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Where did they go? Displaced students didn’t end up where expected

In the wake of closings and budget cuts, District enrollment fell more than anticipated. Details are still murky.

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

Last spring, the District predicted that students from the shuttered Bok Technical High School would follow their training programs to South Philadelphia High, more than doubling enrollment there, from about 600 to 1,400.

That projection was off by more than 400 students. Scores of former Bok students decided against attending Southern. Just 355 students arrived from Bok or other closed schools, according to data released by the District.

The District also closed the Military Academy at Leeds, with enrollment of about 250, projecting that the District’s other stand-alone military education facility, Elverson, would more than double its enrollment, to 440. But only about 100 students selected Elverson because their school had closed. Elverson’s enrollment grew to just 327.

School closings and budget cuts made for a turbulent year across the system. And not only were District predictions way off about where students from closed schools would land, but overall District enrollment fell 4,000 students below projections.

Superintendent William Hite acknowledged as much last fall: Total enrollment was down to 131,000, not the expected 135,000.

Questioned by the School Reform Commission and the media about what happened, the District since December has released several data reports and flagged a group of 600 students who are still unaccounted for but has not yet offered a full explanation of what went awry in enrollment calculations and whether it’s cause for concern.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said District officials “don’t know why the District projected a much lower drop in students for this fiscal year. Given the historical data [related to enrollment], we acknowledge the projection was not as accurate for this year.”

One critical question is whether dropouts account for some of the attrition. But the District has yet to report on the numbers of students identified as dropouts since last June.

A slew of missing students turned up at charter schools. District reports showed that by January enrollment in charters had swelled to 67,000, more than 2,000 above what the District budgeted. According to Gallard, the excess enrollment reflects “a willingness on the part of some charter schools to go beyond the enrollment caps in their charter agreements.” The result, he said, is that “we’ll be spending more money on charters than we anticipated this fiscal year.”

Several hundred other students can be accounted for: The Independence Mission Schools, a network of 14 Catholic schools mostly in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, report expanded rolls from a year ago, when the schools were operated by local parishes. The schools now have combined enrollment of about 4,100 – about 300 more than the prior year.

“When parents come in, their main concern is … they want to be sure the schools are going to stay open,” said spokeswoman Marie Keith. More than 60 percent of families are not Catholic. Families can apply for scholarships to help with tuition.

A key unanswered question is what has happened to the students displaced by the closing of 24 schools. Although the District has issued a report on the whereabouts of those students, several key numbers have not been publicly reported: one, how many students transferred out of the District after their school closed; two, how many students dropped out; and three, how did the migration of students from each closed school compare with what was projected.

The District has accounted for about 6,400 students who moved to other District or charter schools. Another 600 displaced students, according to Gallard, are unaccounted for. So far, he said, there has been no concerted effort to track down those students, though their names and contact information are on file.

The District’s failure to make public a thorough analysis of the massive shakeup troubles Joseph Dworetzky, whose term on the SRC ended in January. Dworetzky insists such analysis is essential to any future discussion of school closings.

“I think the District should share the information it has developed about the loss of enrollment,” Dworetzky said in an email. “I believe the information is relevant to a number of important issues in active public debate.”

Dworetzky said he had become alarmed by evidence that the District had lost enrollment as a result of the closings. That potential loss, he said, “affects three fundamental questions: 1) whether to close a particular school; 2) what is the plan for students at a school to be closed; and 3) how should the District interact with families during the closing process and the post-closing transition period.”

He added that there is “a lot that can be learned from analyzing the results of the closures last year” and that he had repeatedly urged the District to do that analysis.

Gallard said analysis of the closings and the aftermath is ongoing.

“What places enrollment at risk is the lack of options for students to attend higher-performing schools – schools that are successful at improving the academic achievement of students,” Gallard said.

“Students must be given a better option than the school they are coming from,” he added. “That is the most important lesson learned, and [that lesson] drove the District’s decision not to move forward at this time with any further closings.”

Gallard said the District is studying “how this all played out” with special attention to the role that school leadership plays, especially in the receiving schools.

He cited as an example the High School of the Future, where the principal, Tim Stults, arrived from the now-closed University City High School. Many of his students followed him: About 200 students, many of them from University City, opted to attend High School of the Future, boosting enrollment to 670, far exceeding the springtime projection.

A Notebook analysis found that expectations were off at many other receiving schools. Among 36 schools identified as receiving displaced students, nine received more than anticipated, 10 boosted enrollment as expected, while 17 others waited for students who did not arrive. Compared to the projected enrollments, Southern was short by 423 students, Penn Treaty by 252, Vare by 243, Ben Franklin by 230, Overbrook by 169, deBurgos by 120, and Elverson by 113.

Meanwhile, educators who work with out-of-school young people wonder whether some students not yet accounted for have dropped out of school.

Mike Sack, education and development director of YESPhilly, a group that serves the dropout population, said disenfranchised students ages 16 and 17 represent a “very vulnerable population.”

“Those are the critical gap years,” Sack said. “They don’t have the skills to advocate for themselves and they have to work so hard to reconnect.” That often happens, he said, as they mature, at about age 18, and then pursue a diploma via accelerated studies or a GED.

The Rev. LeRoi Simmons, a community activist who lobbied unsuccessfully to keep Germantown High open, noted, “We predicted many of the children would drop out,” but once the high school closed, “it was difficult finding out if all the students did go to King … and some of them didn’t.”

Simmons added: “The School District should be helping to find those students, and I can’t say where they have gone. They were just dispersed. It was horrible.”

It is clear that many turned up in charters, including cyber charters.

Charter enrollment totaled 60,200 in January, a gain of about 5,000 students over January 2013, including 2,400 more students in so-called Renaissance turnaround schools. Another 7,000 city students are enrolled in 13 virtual charter schools – 1,000 more than last year – while the District’s new virtual academy has 269 students.

Editors’ note: Figures for charter enrollment in paragraph 9 and the final paragraph have been updated based on new data from the School District since the print edition went to press.

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