tried to take the position that we need to stabilize the District so we can strengthen it going forward, instead of perpetuating just limping along,” Ramos said.
This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook.