This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District made the right decision in January, announcing that it will not close any District schools in 2014, after shuttering 24 last year. Last year’s closures were a damaging blow to the system, furthering the flight of students from traditional District schools.
In advocating school closings in 2012 and 2013, officials and others argued that the District had far too many excess “seats” and said that by closing schools, they would fill the remaining ones with displaced students. But when schools reopened in the fall, Superintendent William Hite announced that 4,000 students who had been expected in District schools were unaccounted for. That’s alarming news in a system that has been losing large chunks of its population annually. It’s alarming too that the District has been slow to share any analysis of what happened to these students.
Given the anger in many communities about school closings and the tremendous stress caused by 2013’s deep budget cuts, it is hardly surprising that some students and families would just walk away.
More analysis is needed: How many students left for other districts? How many dropped out? We do know now that more students than expected went into charter schools, at a cost of millions. We know that thousands of students from closed schools didn’t go to the intended receiving schools, meaning that those schools are still underenrolled. The underutilization problem has not been solved.
Some argue that students fleeing the District are a healthy sign that education has become a marketplace, where families have other options to choose from. But many of these options are the same or worse academically. It’s a marketplace in which most families still can’t access good school options.
Meanwhile, as District enrollment spirals downward, it becomes less viable as an entity that can provide the necessary supports to city schoolchildren. Improving schools, not closing them is the way to stabilize this struggling system.