Angry church meeting decries Philadelphia's school reorganization plan

The Rev. Kevin Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, told the meeting, "We are here tonight to ask where is the vision?"
The Rev. Kevin Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, told the meeting, "We are here tonight to ask where is the vision?" (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 01, 2012

About 200 people attended a quickly convened town-hall-style meeting at a church Sunday night to decry a Philadelphia School District plan that would close dozens of schools and shift thousands of students into charter schools.

Under the plan, introduced last week, 40 of the district's 249 schools would close by next year, and 24 more would close by 2017. The central office would be dismantled in favor of "achievement networks" that would compete to run groups of 25 schools and would sign performance-based contracts.

In spirited speeches at the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, speakers encouraged listeners to let public officials know that they believe the proposed plan would not benefit the city's public education system.

"We are here tonight to ask where is the vision?" said the Rev. Kevin Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.

Speakers said residents wanted a voice in the future of public education and were concerned about private entities running public schools.

"We may not have the titles, but we do have the power," Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education, said to applause.

Organizers said they had collected more than 100 questions from audience members to be delivered to the School Reform Commission.

In an interview before the event, Gym said the proposal was not the fiscal plan the district needs.

"It's a collection of failed policies . . . and practices that have been repeated in urban districts across the country, over the protests of parents and communities," she said.

Mother Bethel, affiliated with a larger group of faith-based organizations that focus on education and other issues, started organizing the meeting Friday afternoon through social-networking sites.

"We're seeking to have absolute community involvement from the beginning to the end," said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, Mother Bethel's pastor, who has a Ph.D in educational leadership.

School officials are drawing up a list of closure criteria; an announcement of the schools to be shut is expected in the summer. A permanent superintendent, who could be in place by the fall, would oversee the closings.

Johnson said the proposal was "being imposed upon our children when there is no superintendent and there is no captain to steer the ship."

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos, Mayor Nutter, and Thomas Knudsen, the district's chief recovery officer, were invited. They had previous commitments, organizers were told.

The district plan is subject to comment and SRC approval. The proposal has the support of the mayor, who has said the new configuration would push control over education down to the school level.

Successful principals and district staff could apply to run an achievement network. So could universities, charter-school organizations, or a combination of those groups.

Residents said their fight against the plan won't end with Sunday's meeting.

"This is the opening shot across the bow," said Jeff Hornstein, president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association.


Contact Darran Simon

at 856-779-3829 or dsimon@phillynews.com,

or follow him on Twitter @darransimon.

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