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Blaming The Man

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Columbia Avenue.jpg

It's hard to play the race card in Philadelphia these days. It's hard to blame The Man when you are the man.

But it's also hard to break old habits.  Witness the news conference held this week by opponents of the school district's plan to close 37 schools to save $30 million a year.

The event was organized by PCAPS -- the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, a group that includes the teachers union and various community and parent groups.  Also present was NAACP President Jerry Mondesire.

The group argued that the district plan unfairly targets predominantly black schools in the city. As evidence, it cited figures that while the schools being closed or merged had black enrollment of 81 percent the district writ large had black enrollment of 55 percent.

It also pointed out that the location of many of these closings, which are clustered in North Philadelphia -- a band that runs from river to river, Spring Garden Street to north of Lehigh Avenue -- is the heart of the heart of black Philadelphia.

Scratch that. This area was the heart of black Philadelphia back in the day, when Cecil B. Moore Avenue (then Columbia Avenue) was called "Jump Street" because it was a lively retail and entertainment center.

But that was then.  In 1970, North Philly east and west had 223,000 residents crammed into its rowhouse neighborhoods. Today, it has a population of 108,000. Back in the 90's, when I covered planning issues as a beat, city officials (never out loud) referred to the area as The Ruins.


The decline in population, not surprisingly, has led to a decline in school population.  The elementary schools in the area -- most of which will be closed under the district's plan -- are less than half full.  Strawberry Mansion High School, one of the two high schools serving the area, is only 25 percent full.

More than a decline in population is at work here.  There are parents who still live in the area who prefer to send their children elsewhere, a list that includes the city's special admission and vo-tech high schools, charter schools and Catholic grade and high schools.

As in other areas of the city, the public schools have been losing in competition with the alternatives that have popped up in the last 15 years.

Looking at these numbers, it is hard to see the school closings as an exercise in discrimination against blacks. It's clearly an exercise in demographics. It's hard for the district -- nearly broke and facing a $1 billion deficit over the next five years -- to justify keeping half-empty schools open.

Also, it hard to envision our black mayor, our black school superintendent and the Latino chair of the School Reform Commission huddling together in a dark room plotting ways to get the blacks.

But, let's take the argument at face value and say it is discriminatory to single out poor black students to bear the brunt of the closings.

And let us further stipulate that, in response to this charge, the district backs off closing the schools and decides to keep them open.

Would this action be discriminatory to other students in the district, ones who are in overcrowded schools that also are starved for resources.  And what if those students, while including many African Americans, also include a sizeable number of Latinos and Asians? Are we discriminating against them by not providing, say, extra services or building additions to these overstuffed schools?

With all the talk about declining enrollment it is hard to wrap your mind around the fact that there are public schools that are overcrowded.  But, it's a fact.

There are nearly two-dozen elementary schools, for instance, where enrollment exceeds capacity by 120 percent or greater.  Not coincidentally, nearly all these schools are located in the Lower Northeast in places like Tacony, Lawncrest, Oxford Circle, Bustleton and, a bit lower on the map, in Juniata Park and Port Richmond.

When people hear the word Northeast, they think white.  But that is not the case anymore, certainly not in the Lower Northeast.

These neighborhoods have seen the influx of new people, many of whom are immigrants. others are emigres from other neighborhoods (think North Philly), who now have the economic means to buy their own modest rowhome. They are moving on up.

My poster child for a "New Northeast" school is the Rhawnhurst School, a K-5 school on the 7800-block of Castor Avenue.  Enrollment has risen in each of the last three years and currently totals 571 students -- 154 more than it was built to hold.

The chart of the school's demographics looks like an evenly sliced pie:  it is 26 percent white, 22 percent Asian, 21 percent African American, 17 percent Latino and 14 percent "other" -- presumably multi-racial students. It's a little United Nations.

Could, say, Asian Parents Advocating for the Public Schools or Latino Parents Advocating for the Public Schools argue that keeping open half-empty predominantly black schools amounts to racial favoritism in a district where allocation of resources is a zero-sum game? Where every dollar that goes to a black student is a dollar that does not go to us?

No organized Asian or Latino group is making those arguments, by the way. Thank God for that. But, if they did I would answer them the same way: your situation (overcrowding) is a function of demographics, not discrimination.

Play the race card, though, and this is where it could lead -- an argument for allocation of resources by skin tone, with everyone clambering for their share.  In this day and age, do we really want that?  Do we even want to take the discussion there? Apparently some do.

For the record, I do not think the district made its closure decisions based on race, gender, income or place of origin.  It made the decisions -- hard, painful decisions -- based on the facts.

If you can't attack the facts, you can always attack The Man.

-- Tom Ferrick

Photo: Columbia Avenue, circa 1960s


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