Any Northwest Philadelphia residents who brought questions about the future of their favorite school to Tuesday’s meeting with Philadelphia School District officials in Roxborough probably left disappointed. The district may have 70,000 excess seats citywide, including 14,000 in the Northwest, but so far officials are steadfastly refusing to indicate which schools might be closed or consolidated as a result.
Instead, they say they want to use the current round of facility-related community meetings to share basic data about neighborhood enrollment trends and parents’ priorities, and gather more feedback about the best way to right-size the system.
Building a plan for under use
About 60 parents and teachers gathered Tuesday at the Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences to hear the latest on the district’s “facilities master plan,” its most ambitious attempt in years to right-size itself in the face of shrinking enrollment. Even if buildings must consolidate or close, the larger goal will be to improve the district’s overall performance, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery told the group.
“You have to have a coherent plan,” Nunery said. “What we’re trying to do is use feedback from [parents and community members] to drive the decisions in the plan. At the end of the day, if this is just about buildings, we’ve failed.”
Tracy Richter, a consultant on facilities issues with the firm of DeJong-Richter, presented the data the district has collected so far on 51 schools in the Northwest. While enrollment citywide has dipped in recent years, Richter said, it has leveled out and is expected to remain fairly steady in the Northwest, particularly in elementary schools. District officials expect the Northwest’s 33 elementary schools to enroll the same number of kindergarteners in 2015 as they did in 2006 – about 13,500 in all.
However, the district also expects the number of high school students to shrink; in 2006, the Northwest enrolled 9,400 high school students in its 10 high schools; by 2015, that number is expected to drop to about 7,000.
Overall, the Northwest (including the neighborhoods of Roxborough, Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Germantown and West Oak Lane), is operating at 67 percent capacity, with 43,000 seats for about 29,000 students. West and South Philadelphia are at similar levels (68 and 62 percent capacity, respectively), while the North Central and Southwest Philadelphia regions are operating at 55 and 51 percent capacity. The most crowded region by far is the Northeast, operating at 94 percent capacity.
What parents want
Richter said the district learned from its first round of meetings that Northwest parents are generally happy with their neighborhood elementary and middle schools. The region has “pretty decent schools, condition-wise; the schools are about the right size,” Richter said. “People are saying, our neighborhood school is a good choice for us.”
High schools are a somewhat different matter. Citywide, Richter said, students are more likely to travel outside their neighborhoods for high school than they are to stay with their local school. Not only do students seek out magnet schools (like Masterman High) or specialty schools (like the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts), they will also seek out neighborhood schools with attractive programs, like the automotive training classes featured at West Philadelphia High and Martin Luther King High.
In keeping with this trend, Richter said that while Northwest parents want top-rate elementary and middle schools right in their neighborhoods, they’re not opposed to having their child travel to a quality high school. “It’s access,” said Richter. “‘Will I have access to a career academy? Will I have access to a magnet school, or more performing arts?’That’s what they’re saying here: ‘We just want access.’”
What the first round of meetings also revealed, Richter said, is that parents have very high expectations when it comes to the quality of instruction and buildings. Parents’ lists of “must have” elements for schools included strong instruction in math, science, humanities and languages, as well as plenty of arts and music programs, vocational training, safe conditions, and up-to-date facilities.
Under use and needing repair may not mean unsafe
Finally, Richter shared a graph illustrating replacement costs and excess capacity at the Northwest’s 33 elementary schools. The graph showed two buildings operating at minimum capacity with very high repair or replacement costs; two others in good condition but also at very low capacity; and most of the rest operating near 80 percent capacity, with significant but not necessarily prohibitive replacement and repair costs.
What the graph did not include was the names of any of the schools, and that was by design – officials do not want the current round of community meetings to bog down in discussions of specific schools. Richter cautioned parents against using size, enrollment, facility condition or anything else to determine whether an individual school faced major changes.
“Just because a school has one of those indicators doesn’t mean it’s not safe. But it doesn’t mean it’s safe, either,” Richter said. “There’s a whole bunch of things that go into facilities decisions, and it always doesn’t come down to, ‘You’re the smallest school,’ or, ‘You’re the worst-conditioned school.”
Leaving with more questions than answers
District officials took in dozens of questions from parents curious about the next steps of the process. The group at Saul asked about things like optimal class size, the future of vouchers and charters, the evaluation process for teachers and administrators, and even the heating system at Girl’s High (“it’s ninety degrees in there every other day – who’s assessing that?” one participant asked).
In most cases, officials could not provide specific answers, but they promised to consider the concerns those questions reflected as they enter what promises to be the most contentious phase of their facility-related plans. Later this spring, in another round of community meetings, they’ll start naming schools that could be closed or consolidated. Richter says he knows those meetings won’t be easy.
“We’re going to more specifically talk about schools, and what impacts look like, and timelines – pupil assignments. Teacher assignments. Maintenance and renovation of buildings,” Richter said. “That’s where the rubber will hit the road. We’re going to see a lot of passion and emotion come out.”
One parent he’ll likely see is Kim Puhl, a Roxborough resident who has sent three children through three different elementary schools in the Northwest. “I came out to find out exactly what they’re talking about,” she said. “Over the thirteen years I’ve been a parent in the public schools, I truly don’t think that the district has improved much.”
Puhl said the District is overdue for a major re-think of its facilities. But she worries that the current process won’t take into consideration what she thinks is the most important element of a school: its staff and administration. “There are so many changes in leadership. The principals don’t seem to hang around in schools much – [they] come in for three, four years and they’re gone. I think the schools that are really strong are the ones that have the same strong leadership for a lot of years.”
But she also said that if it’s time to downsize the system, the schools that should go are the ones with the worst academic results. “If kids are dropping out [of a particular school] in the 9th grade, that’s not serving the community,” said Puhl. “So turn it into a parking lot.”