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Families try to cope with neighborhood school closings

In North Philadelphia, families were confronted with a shrinking pool of school options.

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

George Metz’s family is all too familiar with school closings.

His stepson, Shyheim Saunders, 17, attended FitzSimons from 7th to 10th grade. When that got shuttered in 2012, he transferred to Roberts Vaux for 11th grade. Now, heading into his senior year in high school, Shyheim will switch once again, attending Benjamin Franklin High School due to the recent closing at Vaux.

That adds up to three schools in three years for Shyheim.

That’s bad enough if you ask Metz, whose family lives in a two-story townhouse in Raymond Rosen Manor, a housing project in North Philadelphia.

But then there was even gloomier news for the family. Anna Pratt Elementary, across the street from the housing project, closed in June, except for its pre-K program.

In many ways, Pratt Elementary had served as an anchor in the neighborhood. Metz, a self-proclaimed overprotective father, could stand at his doorway with his wife, Lakeisha, and watch his children cross Susquehanna Avenue onto the school grounds.

Metz has three young daughters who were enrolled at Pratt – Diamond, 10, Danasia, 8, and Cheyenne, 5.

The school, which abuts the project at 22nd Street, had an enrollment last year of about 400 students from pre-K to 6th grade. A vivid mural still dominates one wall of the school, and the clean, polished playground behind it was built just three years ago with funding from the Annenberg Foundation.

Metz said he considered attendance at Pratt to be a “family tradition,” as Shyheim and his older brother Andrew had learned their ABCs there. But the closing displaced his three daughters, who had been making valuable friends and memories.

“It’s not like when I grew up and I knew my friends from kindergarten to 8th grade and 9th grade all the way to 12th grade,” said Metz.

“We grew up together, we knew each other. I knew the teachers.”

A new school means new modes of transportation and child care routines, not to mention new concerns about children’s safety. So, when the School Reform Commission voted last spring to close 24 schools, that decision left scores of families scrambling to make new arrangements and feeling uncertain about what their next school year would look like. Having to make the hard adjustments led some families to flee the School District altogether while others made attempts at getting their children into one of the city’s charter schools.

Many, like Metz, simply grew frustrated at the reduced number of neighborhood options.

“They’re putting [money] into the jail system and not into the school system,” Metz said.

“But think about the kids that do want to learn, that do want an education, that do want a future. They should try to keep the schools open they’re shutting down.”

Sharing the frustration

Other families living in the same North Philadelphia neighborhood share Metz’s frustrations.

When it was announced that Pratt would close, LaShonah White considered several District school options, including Bache-Martin in the Fairmount section, but opted in the end for one closer to home.

White’s children – Dahmir, 7, Dionnah, 8, and Dishon, 10 – now attend William Dick, just three blocks away from their home on Diamond Street.

“They’re all staying together in the same school. I’m going to walk with them,” White said.

Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Charter School, which was overhauled as a Renaissance school in 2010, is only five blocks south of Pratt. However, according to Young Scholars CEO Lars Beck, it serves a different catchment area and is filled to capacity. Beck said about 15 families inquired about enrollment at Douglass, but all were unsuccessful in securing attendance at the school.

Katherine Stubbs said she worries about whether her granddaughter Destiny Stubbs, 7, will experience problems at Dick, her new school.

“She’s been at Pratt since prekindergarten, and she’s on the honor roll. She made straight As all the time she was there. Now she’s going to have to learn from new teachers, a whole new environment. I’m hoping she can adapt because the only school she has known is Pratt,” Stubbs said.

“And they’re taking everything away from the school – the aides, the nurses, all the stuff they need. I don’t understand how they’re going to learn.”

Even more disconcerting for Stubbs is that Destiny has an asthma condition, and both Stubbs and Destiny’s mother were nearby and could pick her up from Pratt quickly if she fell ill.

“I believe she’s going to have more days out than in,” Stubbs said.

“If they could just open [Pratt] back up,” she said ruefully.

“We all loved that school.”

Moving forward

After Pratt closed, the Metz family chose to enroll their three girls at Richard Wright School. Wright is about six blocks west of Pratt on Dauphin Street, but even at that distance, Metz said safety is a big concern.

“They’re making it hard on my daughters,” he said.

“It’s a dangerous world out here now. People shoot, they kill for respect. It’s nonsense. … It just makes me even more of a protector.”

Metz admitted that the family may pull the girls out of Wright if they see signs of trouble at the school.

“I was going to let them go to Wright for a while, then take them out and put them in a charter school,” said Metz, noting with some sarcasm that “they’re keeping the charter schools open, they ain’t closing them down. The public schools, they’re closing them down because there’s less money.”

Despite Metz’s qualms about safety and about his stepson’s missing out on a memory-filled high school career with just one alma mater, Shyheim himself said he was taking an easygoing approach to the situation. The teen said that the transition from school to school has not been particularly painful because most of his friendships are rooted in the neighborhood, not necessarily the schools.

“We live in the same community. We see the same people every day,” he said.

Fitting in, according to Shyheim, is all about “how you carry yourself.” He said he has had no problem making friends in whatever school he has attended.

His passion for basketball hasn’t hurt, either. Shyheim said he’ll be trying out for the Franklin varsity squad this winter. When asked if he’ll start, he smiled and, without hesitation, said, “Yes.”

Shyheim said he doesn’t share Metz’s safety concerns even though he has witnessed a few fights at previous schools he has attended.

However, Metz said he remains convinced that Shyheim and his daughters are all being shortchanged by the downsizing of the School District.

“We looked at [attending Pratt] like it was a family tradition. Every kid going to Pratt and graduating,” he said.

“Now, it’s just messed up. It’s not right.”

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