Advocates trumpet Washington’s review of Philly school closings

    With 37 Philadelphia public schools slated to close this fall, community activists say they’ve convinced the federal government to look into whether closures that have already gone through are racially discriminatory.

    In October, community activist group Action United filed a compliant that claimed that the Philadelphia School Districts’ 2012 closures disproportionally impacted minority students and the disabled.

    Of the six schools that shut this academic year, and the two more soon to be phased out, 80 percent of the affected students are African-American. Philadelphia’s student body is just 56 percent African-American.

    At a meeting Monday at Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, they said their complaint will be investigated by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.

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    “The community hasn’t been brought to the table,” said Quanisha Smith, Action United’s director of community development. “We need to do a full community impact analysis on how these closures will impact these students and the surrounding neighborhoods.”

    At the crux of their legal argument is Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which says that public funds can’t be spent in a way that results in racial discrimination.

    Community leaders say the districts’ current plan to close 37 schools in 2013 would continue this trend. Of the 15,000 students slated to be affected, 81 percent are African-American.

    Activists also worry about the unintended consequences of such a move, such as making students’ commutes longer, as well as integrating kids from rival schools and gangs.

    “It’s a territorial issue in neighborhoods,” said Dawn Hawkins, parent of a seventh-grader in the district. If Strawberry Mansion High School closes as slated, her son would soon have to commute much further to rival Benjamin Franklin High School.

    “That’s my baby,” she said. “I’m concerned about my baby’s safety.”

    The cash-strapped school district has maintained that the closings are an economic necessity that, in the end, will give students in the district a better overall educational experience.

    Last week, city council passed a non-binding resolution calling for a one year moratorium on all closings.

    On Tuesday, students and activists will travel to Washington, D.C., joining people from 17 other cities to testify before Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the relationship between school closings and racial discrimination.


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