Faced with declining enrollment, aging facilities, and a brutal fiscal situation, Philadelphia School District officials on Wednesday recommended closing nine schools and making grade changes at 17 others.
"We need to aim for a more efficient footprint reflecting the times and the demographics of the city," said acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II. "We need to align our resources in a way that benefits the education of our students."
But the School Reform Commission - which will vote on the recommendations early next year - signaled that perhaps the changes did not go far enough.
"We need to do more," acting Chairman Wendell Pritchett said.
With a student population now less than 150,000, the district has lost more than 50,000 pupils in the last decade, many to a growing charter-school movement. Officials have estimated there are 70,000 empty seats citywide.
The schools slated for closure are: Levering, Harrison, Sheppard, Drew, and E.M. Stanton elementaries; Pepper Middle School; and FitzSimons High, Sheridan West Academy, and Philadelphia High School for Business.
Most would close at the end of this school year, but FitzSimons, Sheridan West, High School for Business, and Pepper would be phased out.
If the SRC adopts the recommendations next year, these would be the first large-scale school closings in the district since 1981.
Each closing would save the district between $500,000 and $1 million. And while the cash-strapped school system does need to find savings, Nunery said, the decisions are being driven by educational needs.
Also on the table are more than a dozen grade-configuration changes that would take place over the next few years. There are 25 different grade configurations, and officials want to move to standardize them to just four - kindergarten to grade five, K-8, 6-8, and 9-12.
Officials said they hoped to bring most schools to a recommended range of between 450 to 800 students for elementary schools, 600 to 800 for middle schools, and 1,000 to 1,200 for high schools. Some exceptions would remain.
Combined with grade changes and consolidations made this school year, the moves announced Wednesday would shed 14,000 seats. The district had said it wanted to cut 35,000 seats by 2014.
That would put the district at a utilization rate of 71 percent. Its stated goal was 85 percent.
"There are multiple stages to this," Nunery said. "This is not one-and-done."
Officials have not yet finished a plan for high schools and career and technical education schools - formerly called vocational schools - that will spur further changes, Nunery said. That plan will come in the "next several months."
If approved, the proposed closings of FitzSimons and Pepper Middle School and the changes recommended at E.W. Rhodes would end the district's most recent experiment with single-sex education, which began in 2004.
All-male FitzSimons and all-female Rhodes are now 7-12 schools. Rhodes, under this plan, would revert back to a middle school, FitzSimons would close, and high-school-age students would move to nearby Strawberry Mansion High, which is well under capacity.
Pepper, which would be phased out, has some single-sex classes.
The district has said it would pay attention to its empty buildings, working with communities to find appropriate reuses. Nunery said he has already heard from parties, including charter schools, interested in vacant schools.
Larry Eichel, project director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative, said that when researchers examined school closings in cities across the country, they found there were two ways of handling them: closing several schools at once, as was done in Kansas City, or spreading closings over several years.
Philadelphia, Eichel said, appears to have taken the second path. "I think that is probably the more popular route, if you look at other cities," he said.
Some, though, have questioned the wisdom of that approach.
And though it's clear that the district has too many seats, some skepticism remains in the community over how much extra space the district has.
Parent Rebecca Poyourow called the 70,000 excess-capacity figure "sketchy" and said it wrongly included gyms and science, language, music, and art rooms that could be used as regular classrooms. She asked the SRC to scrutinize the numbers carefully.
Poyourow's children attend Cook-Wissahickon, a Roxborough elementary that is close to capacity. It would be affected by the closure of nearby Levering.
"As it stands, this rightsizing plan for closing our kids' schools does not pass muster," Poyourow said.
Though many schools are up for closures and changes, the district still faces considerable facilities challenges.
The average public school is 63 years old - one school, Francis Scott Key, was built in 1889 - and for years, the district underspent on maintenance. Officials estimate that it would cost $4 billion to address all the current facilities needs.
Just $160 million is allocated for capital improvements over the next five years.
And while some sections of the city have low enrollment, other schools are full or over capacity, including many in the Northeast. Though it wants to close some schools, the district will need to spend money to rebuild others.
Starting this month and continuing through February, the district will hold 17 meetings around the city to gather feedback on the planned changes.
SRC members stressed that they want community input, not just for show, but to help them make decisions.
"These are recommendations," Commissioner Lorene Cary said. "We are not going to vote on something that we don't believe in."
The potential school-closing news drew an immediate - and strong - reaction from many.
More than a dozen supporters of E.M. Stanton, in South Philadelphia, waved signs and spoke out against the school's planned closure.
The community fended off an attempt to close Stanton once before, in 2003. Boosters successfully argued that though Stanton was small, it was valuable enough to remain open.
"It would be a shame if this great establishment were to be demolished," student Nagee Graves told the SRC. "The city would be rid of an excellent palace of learning. I would be heartbroken if my second home were demolished."
James Otto, principal of Sheppard Elementary in the city's Fairhill section, was not exactly shocked when he got a call Wednesday afternoon saying the district had recommended closing his school.
Otto is in his ninth year at Sheppard, and every year, he has heard that the small neighborhood school, which was built in 1897, was on a school-closings list.
"It's not a surprise, but hearing it for eight years in a row, it sort of dulls the response," Otto said Wednesday night. He quickly added, though, "I'm not throwing in the towel."
He shared the news of the recommendation with staff members - many of whom have been at Sheppard for years. "Some are resigned; some are upset," he said. "I told them, just because you show up on a list doesn't make it happen."
Ninety-two percent of Sheppard's students are Latino, and letters will be sent home to parents Thursday in English and Spanish telling them of the proposed closing.
"The community has a deep love for the school," Otto said. "The school is the heart of that community."
For more information, including specific meeting dates and times, go to www.philasd.org/fmp.
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