by Sue Ann Rybak
Hundreds of parents, teachers and students packed Martin Luther King High School’s auditorium on Jan. 15 to voice their concerns over the School District of Philadelphia’s massive district-wide reorganization that includes closing 37 schools.
The message to the district from students, many of whom held signs protesting the closing of their school, was clear: “don’t close our school.” At times the meeting became emotional with several parents screaming at school district officials.
Dr. William Hite Jr., school superintendent, Karyn Lynch, chief of student services, and Dannielle Floyd, interim senior vice president of capital programs, answered attendees questions.
Also in attendance were elected city officials, including State Rep. Cherelle Parker, State Rep. Dwight Evans and City Councilwoman Cindy Bass.
The Facilities Master Plan proposes closing Germantown High School, 40 East High St., McCloskey Elementary School, 8500 Pickering St., and Fulton Elementary School, 60 E. Haines St. Parkway Northwest High School, 7500 Germantown Ave., will be co-located at Leeds Middle School, 1100 E. Mt. Pleasant Ave. Fifth and sixth grade students from Emlen Elementary School, 6501 Chew Ave., which is currently a Kindergarden through sixth-grade school, will transfer to Leeds Middle School.
Germantown resident Gerald Wright, whose daughter attends J.S. Jenks Elementary School, said he came to the meeting because he was concerned about the impact the district’s school closures would have on his daughter’s school. Wright said he would love to be able to send his daughter to his neighborhood school, but said the fact was that the neighborhood school does not provide “a quality education in a safe environment.”
“I think [my] neighborhood school could be great with the right resources and planning,” Wright said.
He said this immense closure of neighborhood schools looks like the district is “abandoning our neighborhood schools.” Wright said the district decided prior to Hite’s coming to expand charter schools.
“They said they had no money, but they actually spent $137 million to expand charter schools when they didn’t have any money,” he said. “So if they don’t have the money now, perhaps, they can make the same commitment to spend $137 million to improve the quality of schools that they are responsible for.”
Wright said that when the district closes neighborhood schools like McCloskey and Fulton, it’s going to be under a lot of pressure to increase the enrollment at schools like Jenks because parents are going to be looking for good, quality schools with engaging programs.
“Jenks is a desirable place to be because if a child needs extra attention or encouragement, Jenks’ teachers and staff offer that extra support,” Wright said.
He said he worries that the district will crowd too many kids in a classroom and students that need extra attention or have special needs won’t get the support they need to succeed.
“If a child needs extra support – and doesn’t get it – when the child starts to fall behind, the solution often in the past has been to get rid of that student,” he said.
He added that parents feel like they can’t trust anybody [in the administration] to answer their questions and listen to their concerns.
“The meeting is not really set-up to have a dialogue,” Wright said. “Parents are trying to get their point across, but after two minutes someone cuts them off and says ‘OK that’s it.’”
“Unfortunately we have a district that is being defined by the worst schools, but there are several exceptional schools with great programs like W.B. Saul High School. It’s one of a kind. Why not build another one? Those are the kinds of questions I think people really ask.”
Wright said a lot of parents’ distrust comes from the desperation they feel to get their kids into a quality school and the district’s past history.
“The plan is only about how you [the district] can save $29 million – but there’s no guarantee that you will,” Wright said. “And if you do save $29 million what are you going to do with it”?
Fay Claud, of Mt. Airy, called the meeting “a formality.”
“I feel like these meetings are bogus,” Claud said.
The audience burst into applause when Claud, who doesn’t have children in the Philadelphia school district, told the panel, “You keep saying you don’t have any money – the city can find money to imprison our young folks, but you can’t find money to educate our youth.”
Another round of applause broke out when she added that government officials needed to find money to educate children or face the consequences at the next election.
Parents also sounded off on the issue of safety.
One of the district’s recommendations is to close Germantown High School and transfer those students to Roxborough High School.
A Germantown High School parent asked what protocols will the district have in place to deal with rivalries and safety issues as students relocate. Hite said the school district will work with community groups, school staff and administrators, students and school police to create plans that address these issues.
Mt. Airy resident Lya Redman, whose son is in first grade at McCloskey Elementary School, also voiced concerns about safety and overcrowding.
“We want what every parent wants to have – our kids go to a safe school and to have a quality education,” Redman told the panel. “My son has ADHD, and he is thriving at McCloskey. Closing schools and pulling kids out of school where they are excelling is just mind boggling to me. There is going to be a mass exodus of students from schools because parents are going to take their children somewhere else.
Hite said Redman made “a valid point” about why parents are “choosing other options” to educate their children.
“The bigger part of this is how do we create better environments for our children regardless of where they go to school,” Hite said. “How do we have high quality academic programs that provide students with enrichment activities like music and art? We have to make the whole district better, and we can’t do that when we have so many seats that do not have students in them.”
In a later interview, Redman, who is a counselor by profession, said no one is talking about providing the support services that children with special needs require. She added that the district doesn’t have a plan in place to help students adjust.
“My husband and I have already decided to move out of the area if the district decides to close McCloskey,” Redman said.
Sheila E. Johnson, of Mt. Airy, said she was adamantly opposed to closing any of the district’s schools.
“We need to enhance them and make them better so that people want to come back to public education,” Johnson said.
She added that she was absolutely against any merging of schools.
A parent of a student at Germantown High School said, “at what cost are we going to save money?” She reiterated parents earlier concerns about safety. She said the district is only going to cause more problems by asking teenagers to “cross [different gang] territories.”
Several parents said that merging of high schools like Germantown , Martin Luther King and Roxborough will only cause teen violence and dropout rates to escalate.
District’s argument for closing schools
Hite said the district had recurring expenses that “exceed its revenues by over $250 million per year, amounting to a $1.35 billion dollar deficit over the next five years.”
In Hite’s recently released “Action Plan v1.0,” which outlines the district’s critical priorities, he said the plan “emphasizes solutions to basic problems based on evidence and facts.”
“This is only the first step,” Hite said. “This will be a living document shaped by the voices of our staff and stakeholders, and the needs of our students and families.
“This deficit was created by a confluence of factors – reduced state funding, a broken system of local tax assessment, charter-driven growth in the total public school population without new revenue and failure to reduce spending commensurate with the reduction in revenue,” Hite stated in the plan.
At the meeting, Hite said recommendations outlined in the Facilities Master Plan were not set in stone.
Dannielle Floyd, interim senior vice president of capital programs, said the district has established a place on its website for people to submit proposals. One such proposal submitted by a parent from Fulton Elementary School suggested expanding Fulton to a K through eighth-grade school and relocating the program to Germantown High.
Sharon Mitchell, a member of the Student Advisory Committee at Fulton, handed Hite a petition and asked if the district received the proposal. He answered yes and added that the district plans to evaluate it and the other proposals submitted.
Floyd added that the district had “every intention to consider all proposals submitted.” She said the district was happy that people were taking an interest in the process and providing “constructive feedback.”
“The one thing I think that is important is regardless of where children are from, regardless of their homes, their background, regardless of their [parents'] income, they must have opportunities to excel so they can enter into the work world or college of their choice, Hite said.“One of the things I would love to see for the city of Philadelphia is for us to once again become a model for how students are receiving a high quality education in district schools regardless of where they are from.”
Before the meeting concluded, two fifth grade students from McCloskey, Kayla Gibson and Zykira Stroman, pleaded with school officials to keep their school open.
Eleven-year-old Gibson said, “we understand you have issues with the budget,” but added that McCloskey provided its students with enrichment programs, extracurricular activities and the educational support they needed.
“These reasons prove why McCloskey is perfectly fine the way it is,” she said.
It was a message that resonated with many students in the room.
The next Northwest MFP will be held on Thursday, Jan. 24, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Martin Luther King High School, 6100 Stenton Ave. The School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote on the district recommendation in March. For more information about the School District of Philadelphia’s Facilities Master Plan go to http://webgui.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/f/facilities-master-plan.