Philadelphia School Restructuring Meets Community Protests

The plan to radically reorganize the Philadelphia Public School District was angrily criticized at a community meeting held at the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church last Sunday. The last-minute gathering was called to discuss the impact of the district reorganization on the community members and drew nearly 200 attendees.

The controversial plan calls for closure of 40 schools by the next school year and 24 more school closures are projected by 2017. In addition, the plan, put together at the behest of the School Reform Commission, calls for dismantling of the district's central office and replacing it with independently-acting "achievement networks."

Those speaking at the gathering almost unanimously decried the restructuring proposal for it's "lack of vision," and expressed concern about allowing public schools to pass into private control. Others felt that their voices weren't being heard by the Commission, even though, as residents, they stood to be impacted by the new system.

The city's school system is considered to have failed due to years of bad academic outcomes, corruption, and general financial mismanagement. After charter schools were first introduced, students flocked to them in droves. Some estimates place the number of students who fled traditional schools for charters at 50,000, which resulted in a $218 million district budget shortfall for the 2012-13 school year.

The plan was put together by the district's chief recovery office Thomas Knudsen and the chief academic officer Penny Nixon, who worked together with the SRC to develop steps that would put the district back in the black and improve academics.

Knudsen, along with SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos and the Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter were invited to the meeting, put together in Friday by Mother Bethel, but declined to attend due to scheduling conflicts.

Organizers said they had collected more than 100 questions from audience members to be delivered to the School Reform Commission.

In an interview before the event, Gym said the proposal was not the fiscal plan the district needs.

"It's a collection of failed policies . . . and practices that have been repeated in urban districts across the country, over the protests of parents and communities," she said.

Although the final reorganization proposal hasn't yet been approved by the SRC, few doubt that it is only a matter of time before the district officials will begin implementation. Already, the lists of candidate schools for closure are being drawn up, and administrators and teaching staff at the schools are being informed on the steps they will need to take to transition between the previous district organization and the new achievement networks.

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