Protesters interrupt a meeting to decry proposed Philadelphia school closings

Teachers, students, and parents interrupt a meeting of the School Reform Commission to protest the district's plan to close 29 schools. The SRC is to vote on the plan March 7.
Teachers, students, and parents interrupt a meeting of the School Reform Commission to protest the district's plan to close 29 schools. The SRC is to vote on the plan March 7. (SHUMITA BASU / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 23, 2013

As the march toward the largest mass school closing in Philadelphia history continues, the voices of detractors grow louder.

Thursday night, the voices were very loud indeed.

First, about 100 people burst into a School Reform Commission meeting with bullhorns and signs, interrupting a resolution recognizing National School Counseling Week.

"Our children are not for sale!" the group chanted, waving pictures of Gov. Corbett and Mayor Nutter, whom the protesters accused of having a school-privatization agenda that the commission is now pushing. "SRC, not for me!"

The commission is scheduled to vote March 7 on controversial recommendations to shut 29 schools and order relocations and other changes at dozens more. About 14,000 students would be affected.

That's down from 37 school-closing recommendations. Earlier this week, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. amended his plan, saying the input of 4,000 community members had swayed his thinking.

Protesters said officials were not listening hard enough. Many have called for a one-year moratorium on closings, though Hite and some SRC members have said the district cannot afford to wait to shed some of its 53,000 excess seats.

The crowd angrily accused SRC members of living in neighborhoods untouched by school closings. (The newest commissioner, Sylvia Simms, lives in North Philadelphia, an area with a large number of schools slated for closure, including T.M. Peirce, which her granddaughter attends.)

After the SRC concluded its formal business - including voting to adopt a policy of not hiring vendors who owe the city back taxes - the crowd of dissenters grew and took to the street outside the district's headquarters. A few hundred people shut down part of North Broad Street as dozens of police looked on.

The protesters turned to face the building. "Shame on you," they shouted.

Then the SRC began three days of formal school closing hearings. Hite underscored the system's dire straits.

"The district's financial challenges jeopardize its survival," Hite said. "This also means that the district lacks the means to invest in our students and schools in the manner that both deserve. We must address both issues now."

For two years, Hite said, officials have planned for closures. The recommendations were not made lightly, he said: "I understand the challenges that closing a facility or program causes families."

One by one, the speakers made their cases for individual schools. Many urged the SRC to consider the human cost of its forthcoming decisions.

Andrew Saltz, a teacher at Robeson High for Human Services in University City, helped lead a group of students and teachers that opposes closing the Robeson building and moving its program inside Sayre High.

"Programs are not people," Saltz told the SRC. He said that his group polled more than 250 Robeson families and that barely one in 10 said they would move their children to Sayre, which has landed on the state's persistently dangerous list.

Dave Joseph, a ninth grader at Lamberton, a K-12 school in Overbrook Park, opposes moving the school's high schoolers to Overbrook High.

"Transferring us to a new school is not beneficial to our education," Joseph said. "We students are not numbers or seats to be filled."

Moving Lamberton's high schoolers would not save much money; the district will keep the Lamberton building open for K-8 students, Joseph noted.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky asked for clarification on that point. Danielle Floyd, the district official in charge of closings, said the high school closure was due to Lamberton's poor academic performance and an excess of seats at Overbrook. Some savings would result as a result of staff cuts.

Some speakers, among them Magdalena Cancel, a Head Start teacher at Taylor School in North Philadelphia, were emotional.

"I don't know what you're thinking," said Cancel, whose four children also attended Taylor. She also asked why the district might shut a school where the Hamels Foundation, the charity founded by Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels and his wife, Heidi, recently invested significant money in a new playground.

She said the district conducted business behind closed doors and made decisions without real community input.

"We don't know until the decision is already done," Cancel said. "That's unfair. It's unprofessional."

Some voiced concerns about the distances students would have to walk to new schools if their current buildings are closed. Antoine Little, a parent at Peirce School in North Philadelphia, said many students would have a 35- to 45-minute walk to their new schools, either Rhodes or Kenderton.

"These closures will affect our children more than you will ever know," Little said.

He invited the superintendent to walk the route with him. Hite later said that Simms, the new SRC member, extended the same invitation, and he said he would take the walk with her next week.

Rashon Moore, a parent of a student at the Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds, which would merge with the district's military academy at Elverson in the Elverson building, disagrees with the recommendation and urged the SRC to reconsider it.

Moore also acknowledged the huge task in front of the SRC.

"I wouldn't want to be in your shoes," Moore said.

The hearings are scheduled to continue all day Friday and Saturday.


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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