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District’s comprehensive planning process slows down

Two meetings have not been enough for participants to absorb all the data and implications for schools and communities.

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

Officials in charge of the Philadelphia School District’s new strategic planning process have postponed a series of planned public forums, saying that they’re not yet ready to discuss specific changes for particular schools.

“Our team reviewed the proposed schedule in late December and determined that in order to give the planning committees adequate time to deliberate, they would need to move back [the dates of] the [community] input forums,” said District spokesperson Megan Lello in an email.

The now-postponed community forums were to be the public’s first opportunity to take part in the ambitious effort known as the Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR), a newly launched planning process using demographic data to reorganize feeder patterns and prioritize investments in facilities and academic programs.

This year, three CSPR “study areas” in North, South, and West Philadelphia are considering possible changes, including school closures, expansions, consolidations, and catchment adjustments. Planning committees for each study area – which include principals, school staff, and selected community members – have already held two closed-door sessions each to discuss possible changes.

New dates for CSPR’s first public forum for each area will be released soon, Lello said. She said the delay would allow the study area committees to spend more time considering data before they share any initial proposals with the public. The CSPR timeline calls for final proposals for school communities to be drafted by April, so they can be voted on by the Board of Education in June.

“This is the first year of this work, and we are working to be as responsive as we can to the community members in our planning committees to ensure we have the time, space, and structure in place to create a collaborative and productive process,” said Lello.

The CSPR team also says it soon will release a progress update and launch a new survey of parents, in order to “provide them with an opportunity to immediately share their priorities and perspectives” with the planning committees, Lello said.

Hard questions to come

Although little has been shared with the public since CSPR’s formal launch in November, documents on the District’s CSPR website show that the study area committees have only just begun to grapple with specific school-level issues.

The District has posted summaries of the study area committee meetings, which are invitation-only sessions made up of small delegations from each study area’s various schools. The meetings have been closed to the public and reporters. The District’s summaries show that after two meetings in each study area, the committees have discussed their communities’ basic school issues and considered some detailed data describing trends in population growth, facility use, and student movement.

But the documents also show that the three study area committees have not yet taken up the thorny questions of what could or should happen to specific schools.

Besides the District’s invited participants, members of at least one independent group have managed to observe some of the CSPR study area committee meetings – the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), a volunteer watchdog group. APPS members showed up uninvited at the first closed-door CSPR committee meeting and were permitted to attend but not participate. Since then, Karel Kilimnik of APPS attended two more of the private sessions – a total of three of the six study area committee meetings so far.

Kilimnik said that based on what she’s seen, the study area committees seem far from producing any detailed plans. Controversial concepts like school closures or catchment changes have been discussed in the abstract, she said, but the groups have only just begun to digest the detailed data handouts provided by the CSPR team.

“They are not talking about specific schools,” said Kilimnik. “It’s hard to see what the specifics will be. People have been inundated with data – it’s hard to absorb all of that.”

The CSPR team has released brief summaries of the committees’ meetings, including copies of the data sets prepared by the project’s data consultants, FLO Analytics. Those data sets include statistics about enrollment, population growth, walkability, and safety. They also include some basic information about facility use and academic offerings, such as the availability of art, music, PE and language programs.

At the same time, the CSPR team has not released any information about the composition of the study area committees or the attendance at the closed-door meetings. Principals are responsible for assembling their delegations, which can include up to four people, including school staff and community members. But how many committee members have actually come to the various meetings and who exactly is speaking for the various schools besides their principals are not known.

Kilimnik said that attendance appeared uneven at the three study area committee meetings she attended. The South Philadelphia study area’s November meeting was robustly attended, she said, with as many as fifty people, including numerous community members and parents.

But the December study area committee meetings that Kilimnik observed in North and West Philadelphia were less well-attended, she said. West Philadelphia’s second meeting “had no parents that I could see,” Kilimnik said, and North Philadelphia’s “had a lot of principals and two assistant superintendents – and two parents from seven schools.”

A lack of parent voices is a particular concern, said Kilimnik, and reflects the challenge faced by principals and school communities, not all of which have equally strong community networks from which to draw support. Either the principals couldn’t find parents who were willing to be part of the committee or invited parents didn’t show up – leading Kilimnik to worry that the CSPR process, meant to provide greater equity, could end up replicating the District’s existing inequities, with the most prosperous school communities speaking the loudest.

“Some schools [and communities] are more organized and have more parent groups and more resources. Some schools are just better equipped to advocate for themselves,” said Kilimnik. “Others can barely make it to the table.”

New details about familiar trends

The CSPR team plans to release a “comprehensive update” on Jan. 21, said Lello, which will include “an updated timeline, a clarified process, and a summary of what has been covered at all meetings thus far.”

In the meantime, a review of the data provided to the study area committees shows that they offer new details to illustrate largely familiar trends.

In South Philadelphia (Study Area 1), for example, the challenge is uneven growth. Data confirm that longstanding patterns of gentrification and immigration are filling up classrooms east of Broad Street, while demand for schools on the west side stays relatively low, despite the “stable and growing” population. Enrollment data show that some South Philadelphia elementary schools (such as Meredith, Jackson, Arthur, and Kirkbride) are very popular with catchment residents. In other catchments (such as Stanton, McDaniel, and Vare-Washington), as many as one in three residents send their children to charters.

In North Philadelphia (Study Area 2), a key issue is declining enrollment. Several area schools are below 70 percent capacity (Cramp, Munoz-Marin, and Sheppard), and enrollment is sinking at three others (Elkin, Potter-Thomas, and Willard). The area has relatively little population growth, and new residents aren’t necessarily attending District schools. “The increase in school-age children is offset by charter choice,” the data handout notes. The area’s mix of K-4, K-5 and K-8 configurations also makes for challenging “transitions,” the documents say.

The data tell a similar story about West Philadelphia (Study Area 3), where a relatively stable population and increased demand for charter schools has also left the study area’s District-run schools underutilized. School buildings such as Cassidy, Gompers, and Lamberton are operating at half or two-thirds capacity; some catchments send over half their students to charters.

As in North Philadelphia, demographic data for West Philadelphia show scattered spots of population growth that don’t translate into demand for District schools, the data handout says. “The pocket increases in school-age children are offset by charter choice. … Live births in [Study Area 3] … do not necessarily correlate well with eventual [kindergarten] enrollment at local schools.”

The data handouts also include detailed analyses of transfer patterns, showing how students move among catchments and schools, including charters.

The CSPR study area committees will meet next at the end of January. And although new dates for the first round of community meetings have yet to be announced, a second round of public forums, scheduled for March, remains on the calendar.

Kilimnik said that APPS plans to continue to attend the study area committee meetings, which she described as fairly standard group exercises, with District officials and consultants sharing PowerPoint slides, and committee members breaking into discussion groups. She urged the District to open them up to the media and the public.

“There’s no reason the public shouldn’t be invited to these meetings, even just to observe,” she said.

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