Levering community rallies to save the neighborhood school

The schoolyard at Levering Elementary in Roxborough transformed into a kick-off site over the weekend for a rally against the School District of Philadelphia’s proposal to shutter the Ridge Avenue school.

In response to declining student enrollment and an ongoing budget crisis, the District has recommended that nine schools close across the city by 2014.

On a crisp Saturday morning, parents, teachers and students gathered inside the vast concrete space with homemade signs, T-shirts and a mix of school spirit and sorrow.

Diane Murphy, the school’s crossing guard, came to show support for Levering on her day off because she wants the School District to keep its neighborhood schools open. She said such institutions are an integral part of a community.

“For [students] to stay in a neighborhood and go to school in the neighborhood gives them a foundation of what it feels like to be part a neighborhood,” said Murphy, who lives four-blocks from Levering.

Standing next to Murphy was a visibly tearful Ellen Jones. The fellow Roxborough resident said she’s having trouble processing the prospect of her third grader taking a bus to school instead of walking.

“I just want to cry,” said Jones. “This is really hard to swallow.”

Adjusting to the school’s declining enrollment 

The District put Levering on its list of recommended closings because of its small student population and its lack of enrollees from within the District’s neighborhood boundary lines for the school.

The school currently serves 184 students, less than a third of the building’s capacity and a sharp drop-off from 2003, when 416 students filled the school’s classrooms.

Less than half of the school’s students live within the neighborhood boundary.

Principal Gina Steiner, hired this year to be Levering’s top administrator, hopes to hold onto her new assignment.

“The staff is incredibly committed and the students are bright and excited to learn. It’s just heaven. It really is,” said Steiner while wearing a red T-shirt with white lettering that read “Levering Elementary School: Educating children since 1748.”

If the District’s proposal is approved, AMY Northwest, a middle school in Mt. Airy, would move into Levering’s building. Levering students would have the option to attend AMY, Thomas Mifflin, Dobson or Cook-Wissahickon elementary schools.

Steiner said a number of parents and teachers want to explore the possibility of Levering occupying the site’s smaller building, with AMY Northwest, filling the larger one.

Exploring the options 

The idea was floated to School District officials during a packed District-led meeting inside Roxborough High School later Saturday morning, the first in a series scheduled to explain the District’s package of downsizing recommendations and field questions from residents.

“We have the capacity to hold two schools. We can hold AMY Northwest,” Patty Nunez, a member of Levering’s Home & School Association, said to a big applause.

John Quirus, who has taught math at Levering for nine years, questioned why the District wants to close the school in the first place. The numbers don’t support the move, he said.

“Levering holds roughly 600 kids. There are 200 kids in there so they are 30 percent full. We’re moving those 200 kids out to move another 200 kids in. If I do the math real fast, we’re still 30 percent full,” said Quirus.

“You’re moving pieces around, but not really accomplishing a goal,” he added.

School District officials didn’t shoot down the idea of Levering staying put, but did emphasize the school’s severe drop in enrollment and AMY Northwest’s growth potential.

“When you see declining enrollment at such a staggering rate, do you wait for the upswing?” Danielle Floyd, the District’s deputy for strategic initiatives, told the crowd.

Ultimately, the School Reform Commission gets the final say and is scheduled to vote on the District’s downsizing proposal in March. That decision will come following a total of 17 community meetings.

The next meeting is Dec. 7 at West Philadelphia High School from 6-8 p.m.  The next meeting in Northwest Philadelphia will be on Dec. 8 at Martin Luther King High School from 6-8 p.m.

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