In tense meeting, SRC votes to close 23 schools, spare 4

Posted: March 08, 2013

In a tense, dramatic conclusion to a months-long battle, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted Thursday night to close 23 schools across the city - and spare four it had considered shutting.

Taylor and T.M. Peirce Elementaries in North Philadelphia, Roosevelt Middle School in Germantown, and Robeson High School in Southwest Philadelphia were all on the chopping block but will stay open.

The vote capped a long series of protests, rallies, and public outcries against what appears to be one of the largest mass school closings in the nation's history. And it happened after 19 people, including American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, were arrested when they tried to block SRC members' entrance into the meeting.

Earlier, addressing a crowd that officials estimated numbered at least 700 and that shut down parts of North Broad Street, Weingarten was adamant.

"Philadelphia is being watched across the country," she shouted, standing on a concrete pillar outside the Philadelphia School District's headquarters. "This is a city that is under fire."

After the final votes were taken, the audience erupted.

"Shame on you!" people shouted. "SRC needs to go!"

Retired teacher Lisa Haver, a lifelong city resident, told the SRC that it was "the saddest day ever."

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said the large number of closings was the result of years of delayed decisions and a financial crisis for the district, which recently borrowed $300 million just to pay its bills for the rest of the year.

Ramos said the night was "excruciating, difficult, and emotional for all of us. Nobody wants to do this - much less at this scale."

But, he said, it would have been irresponsible for the SRC to have put off the closings for a year, as many had called for.

Initially, 37 school buildings were proposed to shut at the end of the school year, but Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. amended his recommendations late last month.

Now begins the work of shutting 23 buildings and executing other changes - merging the district's military academies into one facility, the Elverson building in North Philadelphia; relocating Parkway Northwest High into the Leeds Middle School building in East Mount Airy and Motivation High into the Turner Middle School building in West Philadelphia; and moving Abigail Vare School into the George Washington Elementary facility in Southwark.

Before the final decisions were made, emotional parents, students, and community members made individual pleas for dozens of schools slated to close. Ultimately, the SRC was moved by four arguments.

Robeson, a small magnet school in Southwest Philadelphia with high admission standards, was to shut, and its vocational programs were to merge into Sayre High. But it is a much safer and more successful school than Sayre - its graduation rate is 90 percent, for instance, to Sayre's 53 percent.

"I refuse to fall to the low expectations," Sayre student Totiana Myers told the SRC. "Do your job and vote against this proposal."

Roosevelt seemed to be spared largely because the district staff had proposed shutting down every school in central Germantown, a move that many, including public officials, said would devastate the neighborhood.

But the SRC voted to shut Germantown High, which would have celebrated its 100th anniversary next year, and Fulton Elementary, across the street from the high school.

"I think what is about to happen will have a catastrophic effect on public education in Philadelphia," City Councilwoman Cindy Bass told the SRC.

It was not clear Thursday night whether additional grades would move into the Roosevelt building.

Bayard Taylor Elementary had not received as much public attention as the other closing schools; one supporter suggested that was because many of its families' first language was not English, and advocacy was not easy for them.

But it is a special place, said longtime teacher Debra Perry - a place where staffers make sure no family ever wants for a holiday meal, a place where children are valued and loved, not just taught. It has a $300,000 new playground built by Phillies star Cole Hamels' foundation, too.

Perry and others objected to the district's proposal to send students to Roberto Clemente, a worse-performing school. Several SRC members appeared to share that opinion.

After the vote to save Taylor, its supporters hugged and wept.

Debra B. Drossner, the school's principal, said many people told her that the decisions were "a done deal." But she "had to believe we had a shot. I had to believe in the process."

Safety concerns featured prominently in saving T.M. Peirce. The granddaughter of Sylvia Simms, the newest SRC member, attends the school, and Simms had spoken out against sending children on a long walk in a tough neighborhood to either of two alternatives, Rhodes Elementary or Kenderton Elementary.

Last week, Simms and Hite took the walk students would have to take if Peirce were closed, and Hite said he found it long and dangerous for children.

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, who seemed to have the most trouble with many closing proposals, said he was uncomfortable with sending children from Peirce to Kenderton, a long-struggling school that officials just announced would be turned into a charter school next fall.

"I regard the proposal as unsound," said Dworetzky, "and I won't support it."

He also voiced concerns about closing three "Promise Academies," historically low-performing schools in which the district has invested extra resources to attempt a turnaround. Germantown, University City, and Vaux High Schools fell into that category, but were closed.

"I don't think that we should lightly abandon schools that we've made Promise Academies," he said, citing significant improvements in school climate and modest improvements in academics at those schools.

All of the closings drew boos from the audience, but the three Promise Academy closures seemed to cause particular anguish.

Germantown teacher Jeremy Wright, who attended the meeting with more than 75 students, said he was angry and fearful for teens who would be sent to Martin Luther King High, a traditional rival.

"The decision to close Germantown and the other 22 schools hurts our weakest in Philadelphia," Wright said after the meeting. "We need to surround these kids with the best resources and teachers, but instead, we move them into buildings with kids who do not like them and neighborhoods which have been feuding for decades."

Community activist Pamela Williams was enraged when the SRC voted to close University City.

"Shut this city down!" she shouted, walking away incredulously. "Shut this city down!"


Contact Kristen Graham

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

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