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At closure hearing, SRC chair seeks clarity in District’s puzzling answers

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

by Bill Hangley Jr.

Parents, teachers, and supporters turned out Monday night in a last-ditch effort to save Dimner Beeber Middle and M.H. Stanton Elementary, saying both schools had long been poorly supported by the District.

“The choice to give no help to Beeber has gone on for a long time,” said Katherine Stokes, parent of a Beeber student. “This is a financial problem you’re trying to solve at the expense of the students.”

State Sen. Shirley Kitchen showed up to make a pitch for Stanton, located near Temple University in her district. “Why is it that the poorest children are taking the hardest hit?” she asked. “I don’t want to see any of the schools in my district close.”

Superintendent William Hite defended his recommendations, citing low utilization at both schools — 42 percent at Stanton, and 26 percent at Beeber. He repeated his familiar promise that closing buildings will help the cash-strapped District improve those that remain.

“This path will lead to greater educational investments throughout our more than 200 schools and improved educational outcomes for students,” Hite testified from a prepared statement. “This path will reverse our enrollment declines as we create safer, more modern learning environments and build sustainable community partnerships and coalitions.”

Hite said the District expects to save $109 million over the next five years through the closings. The District faces a budget gap next year of over $242 million, part of a five-year shortfall estimated at about a billion dollars. To make ends meet next year, the School Reform Commission is seeking deep concessions from the teachers’ union and an additional $180 million in revenue from the city and state.

Beeber and Stanton were not on Hite’s first closing list. He had originally proposed closing 37 schools, but pared back the list to 29 after political and community outcry. Ten of the original schools were taken off the list, but Beeber and Stanton were added.

Last month, the SRC decided to close 23 of the 27 schools it voted on, sparing four.

Beeber supporters argued on behalf of a “school-led turnaround” blueprint that they recently submitted to the District. The plan is for the school to boost enrollment by expanding to include a 9th grade and adding a new arts- and science-focused curriculum (dubbed the “Arts and Academic Plus Academy”). The school’s supporters are hoping to win a planning grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership to flesh out the details and cost of their proposal, but PSP won’t be able to move forward unless the SRC votes to keep the school open.

“They’re not going to weigh in until the District gives us the green flag,” said Samuel Reed III, a teacher at Beeber for 15 years (and an occasional Notebook contributor). “Then we’ll work on the planning grant, and I think we’ll have some traction. Sometimes good things come out of this turmoil.”

PSP, which gives money to help good schools expand, has mostly invested so far in charters and private schools. The schools it targets are already high performers on tests.

Beeber supporters also made a case against relocating their school to Overbrook High. When a delegation of parents recently visited the school, they were told that the only space for the middle school would be in Overbrook’s basement, they testified. This only compounded parent worries about the influence of grown high school students on younger, impressionable middle schoolers.

“While we were there, these giant students came to the basement attempting to cut class,” said Nancy Winder, president of Beeber’s Home and School Association. “The basement is a cramped coffin. There’s only five classrooms. No restrooms for students or adults. Would you want your 12-year-old to have this experience?”

Maia Muchison, a 6th grader, asked Hite to reconsider. “Please tell us why you are sending us to a high school,” she said. “I don’t want to go to a big school with big students. Before closing Beeber, please think about little people and students like me.”

Commissioners questioned District staff about the basement conditions, only to find that there is no game plan yet for how to integrate the middle-school program into Overbrook. “We would have to look at how to reconfigure to separate, where appropriate, the grade levels,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Danielle Floyd.

Commissioners also quizzed District staff about testimony from Beeber parents who said they had been told that moving to Overbrook was their only option and that they could not apply to other middle schools. SRC Chair Pedro Ramos seemed puzzled by the policy and tried, with only partial success, to get a full explanation from District staff.

“A lot of 7th and 8th graders travel,” Ramos asked Floyd. “Why would we limit Beeber parents when we don’t limit those other parents?”

“We don’t have to do that,” Floyd replied.

Afterward, Ramos said that he anticipated some clearer answers. “It sounded like parents were told that while they normally can submit for transfers for their children to other schools, that they couldn’t if they were coming from Beeber. And it’s not clear to me whether that’s what the intent was … and I’m not sure that I’m clear what the answer is.”

Ramos said he was willing to wait for a clarification on the policy.

“As hard as this process is, you don’t want parents to end up with fewer choices than they had,” he said. “This is a school district that for a long time has permitted students and parents to make choices.”

Meanwhile, a smaller number of Stanton supporters made their own case, focusing on safety issues and praising their school’s special-education program.

“Some of these children are just beginning to thrive,” said Sheena Beckton, parent of a Stanton student. “How, and who, will be responsible for their continued development? Most of these kids have a hard time dealing with change. Stanton offers them consistency and stability.”

Many Stanton supporters in the audience were audibly disappointed when they heard District officials testify that a safety plan for their students had yet to be fully developed.

John Coats, a teacher at Stanton, said the District’s promises were all too familiar, and unsatisfying.

“It’s the same old thing we’ve heard before — ‘crossing guards.’ Crossing guards are not the answer. Until you get out and walk with our children, you don’t know what we’re going through,” said Coats, now in his 27th year at the school. “We’re tired of seeing the same old dog-and-pony show. We need help. What we need is to open up Stanton as a community school and bring back the resources we once had.”

Saying that the school has been slowly improving over the last several years, its supporters have submitted a proposal to make it a “community school” with a wide array of programs — some of which, like Head Start and behavioral health services, are already there. Stanton was the subject of film called “I Am a Promise” that won the 1994 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

As for Beeber, Reed said he was optimistic about the school’s prospects. But he understood the frustration in the room. “They’re not out in front of it,” he said of District officials. “If you can’t give parents concrete answers to their concerns and anxieties, you really can’t in good conscience close both Beeber and Stanton.”

Ramos called it “a useful and productive” hearing. “A number of new issues were raised for discussion, some of which will continue to be discussed here, before the final vote,” he said.

The SRC will continue to accept public comment on the schools until Monday, April 15. The SRC will make its final decision at its regularly scheduled meeting on April 18.