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Public Schools' Reality Check

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This article was updated on Thursday, Dec. 13

By Tom Ferrick Jr.

Saying the Philadelphia School District was "out of time and out of options," Superintendent William Hite today (Tuesday, Dec. 13) released his school close-and-merge list to howls of protest from parents and advocacy groups.

The district plan, which still must be approved by the School Reform Commission, calls for the closing of 11 district high schools, 5 middle schools and 23 elementary schools.

In addition, another 13 elementary schools will be restructured, a move that will require the transfer of fifth and sixth graders.  In most cases, the schools are going from K-6 to K-4. Click here for a list of schools being restructured.

A smaller number of schools will be merged or "co-located" as the district calls it, meaning their existing buildings will be closed and the school moved to another location, usually within a larger school building.  Bok Technical School, for instance, will be shuttered and its programs 

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moved to South Philadelphia High School.

The move involves 13,376 students just at the closed schools.  The merged and co-located schools involve several thousand more.

At a news conference, Hite, superintendent for only three months, defended his actions, saying the district had a surplus of 70,000 seats that it no longer could afford to keep.

The actions are expected to eventually save the district close to $30 million a year, though it will not realize those savings in the first year because of costs associated with actually closing schools. The SRC is scheduled to vote on the plan in March.  The schools are due to be closed in June.

Click here for a list of the high schools included in the plan. Click here for details on the middle schools. Click here for a list of the elementary schools due to close.

Hite said he expected the plan to cause "controversy, anxiety and a lot of emotion." But, he argued, the district had no choice. Its financial difficulties, including a $1 billion projected deficit over the next five years, forced his hand. He was making decisions today, he said, that should have been made years ago, but said previous superintendents had "kicked the can down the road.

"The district is wasting scarce resources to maintain empty space and inefficient building," Hite said. "We do not have the resources to maintain surplus space.  We must match our spending with our revenues.

Hite argued that "rightsizing" the district would help not only financially, but also academically.  Schools starved for resources because of low enrollment will be combined with other schools, giving the merged institution more money. (School budgets are largely based on enrollment.)

What brought the district to this defining moment? Long-term trends that appear to be irreversible. Declining enrollment combined with financial distress has led district leaders to conclude they can no longer keep the same "facilities footprint," to use a phrase favored by planners.

There are two forces at work. First, 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 mean an emptying out of some schools (in old North Philadelphia, for example) and overcrowding in others (in the rapidly changing Northeast.)

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These sets of numbers help tell the tale:

In 2000, there were 200,435 students in district-run schools.  Today, there are 152,000.  And district officials project further decline in enrollment. The prediction is that there will be 145,000 students enrolled in 2014.

The district estimates that it has 70,000 too many seats for its needs.  So, it has decided to "rightsize," to use a phrase employed by district planners.

Call it what you will, the plan released Thursday touches what has been the third rail in educational politics: closing schools.  It is a wholesale revamping of who goes where, what schools survive and what schools will no longer exist.

Among those on the close list are Germantown High, Strawberry Mansion High, University City High and The Bok, as it is called. Roosevelt, Pepper, Rhodes and Shaw are among the middle schools due to be closed.

For the most part, the elementary-school closings are concentrated in old North Philadelphia, which has seen steep population declines over the last 30 years. The list includes Meade, Reynolds and Fairhill Elementary, as well as Abigail Vare and George Washington Elementary in South Philadelphia.

On average, the high schools listed to close were 35 percent full, the middle schools only 26 percent full, the elementary schools 54 percent full.

Overall, district schools are only 63 percent full.  This plan is designed to raise the average to 80 percent.

On a planning level, the district had to wrestle with two issues, according to Danielle Floyd, the district official who helped draft a 2011 facilities planning report that served a basis for Thursday's actions.

"One is just around the overall condition," Floyd said in an earlier interview. "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 have 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.

These buildings were later retrofitted to include cafeterias (usually in the basements) and bathrooms (but not on every floor).

The district has struggled to keep up with repairs needed for its school buildings.  Its "capital backlog" -- the estimate of repairs needed but not budgeted -- is $2.9 billion. The Boston Consulting Group, hired to examine district operations this year, estimated that closing a large number of schools could lessen that backlog by $1 to $1.2 billion.

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 a handful of schools built in the 19th century), repairs are frequent and costly.

The district had to sell $300 million in bonds this year just to plug an operating deficit.  The district consultants estimate that costs will escalate by 25 percent over the next five years, while revenue increases by only eight percent. That is a recipe for disaster unless steps are taken to reduce costs or increase revenue.

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.  In 2003, there were 20,000 students enrolled in bricks-and-mortar and cyber charters.  This year, there are 52,000.  The number is projected to increase by 21,000 over

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the next five years.

Declining enrollment creates a vicious cycle.

Since a school's budget is based on enrollment, fewer students means less money.  Less money means the high school may have to stop offering elective and AP classes and not have enough to pay for a full array of extracurricular activities.  That makes the school less attractive to parents, who decide to look at charter, parochial schools or other district schools as alternatives. That results in even fewer students.

Germantown High School is an example.  The school, which opened in 1915, has had a 28 percent decline in enrollment in just the last three years.  It had 943 students enrolled in 2010; it has 675 today.  It was built to hold 2,600 students.

District officials said that at the end of the process few teachers will be laid off -- in effect, the positions will follow the students to their new schools.  Most of the savings will come from reduction of support and supervisory staff at the closed schools.

To use Germantown High as an example again, the school has a full-time staff of 137 employees this year.  Seventy-three are teachers, paid a total of $5.3 million. Another 64 are support and supervisory staff, with a payroll of $2.6 million.  That list includes everyone from the principal to the cafeteria workers.  Not all these 63 will be laid off, but it's likely many will be.  Click here for a complete list of Germantown employees by title and salary for 2012.

Hite's decision was immediately criticized by parents groups.  Parents United for Public Education called it a "process that has marginalized students."

"It is not clear that the district will achieve significant financial and academic gains," the union said in a statement.  It called for a moratorium on the closings.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the district was "turning its back on the parents, students and communities that will be affected by these closures."

Those who oppose and favor the plan will get a chance to be heard.  Hite plans to hold 20 local and regional meetings between now and the end of February, giving parents, advocates and others who want to be heard an ample opportunity to praise or condemn him.

 

In Part Two, we spend a day in the life of a teacher at University City High School, one of the schools the district plans to close.  The visit happened before the closure plans were released to the public.

 

Photos: Students at Shoemaker Middle School, Fairhill Elementary and Bodine High School


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