City school closings target vulnerable students, critics say

J. Whyatt Mondesire and the Rev. Kevin Johnson (right) at Bright Hope Baptist Church.
J. Whyatt Mondesire and the Rev. Kevin Johnson (right) at Bright Hope Baptist Church. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2013

Ramping up their fight against 37 planned public school closings, a coalition including the city teachers' union, politicians, a pastor, and the head of the local NAACP chapter said Monday that the Philadelphia School District was targeting the city's most vulnerable students.

Poor students, African American and Latino students, and students with disabilities would all be disproportionately affected by the large-scale closings, according to an analysis completed by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).

The district is already the subject of a federal civil rights investigation into the racial patterns of its 2012 school closings, spurred by a complaint by the activist group Action United.

The patterns are the same with this year's proposed closings, which will be decided upon by the School Reform Commission (SRC) on March 7, PCAPS said at a news conference at Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia.

"These closures will devastate already disenfranchised students and their neighborhoods," said Action United staffer Quanisha Smith.

District-wide, there are 53,000 empty seats in public schools, with a heavy concentration in North and West Philadelphia. Schools in the Northeast, where more white students are concentrated, are generally close to or over capacity.

The district is also infinancial trouble, with a projected $1 billion deficit over five years. The SRC recently had to borrow $300 million to pay its bills for the rest of the year.

A district official said that he had not seen the coalition's analysis and so could not comment on it. He stressed that students affected by the closings would benefit from additional resources at the schools that remain open.

City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, who championed a nonbinding resolution calling for a one-year moratorium on closings that passed Council overwhelmingly, said the schools chosen for closing troubled her.

"There just doesn't seem to be rhyme or reason as to how these decisions were made," Blackwell said. She pointed out Paul Robeson High School, at 41st and Ludlow Streets in her district, where she said a costly heating system was just installed.

"It reeks of someone or some people sitting in a back room" making decisions without considering the public, Blackwell said.

State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.), whose district will be hit hard by closures, was indignant.

"A lot of those schools have been closed for no other reason than economics," Thomas said.

Bright Hope's pastor, the Rev. Kevin Johnson, himself a district parent, echoed the call for a moratorium and issued a stinging rebuke of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s plan for the district, which includes the closings.

"It doesn't express a heart for our children," said Johnson. "Closing buildings will not save the district nearly as much as the district projects. I am gravely concerned about the plan to close 37 public schools."

J. Whyatt Mondesire, head of the local NAACP chapter, added to the call for a moratorium, which SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos has said was not possible.

The closings, Mondesire said, were "a rush to judgment" with little thought to community impact.


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

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