What will become of Philly schools?

Con­cerned res­id­ents ques­tioned school of­fi­cials on over­haul plan at in­put meet­ing.

Neigh­bors hop­ing to learn more about the Phil­adelphia School Dis­trict’s trans­form­a­tion plan – a bru­tal­iz­ing over­haul that calls for the clos­ure of 40 pub­lic schools this year as well as the an­nu­al shut­down of six schools every fol­low­ing year through 2017 – were seem­ingly left search­ing for an­swers after a com­munity in­put meet­ing held Wed­nes­day, May 2 at Kens­ing­ton High School for the Cre­at­ive and Per­form­ing Arts, at 1901 N. Front St.

Dur­ing the meet­ing, res­id­ents noted that ele­ments of the over­haul plan were so vague that dis­trict of­fi­cials had few clear an­swers to provide.For ex­ample, one ele­ment of the plan is what Phil­adelphia School Dis­trict of­fi­cials are call­ing “Achieve­ment Net­works,” which would be group­ings of pub­lic schools.

Of­fi­cials that even­ing re­ferred to this idea as a way to “de­cent­ral­ize” the school dis­trict – i.e., get im­port­ant de­cision mak­ing for schools out of the dis­trict’s Cen­ter City headquar­ters and in­to the hands of those in charge of these net­works.

Yet how these schools would be or­gan­ized isn’t clear. Thomas Knud­sen, chief re­cov­ery of­ficer for the PSD, said schools could be grouped by 20 or 30, by re­gion, grade levels, school types – like vo­ca­tion­al and art schools – or oth­er cat­egor­ies.

Some in the audi­ence wor­ried that these “Achieve­ment Net­works” signaled a plan to privat­ize pub­lic schools, however, Knud­sen countered that the idea is just a “frame­work of sup­port” at the mo­ment, and the schools would re­main pub­lic, and would not be­come charters or privately con­trolled in­sti­tu­tions.

“This is a blue­print. It’s a blue­print, not a fin­ished house,” he said. “There’s no struc­ture, yet, for the Achieve­ment Net­works.”

In fact, he said the net­work idea is so fresh, it wouldn’t likely be im­ple­men­ted un­til 2014, with per­haps a pi­lot pro­gram be­gun next year to see test it out.

An­oth­er con­cern was spe­cif­ics about the 40 schools that would close – which ones are they? Have they already been se­lec­ted? If not, how would they be?

No schools have yet been an­nounced as one of these 40 to close, but Dari­enne Driver, the school dis­trict’s deputy of cur­riculum, said the schools would be se­lec­ted through the dis­trict’s School Per­form­ance In­dex.

Knud­sen de­fen­ded the clos­ures, =say­ing that the clos­ure of 40 schools would re­turn $33 mil­lion in­to the school dis­trict’s budget.

“We aren’t clos­ing schools, we are clos­ing build­ings,” he said, not­ing that the school dis­trict has lost 25 per­cent of its over­all en­roll­ment since the mid-nineties, mostly due to stu­dents mov­ing to charter schools.

“We didn’t downs­ize to cor­rect that,” he said.

Knud­sen said that a list of the 40 schools slated for clos­ure would be avail­able some­time in the late sum­mer.

Dur­ing the even­ing, Knud­sen presen­ted a budget plan, show­ing res­id­ents how the school dis­trict plans to make cuts to its budget of more than $2.5 bil­lion.

Its op­er­at­ing budget will be cut by $122 mil­lion, with school clos­ures and “mod­ern­iz­ing cus­todi­al ser­vices, main­ten­ance and trans­port­a­tion” at the heart of these cuts.

The school’s per­son­nel budget will be cut by $156 mil­lion, through a re­struc­ture of wages and the school dis­trict’s em­ploy­ee be­ne­fits pro­gram.

The pub­lic charters pro­gram, through its Per Pu­pil Pay­ment Pro­gram will see $149 mil­lion in cuts through a sev­en per­cent re­duc­tion and three-year freeze of per pu­pil re­pay­ment – the state man­dates that the dis­trict provide fund­ing for charters,taken from state school funds, per stu­dent - while the budget still holds out hope that Phil­adelphia’s Ac­tu­al Value Ini­ti­at­ive – a pro­pos­al that could re­as­sess home val­ues throughout the city - could be passed by City Coun­cil.

That ini­ti­at­ive could see an ad­di­tion­al $94 mil­lion gen­er­ated for the PSD.

“There is money avail­able with your neigh­bors. Maybe it’s with you,” said Knud­sen, talk­ing about the school dis­trict’s need for ad­di­tion­al funds through the AVI.

Lisa Haver, a former school teach­er, who now lives on East Oak Lane, com­plained that the school dis­trict and the School Re­form Com­mis­sion of­fi­cials had the au­da­city to de­liv­er a half-baked plan that provided few an­swers to many of the com­munity’s con­cerns.

“This is a ma­jor, ma­jor over­haul of the school dis­trict,” she said. “And we are sup­posed to take this whole pack­age without know­ing what it’s about…It’s like that old say­ing that you need to des­troy a vil­lage in or­der to save it.”

Ron White­horne, a re­tired teach­er and loc­al res­id­ent, said he wanted to know why last week’s dis­cus­sion fo­cused on the school’s loss of fund­ing and its dire straights in look­ing for new money, when the dis­trict’s an­nu­al budget is still in the bil­lions.

“This plan is an aus­ter­ity plan that says, as I see it, ‘Get used to it, be­cause this is the best we can do,’” he said.

Yet, while ele­ments of the over­haul may still need to be defined, Wendell Pritch­ett, of the School Re­form Com­mis­sion, countered that the trans­form­a­tion plan was cre­ated as a re­sponse to a chan­ging en­vir­on­ment, one that would put de­cision mak­ing power back in­to the hands of loc­al schools and their prin­cipals.

“I agree with you. I think it’s a dis­grace the way the state is fund­ing edu­ca­tion,” he said. “When you want to go to Har­ris­burg, I will be there with you…But, I re­fuse to be­lieve that we can’t provide a qual­ity edu­ca­tion with 2.5 bil­lion dol­lars.”

Star Staff Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be con­tac­ted at 215-354-3124 or hmit­man@bsmphilly.com.

If you’re go­ing:

Rep­res­ent­at­ives from the Phil­adelphia School Dis­trict and the School Re­form Com­mis­sion will be meet­ing with res­id­ents to dis­cuss the school dis­trict’s budget and the trans­form­a­tion pro­pos­al throughout the month of May.

Up­com­ing meet­ings will be held:

-Thursday, May 10 from 6 to 8 p.m. at West Phil­adelphia High School, 4901 Chest­nut St.

-Sat­urday, May 12 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at South Phil­adelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St.

-Tues­day, May 15 from 6 to 8 p.m. at North­east High School, 1601 Cottman Ave.

-Thursday, May 24 from 6 to 8 p.m., at Girls High School, 1400 W. Ol­ney Ave.

On Wed­nes­day, May 16, at the school dis­trict’s edu­ca­tion cen­ter at 440 N. Broad St., at 5:30 p.m., there will be a meet­ing of the School Re­form Com­mis­sion that is open to the pub­lic.

For more in­form­a­tion or if you have ques­tions or com­ments, e-mail sdptrans­form­a­tion@philasd.org or vis­it www.philasd.org/sdptrans­form­a­tion.

You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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