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Is That All There Is?

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The planners at the Philadelphia School District labored mightily and produced a mouse with the school closing/consolidation list released Wednesday (Nov. 2).  As Peggy Lee would put it, the plan had an "Is That All There Is?" quality to it.

It involved the closing of nine schools, most of them elementary schools, and grade reconfigurations at another dozen or so, mostly lopping off sixth grades at schools that are currently K-6 so they can become K-5.  (The district has numerous grade configurations and one of the goals of the facilities strategic plan is to make them more uniform.)

The problem with the district's plan is that it doesn't do enough to address its core problem: over capacity.

It has lost 50,000 students in the last decade, so it has a legion of aged, costly-to-maintain schools that are half empty. In these tough financial times, it doesn't make sense to heat, maintain and operate so many schools, especially since the trend lines indicate more vacant seats, not fewer, in the future. 

The district estimates it has 70,000 more seats than needed.  It had a goal of closing or consolidating schools to the equivalent of 40,000 seats.  The plan offered this week only deals with 14,000 seats. So, the district is falling far short of even its 40,000 goal.

Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery said the district did not roll out more closings for logistical and budgetary reasons. That's a not a surprise.  Bureaucracies are built to go slow.  Rapid change gives them vertigo.

But, there are obviously other reasons as well. With this round of closures, the district is really just picking the low-lying fruit. It knows it is going to catch hell from parents for these changes. Better to mete the closings out so the screaming doesn't leap off the decibel chart.

The real problem the district has is not elementary schools. More will be closed over time -- as you can see by looking at this chart of the schools and their current enrollment (the school in boldface are the ones to be closed in this latest round.)

The real problem the district has it with its high schools, many of which are half empty.

That list of under-50's includes a dozen neighborhood high schools. Some examples: University City (which is at 27% capacity); Benjamin Franklin (36%); Roxborough (37%); Germantown (39%); Randolph Skills Center (29%); Mastbaum AVT (32%) and Dobbins AVT (39%). You can read a complete list of the high schools and their enrollments here.

These are schools with storied pasts, active alumni, and a core of active students and parent supporters who can raise and will raise a ruckus.

But, as former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman pointed out, since allocation of district money is tied to enrollment, half-empty high schools lack the mass of students to, say, field a decent football team, have a school band, and support an array of students clubs.

To give one example, Benjamin Franklin High at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, was built to hold 1,800 students. These days, it has 650. It has a smaller pool, not only of money, but also student talent.

Closing schools is the third rail of educational politics. And, this being Philadelphia, it is inevitable that it will end up tinged with race and class undertones. If you look at the list of high schools, for instance, you will see that the magnet schools (read: home to most of the district's upper-middle class students) are oversubscribed. Ditto elementary schools in the (still mostly white) Northeast.

In fact, the school facility consultants hired by the district, who obviously came from out of town, proposed moving Masterman, the city's elite magnet, into the Benjamin Franklin building and dispersing the existing Franklin students to other high schools. Makes sense on paper, but it would create an uproar, full of angry (coded) language on both sides.

So, the district wants to go slow. But how slow?

The facilities planning stage took three years to complete. The process the district has set up to close schools will take nearly a year to complete. How many years until we get to the 40,000 number? And will the next superintendent (Nunery is acting super) really want to begin his or her regime by announcing the closing/merging of 8 to 10 high schools? That would have the effect of shooting yourself in both legs before you have a chance to begin the race.

I would suggest the district hurry up. Release a second and larger round of proposals in January, with the goal of closing the schools before the beginning of the new school year in 2012.  Get it done with. Get it over.

As to the School Reform Commission, it appears to be buying in to drawing out the process. A series of 17 hearings on the first list of closings and consolidations is planned. The SRC members say they want to hear from all parties.

I can save them the gas. What they will hear, almost uniformly, is anger and disbelief over the plan to close their schools. Because parents don't care if their local school is half empty. They just care that it is nearby. They won't want them closed. And no one is going to talk them into changing their views. 

If we will follow the current schedule it could be 2016 before this darn process is over. Or maybe never.

-- Tom Ferrick

 

Photo: Germantown High School circa 1912

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