‘We’re not giving up,’ foes of Philly school closings say

Posted: March 22, 2013

Yes, the School Reform Commission has already voted to shut 23 Philadelphia public schools. But the pressure to halt those actions will continue, activists said Thursday.

"We're not giving up the fight against school closings," said retired teacher Ron Whitehorne, fresh off a court appearance on disorderly conduct charges lodged against him and 18 others - including national teachers union president Randi Weingarten - on March 7, the day of the closure votes.

Weingarten, who with the rest of the group is set for trial in May, said the large-scale closings were part of a larger plan for the Philadelphia School District.

"It is clear to us that this massive plan to close schools has nothing to do with the education of the children of Philadelphia," Weingarten said. That plan, she said, is to further weaken and ultimately undermine public education.

She led the 19 in a march to City Hall, where they presented an anti-closing petition with thousands of signatures to representatives of Mayor Nutter's office. The mayor is out of town.

Later, at an SRC meeting, others urged the panel to amend the closing plan. Kaseem Davis, a student at Carroll High, a closing school, said Carroll students should be kept together, moved wholesale into Penn Treaty Middle School.

The district's proposal is to expand Penn Treaty to a sixth-through-12th-grade school, but to allow Carroll students to go there or to the Kensington complex of high schools.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he would meet again with the Carroll students - who angrily left the meeting after they were not allowed to speak longer than their allotted time - but SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said the school closings were not up for discussion.

"I don't want to give the impression that the SRC is reopening decisions it's already made," Ramos said.

Another speaker, Orlando Acosta, said the closings were wrong for Philadelphia.

"How do you go home and say to yourself, 'I did my job?' " Acosta said.

The closings are necessary, officials said, to address a budget situation so dire that the district had to borrow $300 million recently just to pay its bills for the rest of the year.

The SRC also took heat from parents and teachers over Head Start programs the district plans to privatize.

Members of the Trinidad Head Start facility, a district-run program in North Philadelphia, waved signs, cheered for their school, and denounced the move.

Renee Queen Jackson, the district's head of early childhood education, earlier this year announced a plan to shift 2,000 district Head Start students into private day-care programs. The outsourcing is necessary, she said, to save the $8 million that is being cut from the district's preschool budget. Without the switch, the district would be able to serve fewer children.

"The main goal is to preserve high-quality pre-K programming here in the city of Philadelphia," Queen Jackson said at the meeting. Private providers spend $8,300 per Head Start student; the district spends more than $11,000 per student, not including facilities costs, but Queen Jackson said the district would ensure that the quality of education will not suffer.

Members of the Trinidad community disagreed.

"They're selling our kids," someone shouted during the Head Start discussion.

If children are moved to private providers, parent LisMari Torres and others suggested, the quality of education will decline.

"You have a responsibility to put our children first," Torres said. "These children who have the least deserve the most."

The SRC also heard pleas from parents in the city's Fairmount section, who want the district to expand the catchment of Bache-Martin, a well-regarded school, to take all students from the neighborhood.

They gave officials a proposal to achieve their goal, which community members said would help keep middle-class families in Philadelphia.

"All children deserve to go to a school like Bache-Martin," said Rebecca Johnson of the Fairmount Community Development Corp.


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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