NW Philly parents speculate on District’s potential targets

As the Philadelphia School District moves closer to its plan to close, re-purpose or sell off as many as 50 buildings citywide, parents of students in the city’s Northwest schools are watching closely for signs that their neighborhood schools may be at risk.

The district presented a draft of its Imagine 2014 Facilities Master Plan to the School Reform Commission on April 7 and since then, representatives of consultant group DeJong-Richter have held a series of community meetings around the city. Last Thursday, they gathered at Roxborough High School with about 100 parents and district staffers to update the community on the process so far.

None of the Northwest’s 52 schools was singled out for possible changes, and district officials have repeatedly said no single factor – whether it be enrollment, facility condition or location – would automatically mean closure.

An analysis by the Public School Notebook last month identified two Northwest schools, Jay Cooke Elementary in Logan and Wagner Middle school on Chelten Avenue, as potentially at risk due to a combination of high repair costs and low utilization.

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However, several parents NewsWorks spoke to said based on what they know or have heard, the most vulnerable Northwest targets may be James Dobson Elementary on Umbria Street in Manayunk and William Levering Elementary on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough.

Kelly Phillips Erb, whose daughters attend Cook-Wissahickon, said she felt the meeting was partly a feel-good move designed to make people feel part of the process.

“The meeting was to try to reassure us that they were still making the decisions,” Erb said. “But I think that most of the parents that I spoke to got the feeling that there are definitely some decisions that have already been made.”

Built in the late 1920s, Dobson and Levering are both imposing, physically sound buildings but are limited by their design and location, landlocked by residential neighborhoods without room for physical growth. Levering’s history goes back to the 1800s, and it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

Kirk Berlenbach, the father of two Dobson students, said he “walked away from the meeting with a clearer understanding of what’s going to happen and when.”

He, too, is concerned about Dobson, but feels its unique location could work to its advantage. Dobson is the only public school within walking distance for much of Manayunk and the only one not near Ridge Avenue.

“They were very clear that they were making decisions based on a number of factors,” Berlenbach said. “I hope that they’re true to their word.”

Parent Lisa Lobitz Ashenfelter said she, too, suspects the selection process may be further along than the district is saying publicly, but said she was encouraged by the fact that the process seems to be taking the Northwest as a network of neighborhoods with vastly different needs, rather than one homogeneous region.

“They seem to be understanding the fact of if you close X school, how does that impact Y school,” she said.

At the high school level, according to the Notebook’s analysis, Roxborough and Germantown high schools, statistically, have high repair costs and a low rate of utilization, but neither seems likely to be a target due to their locations and recent capital improvement projects.

“I got the very distinct impression that they were trying to talk up Roxborough as a building that’s going to stay,” Erb said. “They kept going on and on about how you shouldn’t make the assumption that just because something is underutilized it means it’s going to be closed.”

[The school district’s Data Summary for the Northwest is here:http://www.phila.k12.pa.us/fmp/doc/Northwest-Schools-Meeting-Area-Data-Set.pdf ]

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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