New Philly schools plan: 11 schools to stay open

One of the schools added to the closure list was M.H. Stanton Elementary on N. 16th St.
One of the schools added to the closure list was M.H. Stanton Elementary on N. 16th St. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 21, 2013

Thousands of concerned city residents spoke, and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. heard them.

Eleven city schools once headed for closure, merger, or relocation will be spared under new recommendations issued Tuesday by Hite. During the course of two months, Hite said, he heard a lot of good ideas and, "naturally, those led to an amended set of recommendations."

The 11 are: AMY at James Martin, Cooke, Duckrey, Gompers, Lankenau, Meade, McCloskey, McMichael, Morris, and Overbrook Elementaries, and Strawberry Mansion High. All are located in North, Northwest, or West Philadelphia.

Two schools not on the original closure list could now be shut in June: M.H. Stanton in North Philadelphia and Beeber Middle School in West Philadelphia. And there are more changes, too - new sending schools, grade configurations, and program locations. (For an interactive map of the revised school building recommendations, click here.)

Under Hite's initial plan, issued in December, 37 buildings, or one in six city schools, would have closed, with 17,000 students affected. The new plan calls for one in eight - 29 closures across the city, with 14,000 students affected.

The new plan, still subject to School Reform Commission vote, would mean that fewer students will move from higher-performing schools to lower-performing ones.

Even with the new numbers, this would be the largest mass closing in Philadelphia School District history.

It would save the cash-strapped system less money than planned - about $24 million annually, not $27 million. It's not clear where the extra money will come from.

"We would have to look for those savings in other areas," Hite said in an interview.

The changes came after Hite and his staff heard more than 4,000 people make emotional pleas to spare various schools. Community members and elected officials submitted 38 alternative proposals, some of which factored heavily into Hite's new recommendations.

In the case of the two military academies, Elverson and Leeds, which were to merge at the old Roosevelt Middle School, a plan written by Elverson students and teachers was incorporated seemingly wholesale. The schools will still combine, but in the Elverson building, just off Temple University's main campus.

"We are very appreciative of the fact that the students were very involved in this," Hite said.

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke had made clear his displeasure with the original plan, which hit his North Philadelphia district hard. Clarke said he likes better the new recommendations - which would keep Duckrey, Meade, and Morris Elementaries open - and praised the community for its high-level involvement.

Strawberry Mansion is largely empty, but the new plan calls for it to become a "workforce development" school for adults and teens, and a place to develop a "middle college" program where teens take college courses while still in high school.

Community College of Philadelphia will partner with the district on the middle college, said Hite, who has experience with such a program, which was successfully implemented in his old school system in Prince George's County, Md.

Hite said the change of heart on Strawberry Mansion was also due in part to the fact that if it had closed, some students would have been shuffled to their third school in three years. The community had opposed the Mansion closure in particular, and Clarke said he was "encouraged by both the process and Dr. Hite's willingness to listen to organizations and parents and students. He did essentially what he should have done earlier on - a listening tour."

At the schools that received good news, the mood was jubilant. When principal Victoria Pressley got on the loudspeaker and the 380 students at McCloskey Elementary in East Mount Airy heard their school would not close after all, a delighted roar went up.

"I jumped up and down," said Lesley Young, president of McCloskey's active Home and School Association, which led the charge against closure and helped write a proposal to help convince Hite.

For the M.H. Stanton and Beeber communities, though, landing on the list after thinking they were safe was a shock.

M.H. Stanton, in North Philadelphia, was once the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, and as recently as six years ago was collecting national accolades for its success boosting academic performance of its low-income, minority students.

But the school has faltered in recent years, and Hite said he essentially flipped his first recommendation - shut Duckrey and send students to Stanton - because of Duckrey's stronger academics and attendance and lower violence rate. It also has a better building, Hite said.

Trina Benjamin, the mother of three Stanton students, lives around the corner from the school and is a graduate, as is her mother. She lamented the possible shutdown of "our neighborhood school."

"All of the parents, they need to be out rallying to keep the school open," said Benjamin, whose oldest child will graduate from Stanton in June.

Benjamin said she was concerned what the closure means for the safety of her 11- and 7-year-old children.

"I don't want my two younger ones going far and risk getting snatched," she said.

The decision to keep Overbrook and Gompers Elementaries, two relatively high-performing schools, open also means that Beeber will close outright. Previously, it was set to become a K-8 school.

But Beeber is on the state's persistently dangerous list, and parents were concerned about sending their young children there. Closing tiny Overbrook and Gompers would only have saved about $335,000, but closing Beeber saves $917,000, Hite said.

Members of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, a group organized to fight school closings, said the changes were a step in the right direction.

"It's a good thing that they've taken some of the schools off the list, but we think it's still ill-conceived," said PCAPS member Jesse Braxton, an organizer with Action United. "Closing 29 schools is still a disaster."

Members of PCAPS met with the School Reform Commission on Tuesday, Braxton said, to present more alternatives to school closings. The group has called for a one-year moratorium on closings, which two SRC members and Hite have publicly said they cannot support.

"Obviously, we don't see eye to eye with them on certain things," said Braxton, adding that PCAPS would continue a vocal push for a moratorium.

The SRC will start the closing process this week, with formal closing hearings scheduled for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The commission will vote on most of the closings on March 7, but the Beeber and M.H. Stanton closing votes will not happen until later, after those communities have an opportunity to weigh in.


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.

Inquirer staff writers Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman and Martha Woodall contributed to this article.

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