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Protesting … mostly in vain

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

by Bill Hangley Jr.

A day that began with big crowds, high spirits, and defiant speeches ended with disappointment for most opponents of Philadelphia’s school-closings plan.

“I’m totally numb,” said veteran activist “Mama” Gail Clouden as the crowd filed out of the auditorium at School District headquarters after a series of votes that closed 23 schools and spared just four. “This is unbelievable to me.”

“There’s a way to do this, and do it right, and they chose to do it wrong,” said the Rev. Dr. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. “This was not just emotional talk. We’ve given them facts, we’ve given them other proposals, and it is clear – they just did not consider them.”

“This plan was driven by private interests,” said Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, which recently filed an ethics complaint alleging that the District’s privately funded reorganization plan violated the city’s lobbying rules. “They bought their vote, and that’s what we’re looking at.”

“Ugly, man. An ugly night,” said J. Whyatt Mondesire, head of the Philadelphia NAACP, which also supported the ethics complaint.

Mondesire and Gym both said they were disappointed that Mayor Michael Nutter’s two SRC appointees — Commissioners Sylvia Simms and Wendell Pritchett — didn’t fight harder to slow or stop the closures.

“I think Michael doesn’t give a damn any more,” Mondesire said.

Mondesire said the NAACP would be investigating a possible federal civil rights lawsuit in the coming months.

“We have a narrow window for a lawsuit, based on how they’re going to treat children of color, particularly of special needs,” he said. “The government has certain rules and regulations. You just can’t move those kids around. If we find they violated any of those rules, we’re going to pounce.”

After a large, lively and at times raucous outdoor demonstration, 19 opponents of the closure plan were arrested inside District headquarters as they attempted to block the doors to the auditorium, preventing SRC members from entering. Among those arrested was Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers.

But the disruption delayed the meeting only momentarily, and SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos began the session only a few minutes after its scheduled start time, moving the commission briskly through an agenda of testimony and voting marked by passionate presentations from registered speakers and occasional angry outbursts of “Shame!” and “Moratorium!” from the audience.

All but a few of the 34 registered speakers testified, speaking on behalf of individual schools and the system as a whole. Most reiterated the longstanding but ultimately fruitless call for a one-year moratorium on closings, and the packed house cheered them loudly.

“Closing Germantown High School is like throwing our students out in the streets,” said Germantown resident Cynthia Geiger.

“The District continues to say that families have been voting with their feet, but when our schools have been starved of their resources … [can] you blame us for being hungry?” asked Northeast Philadelphia parent Tomika Anglin.

Several politicians and labor leaders made appearances. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell called the whole closure process “frightening” and remarked on the large police presence inside and outside the building. “I never saw so many cops,” she said. “This is the biggest thing I’ve seen since the charter change.”

George Ricchezza, head of the District’s union of blue collar workers (SEIU Local 32BJ, District 1201), called on the District to start looking in earnest for more state funding rather than cutting jobs and salaries.

“Year after year after year, we took what was given to us by Harrisburg,” he said. “We weren’t happy with it, but we did it. What we are saying now is that time is done.”

Speakers included students, teachers, alumni, and community members of all sorts. Strong contingents came out in support of a few schools, including Taylor Elementary and Robeson High, which were ultimately spared, and Germantown High, which was not.

Only one speaker all night, Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership, spoke in support of the District’s plan, praising the success of charter schools like North Philadelphia’s Frederick Douglass and promising to deliver financial support to schools of all kinds. Gleason was booed loudly for his effort.

Once the audience’s testimony was complete, the SRC moved quickly through its votes, slowed mainly by a string of detailed questions from Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky about the logic behind a handful of closures.

The room cheered when Dworetzky questioned the wisdom of moving students from T.M. Peirce to Kenderton Elementary, which he suggested had less to do with academic issues or facilities costs and more to do with boosting Kenderton’s enrollment in order to make it more financially appealing to prospective Renaissance charter providers. Peirce was spared by a unanimous vote.

Dworetzky earned more applause when he defended Promise Academies like Vaux, University City, and Germantown High.

“I don’t think we should lightly close schools that we’ve made Promise Academies,” Dworetzky said. “I would send the District back to the drawing board.”

In those cases, the other commissioners were unconvinced, and voted to close all three schools.

The votes moved quickly and triggered emotional responses. Supporters of Taylor hugged and cried when their school was left open, and students and supporters of University City High burst into tears when theirs was closed. West Philadelphia activist Pamela Williams was infuriated, shouting at the top of her lungs that the decision was “racist” and vowing to "shut the city down."

And the room grew noticeably frustrated when commissioners became bogged down in a discussion about the future of Robeson, whose supporters argued that it made no sense to close a school with a 90 percent graduation rate and send its students to another, Sayre High, with a 53 percent graduation rate.

Commissioner Wendell Pritchett sympathized with the argument that Robeson students wouldn’t move to Sayre, but his unsuccessful attempt to rework the resolution so that the school could be closed without a defined new home for its programs irked many.

“What’s wrong with you?” shouted one attendee as commissioners struggled to find a way to reword the resolution.

“They’re just making this up as they go along,” said another.

The evening’s events left the roomful of protesters disappointed and often suspicious of the SRC’s motives. Enon’s Waller was sorry that Germantown High’s proposal was rejected – and he suspects there’s more to the story.

“What would be the reason for closing that school except that there’s something else to use that building for? You can’t keep that type of building shut down in the middle of an already frustrated neighborhood,” he said.

Gym said she worried that without clear plans to improve conditions in the District’s remaining schools, the cycle of academic failure and flight to charters is set to continue.

“This is the spiral that we’ve been talking about – we’ve seen it in other cities across the country,” she said. “We know what happens with mass school closings, and we know the impact it has on families and communities.”

Gym vowed to keep pressing for support for public education, particularly in City Hall. “The fight is here,” she said. “It’s not just in Harrisburg.”

But for many, the final mood was simply glum. “Irritated and very pissed off,” is how Orlando Acosta, a parent and activist who spoke at numerous meetings, described his feelings in the aftermath of the vote. “They have an agenda, and it didn’t involve anything about the community. Now I have to wonder, what is this going to mean for my sons, for my daughter? Next year, what is this whole thing going to look like?”

Nonetheless, Acosta said, he had no regrets. “When it’s for the children,” Acosta said, “it’s always worth it.”

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