As a sixth-grade student and the student-body president at Jay Cooke Elementary in Logan, Jenna Lee has a hard time not taking the proposed closing of her school personally. “I was, like, where is this coming from? Because we just got … a new computer lab,” she says, adding that Cooke also has extracurricular programs, including instrumental music and a soccer team. “And now they’re trying to shut us down,” she says. “I was very upset with the decision.”
It may feel personal, but Jenna is just one of 17,000 students set to be relocated under a plan outlined by Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite, who contends that closing 37 schools will ultimately save $28 million a year for a school district that projects a $1.1 billion deficit over five years.
Parents, teachers and community members are outraged. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) have put forward an alternative proposal that calls for curbing the rapid expansion of charter schools, de-emphasizing standardized tests and ending state control of city schools. In the neighborhoods, the message is blunter still: Don’t close our school. Four thousand people, according to the district, have attended 14 community meetings. Last month, City Council called for a one-year moratorium on closings.
Cooke students are set to be relocated to Logan Elementary, Grover Washington Middle School or Steel Elementary in Nicetown.
Steel alumnus, Concerned Neighbors of Nicetown leader and fourth-generation Nicetown resident Charisma Presley, 32, took City Paper on the 1.2-mile walk that Cooke students would have to make to her former school, passing abandoned houses and crossing busy arterials, including Germantown Avenue, Broad Street and Old York Road. “Parents are concerned,” says Presley, who worries that an influx of displaced students could overwhelm Steel.
“The hazard would be the busy streets and the type of people that be out there,” says Janice, Cooke’s crossing guard. “Alcoholics. Drug dealers. Prostitutes. And just in general: It’s just dangerous.”
Most students, she says, walk to school. “It’s a lot of bad neighborhoods,” says Jenna of the walk home she’d have if Cooke closes.
Her best friend Selena chimes in: No offense, but she does not want to attend Grover. “I live right there.” She points across the street. “It’s clean and it’s a good school. But my dad didn’t want me taking the SEPTA by myself, so he might have to drive his car and take me there. And that wouldn’t be good. … His car isn’t acting good right now.”
Though Hite has said that programs will follow students to new schools, some worry the district will botch the transition. Last year’s transfer of 38 students from Drew Elementary to Powel allegedly led to behavior problems and stretched the special-education program thin, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook reported.
The district says that it took building utilization, cost, building condition and academic performance into account when proposing school closures. Cooke is at just 42-percent utilization, and fewer than half of all students score proficient in math and reading. Cooke’s test scores have also shown statistically improbable swings in the wake of an investigation of cheating at dozens of Philadelphia schools.
But schools described as “low performing” often look different up close: Teachers, students and parents doing their best to deal with a difficult situation. “When you deny a school resources,” says Presley, “you set them up to fail.”
Ninety-four percent of Cooke students are “economically disadvantaged,” and 86 percent are African-American.
“I don’t think they need to close this school. It’s the only school in the area,” says Pearl Dumbarton, 63, who volunteers at Cooke. “We’re at every meeting. We’re everywhere we have to be to fight this.”
For Philly schools, disruption has long been the norm: The 2001 state takeover, the standardized-testing craze driven by No Child Left Behind and the scandals surrounding former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman are just a few examples. Personal stability proves similarly elusive for many families in Philadelphia’s impoverished neighborhoods.
Forty percent of high-school students affected by last year’s closings are now in schools slated to close, according to the Notebook.
“My son’s only been here for two years, and he was starting to get the hang of things,” says Lisa Garrison, whose second-grader is in a special-education program at Cooke. She is considering leaving the city altogether if the school closes. “He’s excelled for a matter of months. And I wanted him to be comfortable with the staff.”
At Steel, parents worry that throwing together children from communities with longstanding rivalries will lead to fights. “It would definitely be tension, neighborhood versus neighborhood — that goes on a lot,” says Yasmeen Ponder, who has children at Steel. “The teasing and the bullying … it would be trouble if they know that the person is from the other neighborhood.”
The proposal to close nearby Germantown High School and relocate students to Martin Luther King has raised concerns about similar clashes.
The School Reform Commission will hold another round of community meetings in the coming weeks and vote on proposed closings on March 7.
The school district hopes to make $15 million by 2015 from selling closed buildings. But shuttered schools in cities nationwide, often obsolete structures in depopulated neighborhoods, have typically sold for far less than projected, according to a Pew report released Monday.
“The challenge of finding new uses for old buildings is daunting, and the downside of letting them sit idle can be significant,” the authors conclude. “The buildings can become eyesores, magnets for illicit activities and symbols of neighborhood decline.”
Philadelphia’s school-facility-sales record has been mixed. In Hunting Park, metal scrappers have descended on the closed Roberto Clemente School, creating a safety hazard, while buildings located in gentrifying areas, like the old West Philadelphia High School, quickly sold for residential reuse.
But Pew’s study found that 40 percent of disposed properties in 12 cities nationwide ultimately went to charter schools. In Philly, charter enrollment has grown by 75 percent over the past six years. Philadelphia has a policy of offering discounted prices to nonprofit and educational groups, including charters.
Each student who leaves a district school for a charter costs the district $7,000, further compounding the district’s dire financial straits. The criticism that charters undermine neighborhood schools and the district’s finances has been central to the current debate. Though the school district’s budget projects a $100 million boost in charter-school spending, Hite has called for limiting charter growth and improving oversight of the independently operated but publicly funded schools, which have varied academic records and have, at times, been at the center of corruption scandals.
School closings are concentrated in low-income black communities. Last month, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights would investigate complaints that last year’s closings were racially discriminatory.
The district contends that this is exactly the point: Low-income students of color are disproportionately forced to study in underperforming schools. District enrollment has declined by 27 percent over the past decade, and most students continue to test below proficiency levels in math and reading. But most schools set to receive displaced students are, according to a recent Notebook analysis, similarly low-performing.
The debate is taking place in the shadow of last year’s proposal to radically restructure the school district. That proposal, drafted by the Boston Consulting Group and funded by the William Penn Foundation and numerous pro-charter advocates, called for closing 40 schools, reorganizing remaining schools under “achievement networks” that could be privately managed, and downsizing the central office to 200. The proposal also called for privatizing the district’s blue-collar workforce. The so-called “Blueprint for Transformation” was a pro-corporate-education-reform plan to “rightsize” the district after Gov. Tom Corbett cut state funding to Philly schools by $270 million over the past two years. Increased local contributions from property-tax hikes made up less than half the lost funding. The district has already closed eight schools since Corbett took office and cut staff by 3,700. In a statement, the Pennsylvania Department of Education “commended [the SRC and Hite] for recognizing that Philadelphia School District is different today than it was 10-15 years ago and working to realign … resources.”
After massive protests greeted the Blueprint, components of it were put on hold. And it is unclear how many schools will actually be closed. The school district is currently reviewing 38 alternative proposals from community members.
The school district may well be testing the waters with its proposal, preparing to offer reprieves to the best-organized schools. Last year, the SRC outlined plans to shutter 10 schools, but left Edwin M. Stanton and Isaac Sheppard Elementary schools open after parents organized.
“The initial recommendations were proposals, not forgone conclusions in every case,” Hite told a skeptical City Council at a hearing on school closures on Tuesday. He said that he would soon make a revised proposal to the SRC.