Hundreds of parents, students and teachers from Northwest Philadelphia schools crowded into the Martin Luther King High School auditorium for a meeting where Superintendent William Hite and district officials responded to concerns about a plan to close 37 school buildings and relocate or reconfigure dozens more.

Hite sat at the front of the auditorium with district officials Karyn Lynch and Danielle Floyd, who have been instrumental in developing the plan. Behind them was a screen showing performance figures for the schools being consolidated.

Many in the crowd held up signs and broke out into occasional cheers as dozens of representatives from eight Northwest Philadelphia schools took the microphone in designated two-minute time slots.

Crowd response

Parents voiced concerns about the safety of young children, many of whom would walk more than a mile and a half to their new schools, some through unsafe neighborhoods.

"Small children will be walking across large, busy streets to get to school. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?" Aikia Adams asked district officials.

Lynch, the district's chief of student support services, pointed out that "we are starting this process early in order to help address these individual concerns."

Hite, who was hired in July, announced the plan in December. He said his decision was prompted by the number of empty seats in schools and a looming billion-dollar budget deficit if spending could not be curbed. The student population has declined by 60,000 pupils, many of the school buildings are underutilized and the 2013 budget is projected to be $1.2 billion less it was in 2011.

While improving academics is a top priority, the district must become financially stable, he said.

During a recent appearance on Radio Times, he noted, "We are concerned about [students'] educational outcomes but equally important is our ability to operate within our financial means."

In response to the question at MLK, the superintendent noted that, "I do think we have to investigate every route to school students would be taking. However, we can't do that until SRC [School Reform Commission] votes on the changes in March."

Opposition to GHS closure apparent

Many parents and members of the affected schools — Fulton, McCloskey, Leeds, Germantown High School, Lankenau and two military academies were among those discussed — claimed the district's plan fails to recognize the overall needs of the community.

"I don't think they thought this through thoroughly," said Vera Primus, president of the Germantown High School Alumni Association. "There is a lot of misrepresentation about Germantown High School. They need to actually come and visit our school to see what we are all about."

At a previous session, Hite said he would, in fact, meet with GHS supporters at some point in the near future.

As Primus spoke, the screen behind Hite displayed extremely low proficiency scores in reading and math for GHS. Primus claimed those scores were inaccurate and not up-to-date.

Joining Primus in opposition was GHS senior Aliyah Muhammad.

"I would like to come back in the future and contribute to my school," she said. "We are a family and if you shut us down, it will have major consequences on the neighborhood."