Philly superintendent wants more closures, conversions, new schools

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File: Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. walks to Beeber Middle School in West Philadelphia with Dawsian Dawson in September 2013. Beeber, which staved off closure in 2013 but continues to struggle, would be phased out, shuttering in 2018. (DAVID SWANSON/Staff Photographer)

Sweeping changes are afoot for the Philadelphia School District, with closures, conversions to charter schools, and even new schools proposed Thursday by the superintendent.

In all, 5,000 students at 15 schools would be affected by the plan, which requires School Reform Commission approval. It has a price tag of up to $20 million.

Though the plan drew swift protests from some quarters, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. called the changes "exciting" moves designed to increase equity in city schools.

"Kids need great schools close to where they live," Hite said at a news conference.

Beeber Middle School in West Philadelphia - which staved off closure in 2013 but continues to struggle - would be phased out, shuttering in 2018. Grades would be added at Beeber's feeder schools, and the building itself would remain open to house SLA @ Beeber, the high school that now shares space with the closing middle school.

Leeds Middle School in northwest Philadelphia, another low-performing school, would be phased out, closing in June 2016. Students would instead attend Hill-Freedman World Academy, a magnet school, which would move to the Leeds building.

A middle school based on the successful Science Leadership Academy model would open in 2016 in partnership with Drexel University, serving primarily as the catchment school for Powel Elementary in West Philadelphia, but also targeting students in underserved Mantua. It would have no admissions requirement and would open in 2016.

The middle school, to be led by district teacher Timothy Boyle, would operate first in rented space and eventually land in the development planned for the former University City High School site now owned by Drexel. The school would not receive a per-pupil allocation as the University of Pennsylvania provides for Penn Alexander, but would receive other support from Drexel.

A high school based on the acclaimed Big Picture model, focusing on project-based learning and internships, would also open in a to-be-determined site likely in North Philadelphia and in an underpopulated or now-closed school system building.

'Hard pressed'

Despite the district's acute financial troubles, Hite has focused on innovation during his tenure in the district - three new high schools opened in North Philadelphia in 2014, but Hite said the area remained underserved and was ripe for a Big Picture school.

"We still don't have the capacity to address all of the individuals who are trying to get children into a better-quality high school," Hite said.

Chris Lehmann, who is coprincipal of the original Science Leadership Academy and the district's assistant superintendent for innovation, said Big Picture had done excellent work on small high schools throughout the country.

"You'd be hard pressed to find a better partner," Lehmann said.

Three chronically struggling elementary schools would also be converted to charter schools under Hite's plan, run by outside organizations. They are Jay Cooke in Logan, Samuel Huey in West Philadelphia, and John Wister in Germantown.

Making the call

This marks the sixth straight year of the district's "Renaissance" program, designed to turn around low-performing schools. Twenty schools have been given to charter-school operators to date; most of them have seen progress under the new providers.

But exactly how the process works has varied from year to year. Last year, the district allowed the communities at the two schools it tapped for conversion - Steel and Muñoz-Marín - to vote on whether they wanted to become charter schools. Both communities rejected conversion.

This year, the charter decision will not be subject to a vote. Hite said conditions at Cooke, Huey, and Wister - academics, climate, and other factors - require swift action, and he is making the call now, himself, to turn them over to charter-school operators.

"It's not acceptable that two out of 10 children are reading at grade level," Hite said. Those are the statistics at Cooke; the numbers are not much better at Huey and Wister in reading or math.

Rebuffing suggestions that officials were trying to circumvent a more public vetting process of charter conversions, Hite said his aim was just the opposite.

"The goal is not to have fewer parents engaged," the superintendent said.

Instead, parents - three at each school - will be involved in the district-level process to vet organizations that respond to the request for candidates to run Cooke, Huey, and Wister, and there will be frequent meetings with the affected school communities. Hite said the point was to provide a longer community-engagement process.

Hite also rejected the notion that the district was giving up on schools that have been deprived of key resources - such as full-time counselors, reading specialists, and other staff - and then labeled failing.

There is no indication that "adding those particular positions was going to yield different outcomes," Hite said. He emphasized that all three schools have performed poorly for years.

Up to three more schools will be considered for turnaround by the district. Those choices will be announced in early 2016; it is unclear whether they would have to shed half their staff and change leadership, as some in-house turnarounds have been forced to do.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, blasted Hite's plans, which he called "astounding - this year's October bombshell," alluding to the School Reform Commission's move last Oct. 6 to cancel the PFT's contract.

"I just found it absolutely stunning," Jordan said of the Thursday announcement. "These schools have been starved of resources; it's test and punish, and then we'll use the results to give schools away."

Jordan also decried this iteration of the Renaissance process, which "gives no real input to parents and staff," he said.

Praise

Hite's plan did earn plaudits from some quarters.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, said Hite's announcement was "encouraging - a focus on moving students into better schools, a focus on investing in models that are working and on innovation, both of which are needed. There's also an effort to balance that out with some rightsizing, which is also needed."

Gleason, whose organization was founded to raise $100 million to move students into strong schools of all types, said a "myth" exists that city schools were fine before the deep state aid cuts of the last several years hit Philadelphia hard.

"They were that way before, when we had more money per pupil," Gleason said. "If a child is enrolled in a school that is not meeting his needs, stability is not in his best interest."

kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146@newskag

www.philly.com/schoolfiles

Inquirer staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this article.