A look at a scary walk by students

Walking through the neighborhood to Rhodes Elementary are (from left) Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., SRC member Sylvia Simms, and Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey.
Walking through the neighborhood to Rhodes Elementary are (from left) Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., SRC member Sylvia Simms, and Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

To explore worries on getting to a new school if Peirce is shut, Hite and others walked the route.

Posted: March 04, 2013

Sylvia Simms pointed out the drug corners. She noted the halfway houses, boarded-up buildings, where the registered sex offenders live. She paused briefly near the schoolyard where, in 2004, a third grader caught in a shootout between rival gang members was killed.

At one point, a resident spotted a police car slowly cruising down Indiana Street and angrily shouted, "You've got to clean up the drugs up here!"

"This," the newest School Reform Commission member said, "is my community."

Walking beside Simms, School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. took it all in.

On Thursday, Simms and the four other members of the School Reform Commission must decide whether to close 29 public schools, including T.M. Peirce, the North Philadelphia elementary that Simms' granddaughter attends. She and other community members have concerns about the walk Peirce students would have to take to their new schools, either Rhodes or Kenderton.

So last week, Hite and Simms walked from 19th and Lehigh to Rhodes, at 29th and Clearfield, the school that most students would likely attend. It was a 35-minute journey, more than a mile one way.

"That's a good little walk, especially for young children," Hite said. "Especially if they have to walk alone."

Simms plotted the course, avoiding Lehigh Avenue on purpose. The two - trailed by city police cars with lights flashing and four school police officers, including Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey - took Somerset, and Indiana, and smaller blocks children were likely to use.

"Lehigh has a lot of lights and traffic and halfway houses, and kids from Dobbins [High]," Simms said. "You have to think about safety."

At Rhodes, they met up with Antoine Little, whose two children attend Peirce. Little has been outspoken about his safety fears if Peirce closes, and at the most recent SRC meeting, he implored officials to take the walk with him.

Little's wife would be able to drop off their prekindergartner and sixth grader at Rhodes in the morning, he said, but the children would have to walk home on their own.

Is he comfortable with that?

"Absolutely not," said Little.

But he was heartened by Hite's presence, and the superintendent's making good on his promise to literally walk in Philadelphia students' shoes.

"There is genuine concern," said Little.

Simms nodded. The closings weighed on her mind well before she was appointed to the SRC in late January. She had also asked Hite to walk to Rhodes with her.

"It was a concern for me as a grandmother," said Simms, the founder of the Parent Power organization and a former Philadelphia School District bus aide. When she first heard Peirce landed on the closing list, "I said, 'There is no way - my grandbaby is not walking to Rhodes.' "

But the district has an estimated 53,000 empty seats, and is near the brink of financial disaster. Simms the SRC member has more complex concerns to weigh than Simms the grandmother.

State law forces the district to bus any student whose school is 1.5 miles away from their home, or any student who has to cross a hazardous route to get to school.

But neither of those conditions applies to the Peirce-to-Rhodes walk. And providing buses costs money, which eats into the savings the district says it needs to survive.

Technically, the decision on Peirce, a struggling school that's losing enrollment, is out of Hite's hands now. The superintendent has already made his final recommendations to the SRC, amending his initial proposal from 37 schools closing to 29. (The Peirce recommendation was unchanged.)

But after the walk, Hite said he would ask his staff to look at the route again, noting the drug activity, the registered sex offenders.

"This certainly would be a candidate for consideration for transportation," he said.

Hite was clear, though - schools must close, and the district can't shoulder the burden alone for keeping students safe.

"It's unfair to make it just a district problem," Hite said. "It's a public-safety problem."

To that end, his staff has begun working with the city and the Police Department to come up with plans for safe corridors on new walking routes, Hite said. Community groups will also be key.

As the clock ticks down to the vote, the pressure on Hite and Simms and the rest of the SRC is enormous. Those who oppose the school-closing plan, including a well-organized group that's pushing hard for a one-year moratorium, held protests, rallies, and meetings all over the city last week; that pressure will only intensify this week.

As for Simms, she's doing all the reading she can, she said. The district bottom line has got to be a major consideration, and she's thinking about her granddaughter, and all the other kids in the city.

It's a lot to balance.

But in the end, she said, "I'm going to have to look myself in the mirror."


Follow along

as Superintendent William Hite travels from 19th and Lehigh to 29th

and Clearfield www.philly.com/srcwalk


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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