It was all Philadelphians could talk about Thursday. The School District of Philadelphia wants to close one-sixth of its schools, a move that would affect about 17,000 students.
Inside the school administration building at 440 North Broad Street, dozens of district employees lining the indoor balconies fell into an expectant silence as a row of television cameras trained their lenses on Superintendent William Hite.
“We are recommending the closure of 37 buildings and changing the grade configurations of 18 schools,” Hite said.
The news had leaked out hours before. But for many, the magnitude of the district’s school closing plan was still sinking in.
Hite looked into the cameras.
“We are about to embark on a very difficult process,” he said. “As an educator, and as a parent, I realize that the recommendations will be shocking, painful, emotional and disruptive for many communities.”
44 schools affected, 17,000 students
Under the district’s plan, 44 schools would be closed or relocated. Roughly two dozen more would undergo grade changes. Other schools would be merged or “co-located” with existing schools. All told, roughly 17,000 students would be displaced.
Standing at the podium, flanked by a dozen members of his staff, Superintendent Hite argued the upheaval will be worth it.
“At the end, we will have a school system that is better-run, safer, and higher-performing,” he said.
A coalition of labor and community groups rallied on the steps outside district headquarters, chanting “save our schools” and decrying the lack of public input in the development of the recommendations.
Parent Lisa Jackson is the mother of a 9th grader at Lankenau high. She came out because she’s upset that her son’s school could be relocated inside Roxborough High.
Unions blast plan
“I’m sad about the School District,” said Jackson. “The powers that be see fit to dismantle it piece by piece.”
Teachers’ union president Jerry Jordan blasted district leaders for closing neighborhood schools instead of fighting for them.
“They’re not talking to the people, and they’re not really working and pressing on the elected officials in Harrisburg to fund Philadelphia schools,” said Jordan.
District officials say the case for mass school closings is straightforward: City schools are broke, and the district needs the savings to balance its books and provide kids with a better education.
Inside City Hall, Mayor Nutter praised Hite and his team for making tough choices their predecessors avoided.
“Their decision was one that says, ‘You cannot kick the can down the road any farther,'” said Nutter.
The mayor said Hite has his “full and unequivocal support.”
Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, also backed the school closing recommendations.
“This is fundamentally about putting more of the city’s children in higher quality public schools,” he said. “Closing low-performing and under-enrolled schools will allow the city to put more resources into quality instruction.”
The “myth” of privatization
Gleason said there’s a “myth” floating around the city that the school closings recommendations are part of a larger agenda to privatize public education.
“In fact,” said Gleason, “they’re the byproducts of parents choosing to leave schools that have been failing for years and years.”
The school closings plan will no doubt be hotly debated over the coming weeks.
District officials will host a series of community meetings. The first is this Saturday at 10:00 am at South Philadelphia High.
The School Reform Commission is expected to vote on the recommendations in March.
But standing outside Bok Technical High in South Philadelphia on Thursday, 18-year old Brandi Reed wasn’t thinking about any of that.
Bok is one of the 11 city high schools now on the chopping block.
Reed said that her mom graduated from the school. This spring, Reed expects to graduate from Bok, too.
“Where are we going to have our class reunions?” she asked.
Following is the list of closures and relocations:
37 facility/building closures
Amy at Martin
Bok, Edw. W. Technical H.S.
Carness Annes at Fels
Carroll, Charles H.S.
Communications Tech H.S.
Douglas, Stephen A. H.A.
Ferguson, Joseph C.
Hill, Leslie P.
Kinsey, John L.
McCloskey, John F.
Meade, Gen. George C.
Peirce, Thomas M.
Pepper, George M.S.
Phila. Military Acad. at Elverson
Reynolds, Gen. John F.
Shaw, Anna M.S.
Sheridan West Academy
Strawberry Mansion H.S.
University City H.S.
Whittier, John G.
Program closures and changes; building to stay open
Lamberton, Robert H.S.
Phila. Military Acad. at Leeds
Pratt, Anna B.
Vaux, Robert H.S.
Washington, George Elem.
This story was reported as part of a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.
Tom MacDonald and Azusa Uchikura contributed to this report.