District takes first steps toward facilities overhaul

No school closings yet, but recommendations are expected in October.

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

The School District has announced its first steps to "rightsize" the District’s physical plant, setting in motion a new facilities master plan that is expected to close as many as 50 buildings.

No schools will be closed in the 2011-12 school year, but officials said they intend to cut 35,000 seats by 2014.

"This is not the right time to just launch into closing buildings … unless you have a good plan," said Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery in April.

The District will present a plan for 2012-13 and possibly beyond in October, including the names of schools to be closed, consolidated, or otherwise affected.

In January 2012, the School Reform Commission (SRC) will vote on those measures. State law requires at least three months between announcing the intent to close schools and voting to do so, and the District’s timetable sticks to the narrowest allowable window.

Shedding empty seats

Few would dispute that a facilities overhaul is both much needed and long overdue. The District currently counts 70,000 "empty seats," a number it hopes to cut in half over the next three years. Reaching that target would increase its building utilization from 67 percent to the accepted ideal of 85 percent. The goal for 2011-12 is to get to 70 to 75 percent.

To reach the 85 percent utilization goal, officials stressed they will employ a variety of strategies, including school consolidations and co-locations, grade reconfigurations, and boundary changes. The details of each are spelled out in a new "Rightsizing Policy" that is expected to be approved by the SRC in June. That policy will also call upon the District to issue a student impact statement, community engagement strategy, and safety plan, among other steps, before taking any "rightsizing" action.

As part of its initial recommendations, the District will undertake two school consolidations for next year. Lamberton Elementary and Lamberton High, just recently separated, will be reunited into a single K-12 school. LaBrum Middle will be folded into its sole feeder, Hancock Elementary.

Those moves have not been voted on by the SRC.

And at a District-run May 10 community meeting, staff from Hancock said they had been given few specifics of how the plan will work.

"We have not received a lot of information about our transition, which will be happening in September. Is there going to be more information on that soon?" asked Hayley Dogon, a 4th grade teacher at Hancock.

The District’s response – essentially, "We’ll look into it" – left Dogon frustrated.

"It’s hard to … make sure our children have a smooth transition without any details," said Dogon.

Grade reconfigurations

In addition to the consolidations, measures for next year include changes to the grade configurations of Ethel Allen, Ellwood, Smedley, and Mann elementaries and Simon Gratz High, as well as an expedited renovation of Bridesburg Elementary.

According to officials, all rightsizing recommendations are to be guided by the District’s new "Educational Framework," which includes calls for a move toward four standardized grade configurations (K-5, K-8, 6-8, and 9-12) and offers recommended size guidelines for each.

High schools, for example, are now suggested to enroll between 1,000 and 1,200 students. This has caused concern among proponents of small high schools. Under previous CEO Paul Vallas, the District created 25 high schools serving 700 or fewer students as part of a $1.7 billion capital plan.

Advocates and researchers say that small size has helped create more personalized, safer learning environments for students and staff.

"Our research found that there was definitely a benefit in terms of climate from small size," said Research for Action’s Tracey Hartmann, who helped lead a 2009 study of Philadelphia’s small high schools. "Students told us they didn’t feel anonymous. … They felt a sense of family or community in their schools."

But Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said that the District can provide similar benefits in a more cost-effective manner in schools of 1,000 students.

"There is a place where small schools become fiscally not viable," she said.

Buildings for sale

In general, though, District officials said financial concerns will be secondary. In seeking to sell off unused or closed school buildings, for example, the District will seek to prioritize educational or public use of facilities over private redevelopment.

Under its proposed "Adaptive Reuse Policy," also scheduled for a June SRC vote, the District would obtain three appraised values for each building – for educational, public/community, and private reuse. Prospective buyers would be sorted into similar categories based on their plans for the buildings they wished to buy. For example, for a potential buyer to bid on buildings slated for educational reuse – which would likely have a lower market value – the District would have to designate the buyer as an "educational user."

After the District decides the possible types of reuse for each listed building – whether it should become, for example, condominiums, a park, or a charter school – the public would be invited to help vet proposals from relevant prospective buyers.

Under the policy, charter schools could be designated as "educational users" only if they adhere to the District’s existing process for expanding their student enrollment.

Seven school facilities, including the former Childs Elementary school building in South Philadelphia and the shuttered Ada Lewis building in Germantown, have already been listed for sale.

Targeted schools still unknown

Despite the District’s emphasis that they will do more than just close schools, many parents and staff have expressed fear their school will shut down. Their anxiety has been exacerbated by what some complain has been a lack of opportunity for meaningful public involvement in the development of the District’s plans.

Though the District has hosted three rounds of community meetings as part of the facilities master planning process, little information about individual schools has been made available.

"I came here to find out [details] about specific schools," FitzPatrick Elementary Home and School President Jennifer Cullen told District officials on May 10. "I’ve been to all three phases of these meetings, and I have not been impressed."

District officials have asked for patience and stressed that they are taking a comprehensive approach before acting.

"We did decide to push [the full recommendations] back a few months in order to make sure we had all our homework done," said Nunery. "It’s going to be later than we originally expected, but we think it’s also going to be the right thing."