by Dale Mezzacappa on Feb 24 2012
After four months, 21 meetings , and testimony from hundreds of people, the School Reform Commission is getting ready for the last phase of the process that could lead to the closure of as many as nine schools at the end of this school year.
The final public meeting – with people concerned about the proposed closing of the Levering Elementary School in Roxborough – took place Thursday night. In total, some 1,400 people turned out.
The District originally scheduled 17 meetings, but added four more, including the Thursday meeting at Levering.
“This was one of the most extensive outreaches we’ve done with any types of closings,” said Danielle Floyd, the District’s deputy for strategic initiatives. Floyd has taken the lead on this project.
She added that she was “really pleased with the level of engagement that we had. School closing meetings tend not to be the most friendly environments. But I felt the people who participated were thoughtful, engaging, respectful, asked good questions, and gave good feedback. I was pleasantly surprised by that.”
Floyd attended every meeting, and nearly all were attended by at least one SRC member. Her office is in the process of compiling detailed reports, including transcripts and written commentaries, to present to the five SRC members in advance of a day-long session March 3.
On that day, there will be nine separate hearings , one for each school, starting with E.M. Stanton Elementary at 8:30 a.m. and running through to Levering Elementary at 5 p.m.
There will also be a hearing at 6 p.m. regarding the proposed relocation of AMY Northwest from rented space in Mount Airy to the Levering building.
Floyd said that there is no plan for staff to change any of its recommendations before March 3 based on the input so far.
“Our recommendations are the same,” she said. “Right now we haven’t made any changes. I don’t believe we will. I believe schools will use the opportunity [on March 3] to push for a different outcome than recommended,” she said.
The District invited school communities to make counterproposals if they opposed closing, and one – E.M. Stanton – has done so. Representatives from Stanton, in distinctive yellow T-shirts, attended almost every meeting to fight for their school.
Floyd said she expects Levering to also make a counterproposal to co-locate with AMY Northwest in the existing building. Sheppard Elementary has not made a counterproposal, but has asked to stay open based on the success of the program at the school now, its family atmosphere, and the role it plays as an anchor and refuge in a difficult neighborhood.
Residents in North Philadelphia expressed concern that phasing out the high schools at Rhoads and FitzSimons and sending all students to Strawberry Mansion would exacerbate neighborhood rivalries. And some students and parents spoke up for maintaining the separate boys and girls academies that had existed at Rhoads and FitzSimons since first taken over by Victory Schools in 2002. The District kept the single-sex environment after Victory left.
Regarding the other schools - Drew, Harrison, Sheridan West, Pepper Middle, and the High School for Business - there has been little organized opposition. Parents, community members, and elected officials have turned out to ask about transition plans for the students and alternate plans for the buildings. At the February 16 SRC meeting, State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas questioned the District's plan for closing Harrison, which is in his North Philadelphia district.
The SRC plans to take a final vote on March 29. At its February 16 meeting, it exercised its extraordinary powers and suspended the school code so it would not have to wait three months between the formal hearing and the final vote.
Floyd said she has received little opposition to that move.
“Whatever is approved, people want time to plan for reassignments for students, figuring out transportation routes, and visiting new schools ahead of time,” she said.
Plus, the vote will be taken before teacher hiring and reassignment for next year gets underway.
Anyone who wants to speak at the hearings on March 3 is encouraged to sign up with the SRC , Floyd said.
She added: “It will be the longest day of my life.”