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District and Queen Village community group cancel school planning review Q&A

Public forums will start soon, but a “town hall” format is unlikely.

Photo by Bill Hangley

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

District officials and a South Philadelphia community group have agreed to cancel a planned appearance by Superintendent William Hite, at which he was expected to take public questions about the new Comprehensive School Planning Review for the first time since it launched in November.

“Our goal has always been to ensure that all communities … have an opportunity to hear the same information at the same time,” said District spokesperson Monica Lewis in a statement. “We believe it would not be appropriate to engage individual communities in conversations about CSPR at this time.”

Hite had been scheduled to appear Wednesday at the monthly community meeting of the Queen Village Neighbors Association (QVNA). The meeting announcement, posted on Facebook over the weekend, promised that Hite would “present and answer questions about the Comprehensive School Planning Review,” or CSPR, a strategic planning process designed to reorganize neighborhood K-12 networks to make them more efficient and effective. Two Queen Village elementary schools, Nebinger and Meredith, are located in one of the first “study areas” that the review will assess and they could see changes.

Hite’s appearance would have offered the public its first opportunity to directly question District officials about CSPR in an open forum, and word of the meeting quickly spread on social media.

The appearance was cancelled by “mutual agreement,” said QVNA president Eleanor Ingersoll.

When first asked by the Notebook about the appearance and about whether Hite planned similar visits to other communities, a District spokesperson said that “CSPR was not something he was asked to address” in Queen Village.

But Ingersoll said that Hite’s staff agreed “last week” to focus on CSPR. Hite’s appearance had been in the works for some months, she said, and the issue of toxins in schools had initially been a subject of interest. But she said the upcoming CSPR forums led her to revise the agenda.

Ingersoll said she’d hoped Hite would “talk about the [CSPR] process in general terms,” take some questions from the public, and explain the format of CSPR’s upcoming community forums, scheduled for early March. She didn’t want the meeting to get bogged down in premature questions about District plans for specific schools. Her greatest hope, she said, was that people wouldn’t “waste their time trying to get information he doesn’t want to share.”

On Tuesday, the QVNA announced that the group and Hite had agreed to cancel the appearance. Lewis, the District spokesperson, said that Hite and his team “welcome the enthusiasm around CSPR” and hope for “a robust discussion around how all stakeholders can work together.”

That leaves residents of Queen Village and other neighborhoods to wait until the scheduled Community Input Forums in March to participate in CSPR.

But there, too, opportunities for the public to directly question District officials will likely be limited, if they occur at all. Officials say that final plans are not yet set, but that the format does not currently include any town hall-style question-and-answer sessions.

Instead, District officials said community forum attendees will “likely” be organized into small groups, sharing queries not with District leadership but with the CSPR team of staff and consultants.

“The draft format [for the Community Input Forums] currently includes an opportunity for the public to both provide input and ask questions of facilitators and CSPR team members,” said District spokesperson Imahni Moise.

“This will likely happen in stations or a small group format of some kind to allow community members to learn about and provide feedback on specific solutions or recommendations,” Moise said.

Stakes are high, but public engagement limited

Stakes are potentially high for all three “study areas” in this year’s CSPR process, which include parts of South, North and West Philadelphia.

The goal of the CSPR process is to create clear K-12 pathways in every community, which could mean closing, expanding, or co-locating various schools. Each study area has hosted a series of closed-door meetings since the planning process officially launched in November to discuss local demographic data, enrollment patterns, and facility usage. The District’s CSPR team uses the data and feedback to develop “options” for each study area. Options include redrawing catchments, “repurposing” buildings, and reorganizing grade configurations and feeder patterns.

Officials have said little about the review’s progress so far, but they have released summaries of all but the most recent closed-door “study area committee” meetings, which are attended by small delegations of staff and select community members from each study area school.

The meeting summaries show that options being considered for South Philadelphia include transforming a swath of K-8 schools – including popular and crowded schools such as Meredith, Jackson, and Nebinger – into K-5s and creating one or two new middle schools. In North and West Philadelphia, where heavy charter enrollment has drained District-run schools, officials are considering merging various elementary schools and repurposing several buildings.

The meeting summaries stress that none of the options for any study area are final and that new options could be considered.

Public opportunities to participate in CSPR have been limited. A round of public forums scheduled for January was postponed because the study area proposals were slow to develop. A planned parent survey has been “cancelled at this time,” according to CSPR meeting summaries, while officials seek a “meaningful input alternative” that is “accessible to all parents.” Public comment has been limited to testimony at Board of Education meetings.

Two rounds of public CSPR meetings are now planned – one in early March, and a second in late April. Each round will feature one forum in each of the three study areas, for a total of six community meetings altogether. The meetings will be open to all members of the public.

Rather than open the floor to questions or ideas, Moise said, the public meetings will most likely present options to attendees and gather their feedback.

“A core goal of these forums is to provide an opportunity for community members to learn about what options have been considered thus far and to provide feedback on what solutions will best meet the needs of children in their study area,” she said.

Moise also said that the CSPR team will remain “in touch with many community leaders directly … and will be expanding outreach to community groups in all study areas throughout the spring.” She urged stakeholders to attend the public sessions and added that they are “invited to reach out to the CSPR team directly.

Behind closed doors, options take shape

Attendees at the closed-door meetings have been reluctant to speak on the record about the proceedings. A handful of independent observers have attended, including elected officials, school board members, and education advocates. The CSPR team has welcomed such visitors and offers them a separate observers’ table, from which they can watch the working groups in action.

One observer was City Councilman Mark Squilla, who attended the Jan. 21 session in South Philadelphia. Squilla, who arrived knowing almost nothing about CSPR, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by a substantive and well-managed meeting that tackled important questions.

“This is a process I believe we need,” Squilla said.

Parents and school staff worked diligently to follow the CSPR team’s lead, he said, and a lot of interesting ideas were aired. But the session steered clear of hard questions about specific schools, he said, and he’s not clear whether and how lawmakers like himself will get to weigh in on the District’s final choices.

“Who makes the final decisions – and how will we be involved?” he asked. “We get a lot of questions. And now even though I don’t have a lot of answers, it was really good to observe.”

Meeting attendees say the study area sessions are carefully managed, with attendees broken into working groups to consider specific options and issues. The CSPR team takes their feedback and uses it to develop various options for further discussion.

The meetings do not feature open-floor question-and-answer sessions, attendees say. That prevents grandstanding, but also constrains the conversation, said David Hensel, a District teacher and founder of the Caucus of Working Educators, who has attended several CSPR meetings as an observer.

“It’s nice to be able to talk to people in small groups – but you need a town hall format at some point,” where people can speak on their own terms with officials and the entire group, Hensel said.

Meeting summaries show that attendees rate the sessions as relatively helpful, with satisfaction ratings of 3 or 4 on a scale of 1-5. But attendees from all three study areas have also indicated a desire for “more talk & work time,” and more focus on “systematic change” and “solutions” instead of “problems.”

The documents show that the data considered by the study groups consist mainly of enrollment and building capacity information, with relatively little included about academic performance and educational offerings at various schools. Data handouts, for example, include simple “yes/no” checklists of schools’ extracurricular offerings, but don’t include their School Performance Report (SPR) scores.

The meetings have now produced several relatively detailed options for each study area, which the documents stress are “not intended to be … final or complete” and which are focused primarily on “enrollment and facilities.”

The options being discussed so far “are not yet inclusive of all potential solutions,” the documents say. Attendees at the closed-door meetings say they’re reminded repeatedly that no final decisions have been made and that all options for every school remain on the table.

However, although the overall CSPR process is long, the window for major decision-making is closing. The updated CSPR timeline calls for study area committees to prepare preliminary recommendations by April. Final recommendations are to be presented to the board in June.

Not all potential changes require board approval, but District officials say that any votes will likely take place in the fall. Implementation planning would then begin immediately.

“If recommendations are brought forward in June, then typical board processes like public hearings would likely take a vote into September,” said Moise.

Study area updates

For Study Area One, a swath of South Philadelphia stretching from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill, meeting summaries show that a core concern is the imbalance of enrollment between the east and west sides of Broad Street. Demand for elementary slots is high in the relatively prosperous east side; buildings are emptier on the lower-income, less-gentrified west side.

District officials are considering options that include transforming South Philadelphia’s many K-8s (including Meredith, Nebinger, Childs, and Jackson) to K-5 schools, while adding one or two new middle schools – potentially one on each side of Broad Street.

The first Community Input Forum for Study Area One will be from 6 to 8 p.m. March 3 at South Philadelphia High School.

In Study Area Two, a chunk of North Philadelphia that includes parts of Hunting Park and Kensington, the issue is under-enrollment. Several schools – Cramp (K-5), Munoz-Marin (K-8), and Sheppard (K-4) – are at less than 70% of capacity, and high demand for charter enrollment means that enrollment in District schools is not likely to increase.

One option that the District is considering is to reassign all students from Sheppard Elementary and repurpose its building. Sheppard students would enroll at De Burgos Elementary (K-8). With just 164 students, Sheppard is operating at about 43% capacity, by far the lowest in the North Philadelphia Study Area.

Another option is to “seek programming alternatives for underutilized schools” in order to make them more effective and appealing. Also being considered: a plan to reorganize Cramp from a K-5 to K-4, in order to match the three other K-4s in the area (Elkin, Sheppard, and Willard) and simplify the middle-school transition.

The Community Input Forum for Study Area Two will be from 6 to 8 p.m. March 4 at Roberto Clemente Middle School.

For Study Area Three, a patch of far West Philadelphia that includes Overbrook and Wynnefield, concerns mirror those in North Philadelphia. Charter enrollment is growing and overall population is relatively stable, leaving the study area’s four schools operating at about half their overall capacity.

Here, too, the District’s options include essentially closing one school in order to drive up enrollment in others, and creating a new middle school while transforming the remaining K-8s to K-5s. The potential plan would be to repurpose Overbrook Elementary (K-8) and send its students to Gompers or Cassidy, which also serve K-8. A related option for this study area is to reconfigure its three K-8s to K-5s and also create a new 450-student middle school to handle the displaced students.

The Community Input Forum for Study Area Three will be from 6 to 8 p.m. March 5 at Overbrook High School.

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