This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District of Philadelphia has completed its first round of public forums as it gathers information for its sweeping initiative to realign schools with city population trends. The forums attracted hundreds of attendees, but they were marked by uneven parent turnout, incomplete data, and uncertain next steps for the ambitious process.
Officials said they were happy with the three forums – “a lot of good dialogue, a lot of good feedback,” said Vanessa Benton, head of the District’s Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR) team – but acknowledged that the limited parent attendance did not appear to fully represent the communities involved.
“I feel like we got representation from the people who were able to come at that time,” said Benton. “It’s a difficult time for families to be able to come out.”
“If you want to keep this process legitimate, you have to have parents,” said Charlene Samuels, a leader of North Philadelphia’s Logan Civic Association and a staffer for City Councilwoman Helen Gym, as she sat in a school working group session that included no parents at all.
Zoe Rooney, a District teacher, parent, and organizer with the group Parents United for Public Education, attended all three forums and was disappointed with the low and unrepresentative parent turnout. She said her group shared numerous suggestions with District officials for boosting equitable engagement, including improved outreach and translation services, but saw little result.
“They have so many excuses about being unable to plan in advance for things. It’s really quite astounding,” Rooney said.
The CSPR process is a carefully managed effort to reorganize clusters of neighborhood schools into more efficient K-12 networks. The Notebook attended all three Community Input Forums, one for each of the neighborhoods now under review. The two-hour evening meetings, held March 4-6, represented the public’s first chance to participate in what has been an invitation-only process so far.
Overall community representation at the North, South and West Philadelphia forums ranged widely, as did the representation for individual school communities within each of the “study areas.”
According to District sign-in sheets, the South Philadelphia forum drew the most parents – 170 for 10 schools – but the heavily white crowd appeared to over-represent the area’s most prosperous neighborhoods and most popular schools.
Vanessa Benton, who is managing the Comprehensive School Planning Review process for the District, with parents at Overbrook Elementary School.
Meanwhile, attendance at the North and West Philadelphia forums appeared more racially and economically representative, but the meetings drew much smaller attendance, with some schools represented by just a few parents or none at all.
The West Philadelphia forum drew 16 parents for four schools, officials said. The North Philadelphia forum drew 24 parents for seven schools, most of whom apparently came to protest the possible closing of Sheppard Elementary, after community organizers spent weeks drumming up interest.
Besides parents, officials said, the three forums also drew a total of 134 “community members” and 84 “school staff,” some of whom may be District parents. Counting all categories, total attendance for all three forums was 477 people, officials said. It was not clear how many attendees stayed for the entire process and completed surveys.
Exact per-school figures were not available. But the Notebook’s visits to various breakout sessions showed that all school communities were not equally represented. Heavily enrolled elementary schools from relatively prosperous areas, such as Meredith, Southwark, Nebinger and Jackson, drew relatively large and engaged crowds, as did the two elementary schools facing possible closure, Sheppard and Overbrook.
SEE: Sheppard supporters crowd CSPR forum to defend their school
Less in-demand elementary schools from lower-income communities, such as Elkin, Lamberton, Cassidy, and Gompers, drew few and sometimes, attendees said, no parents.
Not necessarily equitable
The imbalance appears to reflect a well-documented pattern in which an “equal” approach to public engagement – such as hosting public meetings – can lead to an “inequitable” result, with attendance over-representing those with the most time, material resources, and social and professional connections. A recent PlanPhilly article noted research by Boston University that found public meetings tend to empower a community’s “most privileged segments” rather than its “underrepresented voices.”
Rooney, the teacher, parent, and organizer, said that this equal-isn’t-equitable dynamic was “absolutely” on display during the CSPR forums, in part because boosting engagement largely fell to the staff in schools, whose capacities vary widely.
“Much of the outreach was left up to principals,” Rooney said. “My understanding is that schools even had to copy the flyers that they were given to send home.”
Outreach was “only equal insofar as principals were all given the same information,” Rooney said, adding that more child care, translation, school-based meetings, and targeted outreach would help increase participation.
Another forum observer was Akira Rodriguez, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in planning and diversity. Rodriguez said that the North Philadelphia forum she attended demonstrated vividly that not all schools share the same capacity to organize and self-advocate.
“Lower-resource schools … just cannot manage the duties and obligations of parent [and] community engagement that are being forced on them,” Rodriguez said.
Karel Kilimnick of the watchdog group the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), who has observed meetings throughout the CSPR process, said the District should have organized its outreach more collaboratively.
“The District should have involved stakeholders in the planning,” she said. “This lack of input has been painfully clear in the low turnout.”
The District’s Benton said that the CSPR team deliberately took the identical outreach approach in all three communities – “we did it equally across all of the study areas,” she said – and will now explore ways to correct for any imbalances.
The team went into this knowing that it wouldn’t be easy to get full community representation at public meetings, but “meetings aren’t the only way for us to get the feedback,” Benton said.
“We have to find other ways to do it, but that was a start,” she said. “ … If we feel like we didn’t get adequate representation from a particular school or a particular community, we are going to look for another way to reach out to them.”
Consultant Ingrid Boucher talks to a mostly empty room at Overbrook High School during a comprehensive planning forum. (Photo: Bill Hangley)
What that further outreach might be is unclear. The CSPR team cancelled a planned online parent survey, in part because officials did not want to publicize “draft” options that would trigger emotional reactions from school communities, meeting attendees were told.
They were also informed that more input will be gathered at the next round of community forums, scheduled for April.
And in her introduction to the forums, lead facilitator Ingrid Boucher of the consultant firm Bloom Planning reminded attendees that a public comment period would follow the release of the CSPR team’s recommended changes, expected by June. That comment period will likely stretch through September before the Board of Education votes on proposals, said Boucher.
“We are not looking at overnight changes,” Boucher told forum attendees. “We are looking at thoughtful transitions.”
Questions about data
The community forums, where attendees were given a brief introduction to the CSPR process and then divided into school-based working groups, raised other questions, too. Among them were concerns about this year’s data, next year’s follow-up, and the process by which final proposals will be selected.
CSPR staff told attendees that the various committees for the planning review have not yet begun to consider population forecasting data, but that those figures would soon be added to the mix. The delay was a first-year issue that won’t be repeated, officials said, and next year’s CSPR communities will have population forecast figures from the outset.
That explanation left many forum attendees wondering how communities meeting this year can assess proposed changes without growth forecasts.
“I know more than when I walked in, but it’s strange to be asked to give an opinion on options without knowing what the population’s doing,” said Jason Morroni, a District teacher and parent who attended the South Philadelphia forum.
Officials said they were re-evaluating other data that measures facilities usage and conditions after principals and school staff raised questions about its accuracy.
“We want to make sure that we’re making decisions based on accurate data,” said Benton.
Attendees raised questions about the quality of other data, too, including the CSPR team’s assessment of housing starts and “gentrification” threats in North Philadelphia.
Rodriguez said, “Permit data … suggest there is little to no new construction, while principals and community residents during the planning meetings stated that there is a great deal of construction occurring without permit.”
Forum attendees also had many questions about the process by which final options will be selected. They were told only that proposed changes will be presented to the Board of Education by June and voted on – if necessary – in September.
After the forums, Benton clarified the final steps of the decision-making process. Once all community and stakeholder input is considered, she said – including that of an internal Advisory Committee of District department heads and staff – the final proposals will be developed by an executive team that includes Superintendent William Hite, Interim Chief of General Operations Danielle Floyd, and Benton herself.
“Who decides what gets given to [the board]? That would be Dr. Hite, Danielle Floyd and me,” Benton said.
The final word will presumably belong to Hite, she said.
“Ultimately it’s the superintendent’s decision,” said Benton, promising transparency about the team’s thinking. “We will look at all options and give explanations for any recommendations that we put forth.”
Year 2: An unknown process
While forum attendees had many questions about what exactly they might see in June and beyond, the CSPR team had few answers.
Among the unknowns is the community engagement process for the second year of comprehensive planning, when school communities will start working out the operational details of proposed changes – a potentially complex and contentious process.
“There does not seem to be a process in place for how much public and parent engagement will occur during the planning and implementation phases” slated to start next year, said Rodriguez.
After the forums, Benton clarified that the study area proposals to come in June may range widely in their level of detail. They may or may not include school-specific proposals, she said. For example, proposed boundary adjustment could be “to change the boundaries … not where to place the boundaries.”
School-specific proposals are “the goal, but this is the first year,” said Benton. “We’re still trying to figure out what makes the most sense.”
Benton said that the details of next year’s community engagement will be determined by the nature of the final proposals. A proposed boundary change would require one sort of engagement, while changes in the grade levels served by schools would require another, Benton said. The CSPR team – which will also be taking up possible changes in new communities – may or may not continue to play a role for this year’s study areas, Benton said.
Rooney, of Parents United, worries that the District is underestimating the challenge of the year to come. The CSPR process is set to launch in September for the second round of study areas – 60 schools in four study areas, including a handful of high schools – even as this year’s CSPR schools begin working on implementation.
It’s a “looming disaster,” Rooney said. “I’m worried about how much more money they’re going to ask for.”
Many such uncertainties were expected in CSPR’s first year, Benton said, and she vowed that the team would not finalize any decisions prematurely.
“We want to make sure we take the time and not rush things,” Benton said. “If more time is needed, then more time will be given.”
But attendees warned facilitators that slower isn’t necessarily better, either, because too much uncertainty around a school’s fate can drive parents to find other options.
Certain proposals, especially boundary changes, are virtually guaranteed to trigger contentious debates next year, attendees said. As a Nebinger working group member put it: “It just seems like something that’s going to be fought and fought and fought, for good or bad.”
That disruption, in turn, could drive parents to find more stable options, attendees said. Too many unknowns could lead to parents leaving and neighborhoods changing, said Shakeda Gaines, president of the Philadelphia Home & School Council, an observer at the forums.
“Parents don’t have time for uncertainties,” Gaines said.
Color wheels, questions
The community input forums were arranged somewhat like focus groups meant to gather feedback on specific proposals being developed by the CSPR team.
Outside of the Notebook’s coverage, details of those options were not publicized by District officials before the meetings. District officials advertised the public forums with robocalls, flyers and online posts that didn’t mention any particular changes under consideration. The outlines of the options so far have been made available online, but not publicly advertised, and school communities have largely relied on principals and staff to learn about the potential changes.
At the forums, attendees were split up into school-based working groups that were frequently assured that despite what they may have heard, no final decisions have been made and that all options – including new options – remain on the table.
“Nothing has been decided yet,” Boucher frequently repeated.
However, forum attendees were also told that many key decisions for their schools would be made over the next few months. A second round of public forums is slated to consider a near-final set of options in the third week of April.
The working group meetings were facilitated by members of the CSPR team, a mix of District staff and consultants. Once in the classrooms, forum attendees heard data-heavy presentations about enrollment patterns and facility usage, featuring maps and color wheels showing student migration in and out of catchments and schools.
Attendees were then asked to weigh in on proposed changes. Most working groups were presented a wide range of options, some more potentially disruptive than others and many of which also involved changes in other schools. Typical proposals involved grade and catchment adjustments meant to re-route students from overenrolled to under-used facilities. Some proposals involve creating new middle schools; others involve effectively closing existing schools.
At the end of each session, working group members were asked to fill out a survey ranking the various options. The CSPR team repeatedly reminded attendees that the surveys were “critically important” and collected them from every working group.
Working group members were then free to circulate among the various classrooms, where they could talk to other attendees and peruse the data posters and notes hanging from whiteboards and walls.
Observing every working group was impossible, but after attendees were settled and introductions complete, groups typically appeared to spend 20 to 30 minutes discussing the CSPR team’s proposed options. The conversations occasionally grappled with specific data points, but often veered off into related discussions about transportation policy, sibling preferences and grandfather clauses.
A frequent theme was the need for more funding, regardless of what changes CSPR may bring.
“There were lots of concerns that are out of our scope of work – funding formulas and all that,” said Benton.
Attendees open to change
The working group sessions typically raised numerous questions that CSPR facilitators were unable to answer. Attendees with questions were told to “write it down” on their surveys so that the CSPR team could register the concerns.
Many unanswered questions were about nuts-and-bolts details, but others were about large strategic questions raised by the CSPR options, such as the District’s vision for middle schools and its plans for managing charter growth.
Attendees got little sense of the District’s larger strategic thinking around such questions – for example, whether the lessons of past middle-school closures have been factored into the proposal to open new ones.
In West Philadelphia, for example, one proposal is to transform Cassidy, a K-8 school, into a regional middle school. That baffled some who recall the 2016 closure of nearby Beeber Middle School (now home to a special-admission school, Science Leadership Academy). Middle schools that combine young teens from multiple neighborhoods have been rife with issues in the past, attendees said, and it’s unclear whether the District has a plan to do better this time.
“That Cassidy situation is going to be a disaster,” said Debra Joell, a District parent and teacher at Overbrook Elementary who attended the West Philadelphia forum. “If they couldn’t handle it before, what makes them think it will be different now?”
Also unclear is whether the District wants to maintain excess building capacity in hopes of recapturing students no enrolled at charter schools – a potentially important question in the North and West Philadelphia areas, where a third or more of a given catchment’s students can be in charters.
The clearest strategic goal shared with forum attendees was the notion that the more students are in a given building, the more academic and extracurricular programming the District can provide.
“If there’s more kids in the building, we can offer more,” explained a CSPR facilitator to members of the Julia de Burgos Elementary School working group.
That, in turn, will make District offerings more attractive, officials said.
“If you build it, they will come,” said Harris Lewin, a former District principal who is now working as a consultant for the CSPR team.
Forum attendees appeared to arrive ready to give the CSPR team a chance, even if some were skeptical about the process. Working groups featured little grandstanding, with attendees trying hard to digest the data and options while also raising their own concerns. Attendees frequently noted that “change” was necessary, but just as frequently wondered whether the District was truly prepared to consider community input.
Only one school community organized an open challenge to the process: Sheppard Elementary, a small North Philadelphia school that has been threatened with closure. Sheppard brought a vocal contingent of staff and parents that protested out in front of the meeting (see sidebar) and then staged an impromptu town hall inside, while CSPR staff willingly shared the microphone and wrote down the group’s ideas.
But the free-flowing, parent-heavy Sheppard exchange was the exception at the community input forums. More typical was the working group session for Elkin Elementary, where a working group of eight people that included no Elkin parents worked through the CSPR facilitator’s exercises.
Among those present was Charlene Samuels, a veteran North Philadelphia community organizer who is also the director of constituent engagement in the office of City Council member Gym. Samuels told the facilitator that having the forum over a mile from Elkin, at Clemente Middle School, had helped cut the community out of the process.
“I don’t understand why this meeting is not at Elkin,” she said at one point.
“It’s a big effort to organize these open houses,” the CSPR moderator replied.
“My recommendation,” said Samuels, “is that the next meeting better be at the school.”