Philadelphia Community Response May Sway School Closings

Philadelphia's school closings provoked such an outpouring of community response that the city may change its plans, says the supervisor. Citizens submitted 38 alternative plans, in addition to many letters and meetings, reports The Inquirer's Susan Snyder.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. praised the community's response, saying that while it began with a lot of emotion, it evolved into thoughtful, useful ideas. The 38 formal proposals include some from activists and teachers, but also include a state legislator who represents a city district. He added that while citizens have asked for a one-year moratorium on school closings, the city can't afford to do that.

The district projects saving about $28 million a year over five years as a result of closing 37 schools and making grade changes in several others. The plan comes as the 146,000-student district copes with the loss of 60,000 students over the last decade and a severe financial crunch.

School closings will go ahead, but he said that many of the new proposals may be better than what they had been planning. In some cases, under-enrolled schools might be used for the same students, but for a larger age range. That's what the state legislator suggested:

State Rep. Cherelle L. Parker (D., Phila.) made several recommendations for schools in her district, which includes the Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, Roxborough and Andorra sections of Northwest Philadelphia.

For example, she suggested that McCloskey and Edmonds Schools be converted into pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools.

"I am firmly opposed to closing McCloskey Elementary due to its relationship with the surrounding community and its academic performance," she wrote.

The city's two military academies might share one building, suggested Philadelphia Military Academy's administration. In the current proposal, one of them would be sent to share a non-military middle school's campus. Its staff pointed out that its grounds and location were better suited for the military academy's purpose.

In addition to the proposals for repurposing and shoring up existing schools, many citizens wrote letters simply asking the city to spare their local schools from being cut. One tiny high school pointed out that its size was an asset for the 342 students enrolled there, because the students are better able to know their teachers. Its students made a video for the superintendent, pleading with him not to end their sense of "family." Other community letters just pointed out that schools that look useless on paper, to the city, are focal points of community identity.

The School Reform Commission plans to keep listening to citizen comments during the week. February 21, 22 and 23, the Commission will hold closed hearings, and it plans a final vote on March 7.

Public feeling has been running high this year, after the School Reform Commission did not take action on public comments last year, but closed 8 schools as it had planned. The original proposal for this year's closing had suggested 37 schools to be closed. Initial public outcry included a public demonstration by students dressed as zombies.

At the same time as public school enrollment has been falling, prompting closure plans, charter school numbers have gone up. Area charter schools have protested the city's plan to put a cap on the number of students who could transfer into charter schools.

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