Schools are not schools. They are community assets or liabilities. They can serve to stabilize or destabilize a neighborhood. Which is why the facilities planning now underway by the School District of Philadelphia is important - not just to the children who attend these schools, but to you and me and that fellow behind the tree.
As we reveal in our Cover Story this week ('Rightsizing' Philly Schools) the district has a problem: too few students, too many seats. By its own reckoning, the district is under capacity to the tune of 70,000 - and that situation is not likely to change. If anything, the gap will become wider as enrollment in district-run schools continues to decline.
This fall the district is likely to roll out a plan that calls for the closing of a number of schools, consolidation of others, demolition of still more and building some new schools to replace the old.
When they say old in the district, they mean old. The average age of school buildings in Philadelphia is 63 years. Half were built before World War II, a handful were built in the 19th Century.
Mark your calendar for October because that is when the plan is due and that is when the weeping and gnashing of teeth will begin. As any Catholic pastor who has had to close a parish school can tell you, people hate it when you close their school. "You go from being a good guy to the devil," is the way one pastor put it.
Philadelphia's neighborhood identities are so fixed and firm that, to some, traveling an extra mile to get to a school is equivalent of a trip to the moon.
In some ways, Arlene Ackerman is an ideal person to oversee this downsizing.
This is probably her last act as superintendent, so she won't have to worry about keeping her job. She has no fear of making enemies. (In fact, making enemies is one of her strong suits.) She'd have no problem with staring down a crowd of angry parents and telling them to bug off if they don't like what she is doing to their beloved school. "I'm doing this for the kids," she'll tell them.
In other ways, Ackerman is the worst person to oversee the downsizing.
Her Red Queen imperiousness aside, I fear she enters the proceedings with a political agenda, especially when it comes to special admission schools. She doesn't like them. Never has. Never will.
Special admission schools, most of which are high schools, are district-run schools where entrance sometimes is gained through competitive exams (ala Masterman and Central) or auditions (ala the High School of Creative and Performing Arts) or by demonstrating you are a good student: (a B average and good attendance record.) Special admits, as they are called, were created back in the days when the district was under orders to desegregate as "magnets" to attract families who wanted to avoid the large neighborhood high schools (South Philly High, Germantown, Roxborough, Gratz, etc.) The belief was they would promote integration and they have.
When Paul Vallas became superintendent, he expanded the number of special admits on the radical theory that more choices would please parents, especially middle-class parents who tended to depart the district (and the city) to avoid the whole neighborhood high school scene. There currently are 17 special admits enrolling about 12,000 students.
Ackerman views the special admits through the prism of race. (No surprise there. It's another one of her strong suits.) She sees them as schools created for white people at the expense of the majority-black neighborhood schools.
She is wrong - the special admits are majority black (53%); whites constitute 23 percent of the student body. But, that is irrelevant to this discussion. That is what Ackerman believes and she will not be convinced otherwise. (Obstinacy. Another strong suit.)
I see the special admits through the prism of class. They do attract middle class families - though the majority of students attending (54%) are classified by the district as economically disadvantaged, i.e. they come from families with income at or below 130 percent of the poverty level.
In other words, the special admits are a success story. They are racially and economically diverse, popular with parents, and generally academically sound. They act as a stabilizing influence on they city precisely because they appeal to the middle class - and those poor parents who believe education is the path to a rich, full life.
We shouldn't be worrying about closing these schools. We should be trying to find ways to allow them to prosper and grow. Because they play a role in helping the city prosper and grow
Ackerman doesn't get that. But seeing the situation in racial terms is not simply wrong thinking. It is old thinking. Just as her love of large, neighborhood high schools (like the kind she went to in St. Louis in the 60s) isn't just nostalgia it's dangerous nostalgia.
I hope I am wrong. I hope that the final plan does not go after the special admits, But, if you are a parent with a kid in a special admission school, consider yourself forewarned.
-- Tom Ferrick