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District launches process to study building use, population change

The announcement could unnerve homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods or neighborhoods with low-enrollment schools.

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

Updated Tuesday with additional quotes

The School District of Philadelphia announced Tuesday that it will re-examine its network of neighborhood schools to plan for predicted enrollment changes, a review that could significantly affect city parents and homeowners.

This four-year process, dubbed the “Comprehensive School Planning Review,” will touch every corner of the city, and it could lead to boundary changes, closings, and openings of schools; capital improvements; and shifts in grade configurations.

“One of the things we’re trying to do here is emphasize a forward-thinking approach,” said Superintendent William Hite.

The first three areas to receive focused attention are parts of South Philadelphia, Kensington, and West Philadelphia.

The process, a first in recent memory, will include extensive public input in each of the city’s 13 “study areas.” Each section will have a planning committee that includes parents, principals, District officials, and the local City Council member.

Hite, Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd, and Chief of Schools Shawn Bird emphasized that the process goes beyond facilities and school boundaries. They plan to work with the city planning department to leverage other public resources while focusing the District’s capital improvement dollars on changes they hope will ultimately improve learning.

“It’s not just about facilities improvements, but how do we design schools to meet the educational needs of children in those communities?” Hite said.

District officials believe this process will help them better manage overcrowding and underuse in various city schools. But this announcement could also unnerve homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods or neighborhoods with low-enrollment schools.

Over its history, the District has reacted to enrollment shifts more often than it has anticipated them.

Hite’s tenure began in 2012 with a school-closure process that resulted in the 2013 shutdown of 23 schools, based largely on recommendations from the Boston Consulting Group. To much public outcry, BCG originally suggested that 40 to 50 schools be closed immediately and 15 to 20 more shut their doors in subsequent years. The proposal was a response to a precipitous decline in District enrollment, which was largely due to the rise of the charter sector.

In the past, the District’s planning for demographic changes — such as those that roiled the city during the height of white flight starting in the 1950s and 1960s — was opaque. It remains a mystery how, historically, District officials decided where to build schools, how to set catchment boundaries, and when to shut a school down — all moves that both responded to and influenced the rapid racial transformations of many Philadelphia neighborhoods during the last half of the 20th century.

Even a 40-year lawsuit by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission accusing the District of discrimination and seeking active desegregation measures failed to fully explicate how such decisions were made.

The current District leadership thinks its new process will be more predictable, transparent, and thoughtful than past iterations. They hope it will allow them to make proactive decisions, ensuring that every neighborhood in the city receives some focused attention once every four years.

But this announcement also introduces some unpredictability into the city’s development landscape.

Catchment boundaries help drive home values in many areas of the city, and prices have soared recently in some gentrifying areas that have well-regarded public schools. Moving the boundaries even a block could create perceived winners and losers.

Some parents in these pockets of the city have begged the District to take a more proactive approach to overcrowding. And District officials tried to downplay the prospect of redrawing attendance areas, saying it was just one of many options on the table.

South Philadelphia — where housing prices and school enrollment have boomed over the last decade — is one of the areas under review in this first cycle.

“We’ve been asking them to do something systematic for several years,” said Dare Henry-Moss, an education advocate who lives in the Andrew Jackson School catchment in South Philadelphia. “Because any choices that are made about individual schools affect the schools around them.”

Henry-Moss, who plans to send her child to Jackson in the fall, thinks some neighbors will be “apprehensive” about the planning review, but she’s cautiously optimistic the district will take a “more thoughtful approach” than it did in the 2013 closure process.

“Study Area 1” includes development-heavy neighborhoods such as Point Breeze, Graduate Hospital, Bella Vista, Queen Village, and East Passyunk.

“Study Area 2” covers Fairhill and the northern fringes of Kensington, where schools have varying grade spans, meaning that many students must switch schools one or more times before they reach 9th grade.

“Study Area 3” focuses on neighborhoods in far West Philadelphia, including Overbrook and Wynnefield, where a replacement school for Cassidy Elementary is planned.

(For a complete list of schools in Cycle 1, see below.)

None of the 23 school zones in this first cycle of review will see any changes until September 2021 at the earliest.

To begin the process, the District says, it will hire an outside firm to help administrators predict the demographic changes that Philadelphia will undergo in the next decade. Officials expect this review to cost $1.4 million over the next four years.

The District will also form a study area planning committee (SAPC) for each of the three regions under examination in this first cycle of review.

Each of these SAPCs will feature two parents from each school within the given region, principals from each school under examination, assistant superintendents, District staff, elected officials, and city employees. District leaders mentioned that the city’s planning department would be looped into each of these SAPC groups.

The SAPCs will do a year of “analysis and community outreach,” according to the District. By May 2020, each SAPC will present recommendations to the superintendent and Board of Education. After a public comment period, the Board of Education will take a final vote on each plan.

For the last year, the District has been planning a new school in the overcrowded Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia to replace Austin Meehan Middle School, using a similar community process. Among the decisions that came out of that outreach is to make the new school a K-8 school rather than a middle school, Floyd said.

The first group of catchments under review are:

Study Area 1 (neighborhoods included: Point Breeze, Graduate Hospital, Bella Vista, Queen Village, and East Passyunk)

K-8 schools: Arthur, Childs, Jackson, Kirkbride, McDaniel, Meredith, Nebinger, Southwark, EM Stanton, Vare-Washington

Study Area 2 (neighborhoods included: Fairhill and the northern fringes of Kensington)

Cramp (K-5), deBurgos (K-8), Elkin (K-4), Munoz-Marin (K-8), Potter-Thomas (K-8), Sheppard (K-4), Willard (K-4)

Study Area 3 (neighborhoods included: Overbrook and Wynnefield, in far West Philadelphia)

Cassidy (K-8), Gompers (K-8), Lamberton (K-8), Mastery Charter at Mann (K-6), Overbrook (K-8), Universal Bluford Charter (K-6)

The story of Philadelphia’s public school system roughly follows the same trajectory as school districts in other post-industrial U.S. cities.

Philadelphia’s enrollment plummeted in the second half of the 20th century, as the city bled population and its suburbs boomed. Built for a population of two million people, the school system had to adapt as the city lost about 500,000 residents.

Since 2000, the city’s population has stabilized and so has the number of students attending public schools. But the emergence of the charter school sector has reshaped the distribution of those students.

In 2001, 201,000 students attended District-run schools. By 2016, that number had dropped to 134,000, with most of the remaining students attending charter schools.

This combination of demographic changes and charter growth left the District with lots of half-empty buildings. And despite the closures in the early part of this decade, enrollment at many buildings is at less than 50 percent of capacity.

Before utilization rates worsen, District officials want to implement this planning review process as a way to decide how they can best use their remaining infrastructure.

They want this type of thinking to become routine, and the hope is that these four-year cycles of review will continue into perpetuity.

“This should be something people come to expect as just a part of how we plan,” said Hite.

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