Council, community grill Philadelphia superintendent on school closings

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

[Updated 9 p.m.]

Questioning everything from safety to academics to promised savings, a parade of Philadelphians testified at City Council hearings on Tuesday in the hope of chipping away at Superintendent William Hite’s plan to close 37 city schools by next fall.

"We are all agreed that this particular plan, by itself, is not the answer," said the Rev. Alyn Waller, pastor at Enon Baptist Tabernacle Church in Northwest Philadelphia.

Hite said he would not bow to the growing demand for a one-year school-closings moratorium, arguing that the combination of declining enrollment, crumbling buildings, and a huge budget deficit has left the District with no choice but to dramatically downsize.

But the superintendent told Council that he would announce changes to the specifics of his closings plan early next week.

"The initial recommendations were proposals, not foregone conclusions," he said. "We have listened and are continuing to listen."

During five-plus hours of public testimony Tuesday, District officials heard from dozens who questioned the lack of detail surrounding the District’s unprecedented plan to shutter one-sixth of its schools at once.

Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. challenged Hite on his contention that savings from closing schools – projected at $28 million annually, before transition and other costs are factored in – could be used to improve the quality of education in the District schools that remain open.

"For clarity’s sake, that $28 million – if it turns out to be $28 million – will not be spent on 200 teachers, to supplement curriculum with technology, or on art or music programs?" Goode said.

"Not next year, no sir," replied Hite.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson asked District officials whether any of their proposed closings should be tabled due to concerns about neighborhood and gang rivalries.

"There is potential for violence," said District Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey, who specifically referred to the District’s plan to close Germantown and University City high schools.

"We have to look at ways to stem that violence," Dorsey said.

And Kate Shaw, executive director of the nonprofit Research for Action, said the city should take a hard look at the academic performance of closing schools vs. receiving schools.

"Research suggests that closing may hinder, and rarely help, students’ academic progress," according to Shaw’s written testimony.

An RFA analysis found that two-thirds of the proposed school closures would result in students moving between schools that were similarly low-performing on math and reading state tests last year. Only two of the receiving schools made "adequate yearly progress" status in 2011-12 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"It is mandatory that you respond to these questions," Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who called the hearings, told District officials.

Hite and others did offer some new information and arguments in support of their plans.

On average, said Hite, schools slated to close have rates of violent incidents that are three times as high as the schools slated to receive students.

Hite also addressed head-on the federal civil rights complaint filed by activist group Action United, which contends that school closings in Philadelphia are disproportionately harmful to African American students.

"If you take a close look inside these schools, you will see that their student achievement levels are dismal," Hite said. "Even if we had more money – if only for a year – it is difficult to justify investing funds in schools that are not serving children’s needs."

The District was not entirely without supporters.

"There’s no doubt that school closings are hard," said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.

"Equally important, though, is recognizing how the schools slated for closure have affected the future prospects of their students and remembering that fundamentally, these closings are about improving the futures of all Philadelphia students," he said.

And the assembled crowd was unanimous that Gov. Tom Corbett and the Pennsylvania legislature need to increase funding for public education.

“Our school district and many around the state are in a…crisis exacerbated by the choices Gov. Corbett has made,” said Anne Gemmell, political director of Fight for Philly.

But overall, the day was dominated by those trying to halt, or at least slow down, the District’s school closings push.

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education asked for a focus on the “fundamental lived experience of students,” citing the example of some students at Strawberry Mansion High who would be sent to their third different high school in three years if Mansion is closed.

And Jerry Mondesire of the Philadelphia NAACP summarized the sentiments of those calling for a moratorium:

This plan moves too fast, is not really well thought out, will harm more students than will benefit, will slash and burn careers of too many dedicated teachers, principals, and support staff, and undermine too many families and neighborhoods even as it promises savings not really justified by the evidence presented.”

Enon’s Waller joined the call for a moratorium, but called on Council to provide the District with the funding to make it possible.

Enon also released a report recommending that all the proposed high school closures be taken off the table.

School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos was on hand for much of the testimony, as was Sylvia Simms, the commission’s newest member.

The SRC is scheduled to hold formal hearings on each of the District’s final school-closing recommendations – including any changes announced early next week – beginning Feb. 21 and running through Feb. 23.

The SRC’s vote on the plan is scheduled for March 7.

This story was reported as part of a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.