Philadelphia school closures a radical approach
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Proposing the largest contraction in the history of the Philadelphia School District, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said that come June, he wants to shut one out of six city schools and relocate, close programs or reshuffle grades at many more.
The numbers released Thursday are staggering: 17,000 students and 2,000 staffers would be affected by the moves. Some 37 buildings would close for a saving of about $28 million, money the nearly broke district says it needs to survive.
"This is a historic moment for us," Mr. Hite said at a news conference.
Overall, 22 elementary, four middle, and 11 high schools in nearly every neighborhood of the city would close if Mr. Hite's recommendations are adopted by the School Reform Commission, which will vote on the shutdowns in March.
Jobs will likely be lost as a result of the closings, although there's likely to be "minimal impact" at the teacher level, Mr. Hite said. Principals and other support staff are more vulnerable.
Acknowledging that the changes would bring "tremendous controversy, angst and emotions," Mr. Hite vowed the district would invest heavily in programs and safety to help the remaining 200 schools thrive.
The superintendent said all closing decisions were made with two goals in mind -- boosting academics throughout the district and ensuring its long-term financial viability.
A financial picture both bleak and fragile is the key driver of the proposed changes.
The district recently borrowed $300 million just to pay its bills and issue employee paychecks through the end of the school year. It faces an equally tough picture for next year, and if one action built into its five-year plan doesn't happen, dominoes would start to tumble.
"If we don't take these actions now, we actually have no money to spend," Mr. Hite said of the closings.
Some of the $28 million saved if the changes are enacted will be plowed back into programs and safety initiatives. But some must go toward startup costs for merged or new schools that are created from closed programs.
Academics are also a major consideration in the changes, officials promised.
The schools targeted are largely all under-enrolled and underperforming.
Some buildings are dramatically under-enrolled. Shaw Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia has 193 students in a building that has room for 1,071.
The changes would take the district from about 67 percent utilization to about 80 percent utilization.
It's no secret the district is struggling academically, with the vast majority of all city schools failing to meet state standards. Eighty two percent missed the mark on either math or reading goals, and 68 percent failed to meet goals in both.
"Those data are simply unacceptable," Mr. Hite said. He said the closings would help fix that.
Officials said their aim was to send all students affected by a closure or program change to a school that performs as well as or better than the schools they're leaving.
In most cases, that goal would be realized, Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said, but it is not universal. He said there would be a "commitment to focus on those schools in particular to ensure that we bring up the academic outcomes."
Some have suggested the mass school closings is a tactic to weaken and ultimately destroy the public school system; Mr. Hite said the intent was just the opposite.
Officials "believe very strongly that our public school system is an institution worth saving," he said.
Mr. Hite and others said the closing decisions should have been made years ago.
In the last decade, the district has lost more than 50,000 students, mostly to charter schools, and it did not adjust its infrastructure accordingly.
"These are actions that really should have been taken years ago," Mr. Hite said. "Many superintendents chose to kick the can and continue to just kick it down and let someone else deal with it."
There's just no more room to kick the can, he said.
Still, the superintendent said he realized the enormity of what he was proposing.
"These are not recommendations that we take lightly," Mr. Hite said, but they acknowledge "that our resources are limited, and we must do our best to use them in a way that best serves the children of Philadelphia."
The changes would mean a tremendous upheaval for some students.
Strawberry Mansion's proposed closure means that some students would be forced into their third high school in three years. When FitzSimons and Rhoads Highs closed in June, those students were sent to Strawberry Mansion, which even with an influx of students still only has 435 students in a 249,000 square-foot building constructed for 1,762 students.
Next year, Strawberry Mansion students would be sent to Benjamin Franklin High.
Reaction was swift from both supporters and detractors.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan accused the district of trying to kill neighborhood public schools and said the PFT would help organize a fight against the closures.
"I'm very, very concerned about the decision that have been made by the school district," Jordan said. "There has not been inclusion in the conversation with those of us who have lived in the city all of our lives, who know the community and many of the potential problems that are inherent in making these kinds of school closings."
Even Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, weighed in, decrying "top-down mandates to close schools and destabilize neighborhoods."
Mayor Michael Nutter struck a very different note.
Mr. Hite, he said, had his "full and unequivocal support" for "making tough, difficult decisions" on closings.
"In the end," Mr. Nutter said, "it will mean safer, better equipped schools, capable of meeting the educational needs of the schoolchildren."
First Published December 15, 2012 12:00 am