Commission votes to close eight schools, keeps two open

Supporters and staffers of the E.M. Stanton School, including parent Aisha Bey (center), celebrate after hearing their school was one of two the School Reform Commission will not close. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Supporters and staffers of the E.M. Stanton School, including parent Aisha Bey (center), celebrate after hearing their school was one of two the School Reform Commission will not close. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer (Supporters and staffers of the E.M. Stanton School,)
Posted: March 30, 2012

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted Thursday night to close eight public schools - but it spared two high-performing schools whose communities have rallied for months to save them.

Closing are Harrison, Drew, and Levering Elementary Schools; Pepper and Sheridan West Middle Schools; and FitzSimons and Rhodes High Schools and the High School for Business and Technology.

E.M. Stanton and Issac A. Sheppard schools will stay open.

"Thank you for listening, for having a genuine process, an engaged process," Stanton parent Temwa Wright gushed after the SRC removed Sheppard and Stanton from the closing list. "I am just so proud to be a parent in the Philadelphia School District."

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said that despite the district's pressing money problems, "I don't think we can afford to close academically successful programs any more than we can afford to ignore chronically low-performing schools."

Sheppard supporters in purple and Stanton boosters in yellow turned out in large numbers and reacted with tears, cheers, and applause when it became clear their schools would remain open.

Even amid the elation, there was an acknowledgment that the school closing process was not over. The district has shrunk by 50,000 students in the last decade and still has tens of thousands of excess seats in its aging buildings.

"We continue to have too many facilities that are too old to support a modern academic program," Commissioner Wendell Pritchett said. "We must work harder to invest our resources in facilities that are sustainable."

The commissioners suggested schools such as Sheppard and Stanton, which have good programs in old, small buildings - Sheppard at Howard and Cambria in West Kensington and Stanton at 17th and Christian in South Philadelphia - might need to be moved.

Commissioner Lorene Cary said the district had much to learn from the work of Sheppard and Stanton, which she said had led their own turnarounds during the years.

"We need to bottle that, figure out how to do it everywhere, and support it," Cary said. "We must do better for kids, and we have less to do it on."

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), a charter school proponent who at times had harsh words for the last SRC, said he was "extraordinarily and exceptionally impressed" with the current SRC, especially for its leadership around Stanton.

"Stanton is not just a school," Williams said. "It's an example of what can happen in public education in Philadelphia."

Williams said the challenge was now to replicate what goes on at Stanton "in the face of a crippling deficit" - $26 million left to cut this year, and $186 million for 2013.

The SRC's vote came after months of community meetings on the closings. On Thursday, three speakers beseeched the SRC to spare Pepper, in Southwest Philadelphia, and one presented the case for Levering, in Roxborough.

Pepper teacher Keisha Wilkins urged the SRC to consider "the value of the sports facilities that we have, when so many of our sports programs have been downgraded because of the budget crisis."

Wilkins and others expressed doubt that students would be better served at Tilden and Shaw Middle Schools, where students who live in the current Pepper catchment area will now attend.

Julie Melnick, a parent at Levering Elementary, said the SRC was turning its back on "the unheard parents" from that school.

"We do not have the doctors and the lawyers and the accountants and other college-educated people that Cook and Dobson and Shawmont have in their system," Melnick said of neighboring schools, none of which were on the closing list.

Melnick had submitted detailed proposals on saving Levering by merging it with Cook-Wissahickon, but those were rejected.

After the vote was taken, a dejected Melnick said she would consider sending her children to a cyber charter school.

The votes were not unanimous.

Commissioner Feather Houstoun voted no to closing Pepper; the four other commissioners voted yes.

Cary voted no to closing FitzSimons and Rhodes, which have been single-sex high schools, with FitzSimons educating boys and Rhodes educating girls. Rhodes will revert to a middle school, and FitzSimons will close.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky voted yes to both but said the district ought to offer single-sex school options.

The SRC said it knew it was making painful decisions.

"This is an opportunity to acknowledge the amount of sadness and trauma and chaos that closing schools creates," Cary said. "We know it, and yet we must go through the process to rightsize."

Ramos acknowledged the work of the Levering community and others who "didn't just come to oppose, but actually did come with ideas." In the case of Melnick's proposal, "that didn't work out," he said.

Ramos also said that closing the High School for Business and Technology "is all of our failure," and that career and technical education in the district must be fixed.

Aside from the votes on closings and adoption of a preliminary 2013 budget, the SRC heard from dozens of speakers on charter schools. Supporters of Arise Academy, Hope Charter, and Truebright Charter all asked the SRC to renew their schools, despite problems.

And members of the Creighton and H.R. Edmunds Elementary School communities urged the SRC not to turn their schools over to charters. Those two schools, plus Cleveland Elementary and Jones Middle, are slated to become charters in September.

State Rep. Mark Cohen (D., Phila.) also told the SRC he didn't think Creighton should be turned into a charter.

Before the meeting, more than 200 people rallied to oppose giving the four schools to charters.

The SRC is scheduled to vote on charter issues on April 19.


School Closings

The School Reform Commission voted Thursday to close eight schools. It spared two slated: E.M. Stanton and Isaac A. Sheppard.

The schools to be closed:

Drew Elementary, 3724 Warren St. Students will go to Powel, Lea, Locke, or Middle Years Academy. Closes this year.

FitzSimons High, 2601 W. Cumberland St. Some students will go to Strawberry Mansion; eighth and 12th graders only will attend FitzSimons during the 2012-13 academic year, and then the school will close.

Harrison Elementary, 1012 W. Thompson St. Students will go to Dunbar, Ludlow, or Spring Garden. Will close this year.

Levering Elementary, 6600 Ridge Ave. Students will go to Dobson, Cook-Wissahickon, Mifflin, or AMY Northwest. Will close this year.

Pepper Middle School, 2901 S. 84th St. School will be phased out, dropping a grade each year and closing in 2016.

Philadelphia High School for Business and Technology, 540 N. 13th St. School will be phased out, dropping a grade each year and closing in 2015.

Rhodes High School, 2900 Clearfield St. High school will be phased out, with students in grades eight through 10 making the transition to Strawberry Mansion High. Rhodes will serve grades seven, eight, and 12 in 2012-13, then the high school program will close and become a middle school only.

Sheridan West Academy, 3701 Frankford Ave. School will be phased out, dropping a grade a year, closing in 2014.


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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