Closing Philly schools: how many empty seats?

It was an eye-opening figure — there are 70,000 excess seats in the Philadelphia School District, officials told the public earlier this year. Enough empty chairs to fill a football stadium.

In the past decade, the district’s student population has declined dramatically, dropping by 50,000, largely because of a growing charter school movement.

But it’s safe to say that there’s some skepticism around that 70,000 empty seat number.

At the recent School Reform Commission meeting announcing staff recommendations to close nine district schools and shift grades at 17 more, parent Rebecca Poyourow urged the SRC to examine the figures carefully.

“Estimates of empty seats are sketchy and have ballooned,” said Poyourow, whose children attend Cook-Wissahickon Elementary in Roxborough, a school that would be affected by absorbing students from Levering Elementary, which is slated for closure.

She’s right. The number grew a lot in a short timespan. Initially, the excess seat figure was 45,000, based on a 2009 report. The updated figure came after DeJong Richter, the Ohio-based education planning firm hired by the district to assist with its facilities master plan, started its work.

DeJong Richter found the number of seats in the school district was similar to the 2009 count, CEO Tracy Richter said. The actual enrollment, though, was lower, he said.

A number of folks concerned that their school might close or be affected by closings have also expressed concern that the district overcounted capacity -that it included gyms and cafeterias and other spaces you don’t really want to put a third grade class in - as unused spaces.

Not so, Richter said.

On the elementary level, as is industry standard, “the only spaces that count for capacity are classrooms. We don’t count music rooms, art rooms, cafeterias or gymnasiums.” Calculating capacity at the secondary level is more complicated, but in both cases, Richter said, a “utilization factor” of 75 percent was used to account for things such as a space used as a room to accomodate computer servers, for instance, or rooms used to pull out individual students or small groups from larger ones.

“In all the master plans we do across the country — not just in consolidation efforts — one of the most contested things is capacity,” Richter said.

But the 70,000 number is a fair count, said Danielle Floyd, the district’s deputy for strategic initiatives. Many people don’t realize that figure includes 10,000 seats in buildings that are already closed but not yet sold, she pointed out.

Both Floyd and Richter said they understand school closings are painful.

But, Floyd said, “the purpose is not to pack every classroom. We’re not going to move kids where there’s not space.”


On a recent visit to E.M. Stanton at 17th and Christian, one of the schools slated to close - I saw a school that, according to district calculations, was under capacity, using just over half its space.

The school was far from empty.  Class sizes are reasonable but not tiny.  Even the single "unoccupied" classroom was in use, as a place for teachers and the principal to take small groups.  

What do you think?