BY TONY WEST/ All across the city, families are waking up to the fact 17,000 children will need to find new schools if the School District’s plan to close 37 facilities is carried out. Many have rallied around their neighborhood schools, struggling to save them. It’s a sad game of musical chairs.
In Southwest Philadelphia, 19 community organizations are taking a different approach. They want to write their own rules for the game. They know their schools best.
In a meeting at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, these groups came together to see if they could develop their own plan for school consolidations, one that covers the entire School District Planning Area Southwest, which stretches from University City to Eastwick. Seven schools are up for closure there.
They left the meeting with a new organization – Philly Communities United: Save Our Schools – and vowed to change the way decisions about schools are made.
“We as a community want to look over the Boston Consulting Group’s Plan that the School Reform Commission adopted and see if their recommendations are best from our perspective,” explained Saboor Muhammad, who coordinated the meeting. In the end, PCU will prepare its own consolidation plan.
“We are recommending certain schools be closed,” said Muhammad. But he affirmed his community has the insight, experience and talent to analyze its school-plant challenges at a grass-roots level. Muhammad is 3rd Dist. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s liaison for Southwest Philadelphia. Blackwell chairs Council’s Education Committee. But the meeting was sponsored and spearheaded by the 19 civic associations, which represent many active bodies in that part of town.
Blackwell said her committee would hold a hearing Jan. 23 on the subject. “Maybe we can have an impact on these school closings,” she said.
Blackwell was not the only elected official at Friday’s meeting. State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-W. Phila.) said he was impressed by the coalition’s practical approach. “I tip my hat to the fact you have elected to work with the facts,” he said.
State Rep. Ron Waters (D-W. Phila.) cautioned the group some schools were sure to close. “It doesn’t make sense to have buildings that were designed for 2,000 students with only a few hundred students in them,” he noted. But he thought some schools now on the hit list might be saved. He said parents should be “part of the equation” in determining not just which schools should survive, but what programs they should provide.
State Rep. Jordan Harris (D-S. Phila.) graduated from Bartram HS, which is not slated to be closed. His district takes in both USP and Wilson ES, which is slated to be closed. “I am here just to be supportive and to listen,” he said.
He got an earful. Parents, educators, ministers and block captains were brimming with hard-edged opinions. But the attendance of so many elective leaders cheered many community members.
“With people like these politicians coming out, it’s got to be big,” said Alexander Anderson, who has two children at Wilson. “They heard so many points of views and information. It can change what’s going down in Philly.”
The School District’s plan for Planning Area Southwest would close three small specialized high schools: CommTech and Motivation in Eastwick, along with Paul Robeson in University City. That leaves giant, but underutilized, Bartram HS in Elmwood as their main alternative. But many parents are fearful of it.
“Every time I go past Bartram on the trolley, I see cops there,” said Juanita Blunt. Her daughter has Asperger’s syndrome. The girl is bright but cannot handle large numbers of people. She did well at Pepper and is flourishing at CommTech. But Blunt dreads the idea of sending her to a huge, impersonal, unfamiliar facility.
Tracey Harper, another Pepper/CommTech mother, agreed. “Some kids don’t do well in a large environment,” she said. Her kids got a good grounding at Pepper, where they were on the honor roll. She maintained Southwest Philadelphia is already starved of public resources. “We have nothing, no leaders, no role models. Why should we have to go all the way across town for a good education?”
Anderson was puzzled why Wilson, which is safe and close to his home, is the only elementary school in the Southwest to face closure. “It is a great school,” he said. “The numbers in the book [PSSA scores and incident reports] show the staff is doing well compared with the rest of the School District.” If Wilson closes, the School District would have his children go to nearby Lea ES, with which Anderson isn’t enchanted. He is pondering a charter or independent school, or perhaps home-schooling.
PCU’s founding meeting drew diverse talents. One such was Dr. Carol Simmons, a retired teacher, administrator and college professor. She is co-chair of Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition’s Education Committee.
In Dr. Simmons’ eyes, the Pepper campus is a keeper for the School District. For starters, it is one of the youngest plants in the Southwest, built in 1975. It boasts 1.8 million square feet, with baseball, basketball and tennis courts, an instructional kitchen and gardens. A farmers’ market connected to the Eastwick Community Farm uses its space.
“I had been hoping to make it a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) school because it is within walking distance of the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge,” she said.
The school can hold 1,100; currently it serves 450 students. “What the School District has done is siphon students off from Pepper,” charged Dr. Simmons. She says this campus could accommodate all CommTech HS’ 267 students as well as Penrose ES’ students. The School District’s plan is pushing Tilden MS, next to Bartram, instead, “but the environment is not good there,” she noted.
The coalition also takes in Horace Clouden, a veteran school building engineer, who said the School District has no idea how to get the most out of its ageing plants. He asserted good engineers can modify schools to operate more efficiently even at 50-75% capacity.
Many PCU activists see their fight as much larger than their neighborhood. They say it goes to the heart of public education’s woes in Philadelphia and across America.
“It was not just in Philadelphia, it’s everywhere,” said Jackie Slaughter, a Wilson alumna who is vice president of Westshore Community. “I have family members in D.C. and the same thing’s going on there. It shouldn’t be just about closing the schools but about putting more money into our schools. If they put more money in, the children would come back.”
Michael Nairn, a Penn professor who lives in Squirrel Hill, has been working with Pepper children to introduce them to the Eastwick Community Garden and the Heinz Refuge. “I am a product of the public-school systems and deeply believe in the promise of equality and opportunity for all that public education fosters,” he commented. “Led by the large foundations, Gates and in Philadelphia the William Penn Foundation as well as by large corporate interests, the public-education system is being dismantled quickly.
“The Boston Consulting Group’s study only furthers this trend through its recommendations. The school closures are being implemented solely on the basis of operating costs with no rigorous thought about the educational consequences.”
Dr. Simmons went further: “I would like to see the so-called Master Plan pushed off the table. I would like to see it stopped. It is not fair to students, teachers, administrators of Philadelphia – a rush job. They had a company come from outside Philadelphia with a preexisting master plan and just rubber-stamp it. But it doesn’t make sense to everyone who knows the issues here.”
At this meeting, PCU vowed to undertake a flurry of ambitious negotiations aimed at coaching David to beat Goliath. The activists would reach out to other communities which have succeeded in keeping their schools open, as well as to those which are still fighting like they are. They schemed how to network with business and faith-based power bases. They figured out they needed more information from the School District about how decisions were made and jotted down what to ask for. They weighed legal actions with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and the federal Dept. of Justice.
The Southwest community groups will vote on their own alternative school-closure plan at a public meeting on Jan. 18, 6 p.m., again at USP.