School closings would entail some long walks

Posted: January 14, 2013

Jerry Jordan stood at the corner of Haverford and Lancaster Avenues, peering across the busy intersection as cars whizzed by and a siren wailed in the distance. A trolley had just passed.

"Traffic in all directions, but at least there's a light," the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president noted, stepping out into the street. "I hope the children cross at the light."

Jordan was on a mission to test the route children from the McMichael School would have to walk if their school closes in June, as the Philadelphia School District has proposed. McMichael is one of 37 buildings slated to shut to save about $28 million and eliminate some of the 53,000 empty seats the nearly broke system says it can no longer afford.

But Jordan - and many parents and community members - says the closings will mean transportation and safety hazards, in neighborhoods and inside schools.

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district understood families' concerns, and would require affected schools to have not just academic but safety plans. He also said the district would work with police, city agencies, and community groups to anticipate and respond to those concerns.

But already, 60,000 public and private school students in the city cross lines to attend schools outside their neighborhoods, Gallard said.

"Students are already doing this, and they are doing it in a safe way," he said, adding, "we're going to work to support those routes, support those schools. But we all have to come together in this time of need, when we will be making significant changes."

Jordan isn't convinced.

On a brisk, clear Thursday morning, he set out on foot from McMichael, at 35th and Fairmount in the Mantua section of the city.

Jordan, who grew up in the neighborhood, had mapped what he thought was the most direct route McMichael's 377 students would take to the two schools the district would send them to, Locke at 45th and Haverford and Martha Washington at 44th and Aspen, both in the Belmont section - up Haverford to Locke, then up 44th to Martha Washington, and back up Aspen to McMichael.

Total walk from McMichael to Locke: 40 minutes. Locke to Martha Washington: 25 minutes. Martha Washington to McMichael: 23 minutes.

It's 1.3 miles from McMichael to Locke, and about the same from McMichael to Martha Washington. There are school buildings closer to McMichael, but one, high-achieving Powel, is full, and another, Drew, was closed last year.

Any route of 1.5 miles or more requires the district to provide transportation, but buses also must be provided if students have to cross a road the state deems hazardous. Lancaster Avenue has not been declared hazardous, but once closing decisions are final, the state could deem it so.

The district also buses some special-education students and provides free SEPTA passes for students in seventh through 12th grade who live more than 1.5 miles from their schools.

As he walked, Jordan shook his head.

"I don't know who made these decisions, but they couldn't have been people who know these neighborhoods," he said. "I wonder if the School Reform Commission members will walk this route before they vote."

"Too long, too far," was the analysis of Robenna Wilson, the PFT staffer who accompanied Jordan. "If I'm a kid, by the time I get to school, I'm tired, I'm angry. I'm not going to learn much today."

The point isn't that McMichael students are leaving a particularly safe or beautiful neighborhood to go to a less safe or beautiful one, union officials said. The point is that they're negotiating a long stretch outside their own neighborhood.

Stray cats crept by as Jordan and Wilson walked past rowhouses, churches, and stores, some of them boarded up. Trash blew in the breeze. Ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks passed. Jordan and Wilson navigated around multiple construction sites and a street memorial to someone who had died recently.

Jordan loves to walk, and he is 6-foot-1, with long legs that he said made the trek easier than elementary schoolers' little ones would.

"These aren't short blocks," he said, walking over a part of Haverford Avenue with no sidewalk. In other spots the pavement was uneven, sloping up sharply, rutted.

Wilson wondered whether the longer walk would affect students' ability to arrive at school in time for breakfast, let alone classes.

A school switch might be easy for suburban parents to negotiate, but many Philadelphia parents lack the options others have, Jordan said.

"Many of our parents don't have cars, and, if they do, they need them to get to work," he said. "Many of our children walk to school - on their own, or with siblings."

Apart from the distance issue, Jordan and others also worry about the potential for violence. In some cases, students will have to cross neighborhood and gang lines to get to their new buildings.

Some students are being asked to merge into a school that has long been considered a rival.

"You hear, 'You can't mix the Germantown and Martin Luther King kids,' " Jordan said. "It was that way when I taught at Martin Luther King, and it's still true."

Safety and transportation were high on the list of concerns at a raucous community meeting on the closings held at Dobbins High in North Philadelphia on Tuesday. Close to 1,000 people packed the auditorium, chanting, waving signs, and angrily demanding answers from district officials.

Fourth grader Ceniyah Green walks to school at Pratt Elementary on North 22d Street now, but her mother is afraid for her safety if Pratt closes, as proposed, and Ceniyah is sent to M.H. Stanton, on North 16th Street.

"Those neighborhoods are different," said Patrice Green, Ceniyah's mother. "She can walk to school by herself now. She'd have to walk through tough areas, the projects, higher-crime areas, and I won't let her do that."

City Council President Darrell Clarke said he well understood the fiscal pressures the district faced and "the need to right-size government."

But the district's decisions were made too hastily and with too little community input, Clarke said, and the SRC's planned March vote ought to be held off until communities have a real chance to share insights and help come up with solutions.

Like the residents in his North Philadelphia district, Clarke said he worried about transportation and safety issues, particularly in the case of Strawberry Mansion High, which would close and send students to Ben Franklin High.

"There was a reason that people didn't want to go from Rhodes and FitzSimons when they closed to Strawberry Mansion," Clarke said of two high schools that were closed last year and folded into Mansion. "Ben Franklin is miles away, and it's a different neighborhood. We do have challenges between schools and turfs, but this is what happens when you have this vacuum type of analysis."

At another charged community meeting at Edison High on Wednesday night, a student at the potentially closing Charles Carroll High School struck an ominous note.

"If you send me to Kensington," the girl said, "there's going to be more fights than you ever saw. You think you see violence now? You're going to see blood later."

Jerry Jordan takes

a walk to highlight safety concerns

due to school closings at


A map shows the walks generated if McMichael closes. A18.

Contact Kristen Graham

at 215-854-5146,, or follow on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at

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