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"Rightsizing" Public Schools

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

If you think this year's budget crisis in the Philadelphia School District was traumatic, you ain't seen nothing yet.

The district is at work on a new "Facilities Master Plan" a bland name for a process that will likely result in the closing of a number of schools, the merger or consolidation of others, even the demolition of some school buildings.

The plan, which will be officially unveiled in October, is designed to confront two realities: as charter schools and other educational options are emerging, students and parents are voting with their feet, leaving half-empty public school seats behind them. Second, demographic changes within the city means an emptying out of some schools (in old North Philadelphia, for example) and overcrowding in others (in the rapidly changing Northeast.)

Three sets of numbers help tell the tale:

In 2000, there were 200,435 students in district-run schools.  Today, there are 155,000.  And district officials project further decline in enrollment. The district estimates there will be 145,000 students in 2014.

(Metropolis estimates a greater decline is possible, especially if the state passes a voucher law this year or next.  See the accompanying graphic for our projections, which are based on trends from the past five years.)

Thumbnail image for Enollment Projections JPEG.jpgThe district itself estimates that it has 70,000 too many seats for its needs.  So, it has decided to  "right-size," to use the phrase employed by district planners.

Call it what you will, they are about to lay out a plan that calls for what has been the third rail in educational politics: closing schools.  And not just a handful, as in the past, but a wholesale revamping of who goes where, what schools survive and what schools will no longer exist. The plan is due to be voted on by the School Reform Commission in January.

According to Danielle Floyd, the district's deputy for strategic initiatives, the ideal is to have each school in the district at 85 percent capacity --not overstuffed, but with some room to grow.

That ideal is not met very often in the district today. Nearly two out of three schools are lower than 85. One out of five schools is below 50 percent capacity. Another one out of five are over their capacity.

Some examples:

Benjamin Franklin High School in Fairmount is at 36 percent capacity, with 650 students in a building designed for 1,800. Germantown High, Vaux High, Gratz, Roxborough and Martin Luther King are all below 50 percent capacity

On the other hand, Northeast High is bursting at the seams: it has 3,400 students in a school designed to hold 2,400.  Special admission schools -- where entrance often is decided by academic competition -- are also crowded.  Both Central and Masterman are at 137 percent of their stated capacity.  (Click here for a complete list of district high schools and their current capacity.)

At the elementary school level, 101 of the district's 168 grade schools are below the magic 85 percent number.  One out of five are below 50 percent. (Click here to see a complete list of elementary schools.)

There are 26 middle schools below 85 percent. Of those, 13 are below 50 percent. (Click here to see a complete list of middle schools.)

On a planning level, the district is wrestling with two issues, according to Floyd:

"One is just around the overall condition.  The average age of our buildings is 63 years..  Some are structurally sound, some are in need of renovation, and other have reached the end of their useful life.

"The other is around adequacy. The way kids learn and teachers deliver instruction has changed,  it requires that school spaces remain adaptable.  It's not always a teacher standing against a wall in the front of the room."

As an example of adequacy, Bill Montgomery, head of the district's grade and space planning office, cited elementary schools built before World War II (52 percent of the schools in the district were built before the war) in the days when students walked home for lunch.

"So some of the schools didn't have cafeterias and some didn't have bathrooms, because you went to the bathroom before school, at lunch or after school," he said.

Thumbnail image for Francis Scott Key School.jpgThese buildings were later retrofitted to include cafeterias (usually in the basements) and bathrooms (but not on every floor.)

Floyd and Montgomery said the main goal of the plan is not simply to save money -- but that clearly is an item on the agenda. Schools that are half empty still must be heated, cleaned and maintained. Because of the age of the buildings (the district even has 4 schools built in the 19th century), repairs are frequent and costly.

Demographic forces aside, the fate of district-run schools is intertwined with the rise of charters.  Bricks-and-mortar charters have proven popular with parents, but even cyber charters -- where students stay at home and go online for their learning -- are becoming an important niche.  Only a handful of children were enrolled in cyber charters 10 years ago. Next year, the district expects 4,000-plus to be enrolled. To put that number in perspective, it is more than the combined enrollment of Benjamin Franklin, Robert Vaux, Roxborough and Germantown, Strawberry Mansion and Martin Luther King High Schools. (In Part Two, we chronicle the rise of cyber charters.)

With a School Reform Commission that is charter friendly (newest SRC member Pedro Ramos is on the board of the Kipp Charter Schools), and with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's penchant for turning failing schools over to charter companies -- which run them for less money than the district can -- charters are likely to continue to expand.

In this competition for students, the losers have been the large neighborhood high schools, where enrollment, in some cases, has dropped like a rock in recent years. Roxborough High, for example, has gone from 909 students in 2006 to 650 this year.  It is at 37 percent of its capacity.

If you closed Roxborough tomorrow and assigned all those students to Germantown High, the surviving school would still be below the 85 percent capacity goal.

No one is talking about closing Roxborough.  In fact, in the district today, talking about specific schools that may close or consolidate is taboo. The Public School Notebook did obtain a draft report which lists schools to be closed and consolidated.  District officials say it is preliminary. 

It may not be neighborhood high schools that feel the brunt of the changes, but special admission schools.  Ackerman is on the record as believing that the proliferation of smaller high schools during the regime of her predecessor Paul Vallas hurt the larger neighborhood schools, skimming students and resources they would have otherwise gotten.

Her assertion is incorrect when it comes to resources. A Metropolis analysis of individual high school budgets for the school year that just ended showed that neighborhood high schools were allocated an average of $9,198 to spend per pupil, compared to an average of $6,884 for the special admission schools.  Obviously, these numbers will change -- in a downward direction -- as the full impact of the budget cuts are felt next year.

(The analysis does not include money for sports, most extra-curricular activities or new textbooks, which are centrally allocated by the district. Click here for a list of the high schools and their 2010-2011 per pupil allocations .)

Neighborhood schools often are allocated more money because they have the highest percentage of poor students and are eligible for more anti-poverty aid, often from the federal government.  Also, neighborhood high schools have more special education students, who are allocated more staff  because of their special needs, but the disparity persists even if you factor out special education money.

When it came to per pupil spending, the top school this year was University City High School, which was in its first year as one of the district's Promise Academies -- failing schools that need radical change -- and was given extra money because of it.  (The Metropolis analysis includes overall allocations and per pupil spending with special ed money removed.)

The key to discovering the district's likely strategy is to look at the goals set forth in the master plan.  It says high schools ideally should have 1,000 students. Eleven of the 15 special admission schools have enrollments under 1,000.

So, it is possible that in addition to closing or consolidating neighborhood high schools, the district could also consolidate special admission schools or move them to inhabit empty space in the neighborhood schools.

No one in the district would speculate on such a possibility. But, implementation of this "right-sizing" plan is likely to be Ackerman's last act as superintendent. And she could make it a dramatic one indeed.

 

Tomorrow: The new home schooling, the rise of cyber charters.

 

 

 

Cover Photo: Germantown High School, circa 1915. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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