Hite promises changes to Philly school-closings plan

Posted: February 12, 2013

Impressed with the input he has received, Philadelphia schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. on Monday said changes will be made to the controversial school-closings plan, but he declined to be specific.

The School District has heard from about 4,000 people at 14 meetings, and it has received 38 alternative proposals from activists, educators, a state legislator, and others, Hite said.

"We're spending time really trying to vet every one of those proposals," he said, noting that "some are very good." "Some of our recommendations will change based on some of the proposals we have received."

That's a departure from last year, when the district administration did not recommend changes following public input, although the School Reform Commission altered the plan. Eight schools were closed last year.

"We're not just changing the recommendations for change's sake," Hite said during a 30-minute interview in his office. "There are better recommendations that have come."

Hite said, however, that he will not support a one-year moratorium on closings as some have proposed.

"Financially, it's impossible," Hite said. "Given our current fiscal situation, it would be irresponsible for us to delay this any more."

Six more meetings for input are scheduled for this week.

The district projects saving about $28 million a year over five years as a result of closing 37 schools and making grade changes in several others. The plan comes as the 146,000-student school district copes with the loss of 60,000 students over the last decade and a severe financial crunch.

The reform commission will hold closing hearings on Feb. 21, 22 and 23 and is scheduled to vote on the plan on March 7. Members of City Council will hold a public hearing Tuesday morning on the closings.

Hite said it's possible that the SRC may want to study the revised recommendations longer.

But he noted on the closings: "I'm not anticipating a delay."

Hite said he was heartened by the outpouring of concern over the closings. What started out as a lot of emotion - and at times inappropriate reaction - has evolved into "thoughtful" and "purposeful" input.

Staff has met with students from several schools, including University City, Carroll, Ferguson, and the two military academies.

"I wanted them to be heard," he said.

He had just watched a heartfelt video on Monday morning by students at Carroll High School, which is slated to close.

"These people that I go to the school with, they're my family," one student pleaded on the video. A Carroll teacher said small schools like Carroll, with 342 students, create a nurturing educational environment.

"I know almost every student in this building, and I've been here less than a year," the teacher said.

Residents are concerned about the schools that students are being sent to and the disruption of partnerships that schools have forged, among other issues, Hite said.

State Rep. Cherelle L. Parker (D., Phila.), made several recommendations for schools in her district, which includes the Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, Roxborough, and Andorra sections of northwest Philadelphia.

For example, she suggested that John F. McCloskey and Franklin S. Edmonds Elementary schools be converted into pre-k through eighth grade schools.

"I am firmly opposed to closing McCloskey Elementary due to its relationship with the surrounding community and its academic performance," she wrote.

Another proposal asks to "save Germantown High School." Another hopes to keep University City High open by sharing its walls with another school.

Another came from a North Philadelphia grandmother, who wants to keep Duckrey open.

"Duckrey is the anchor of our community," wrote Judith Robinson.

The staff at Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds wants to remain in its location, rather than moving to Theodore Roosevelt Middle School where it would be merged with Elverson, another military academy. Elverson, they said, should be relocated to Leeds.

The area is easily accessed by public transit and near a newly renovated athletic site, staff wrote. Staff also cited building capacity and educational program.

"We hope that the SRC gives our proposal serious consideration when making a final decision," they wrote.

Hite said he has read every proposal and staff are doing cost analyses. He said he understands the emotion around losing a beloved home school.

The district should have begun closing buildings a long time ago as enrollment dropped and more students fled to charters, said Hite, who became superintendent this fall.

"If the district was looking at five or six schools a year," he said, "we would not be having this problem right now."

The district's five-year financial plan calls for a handful of schools to be closed each year after the massive shutdown scheduled for this year.

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.


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