Hite: New plan will result in fewer students moving to lower-performing schools
February 19, 2013By Dale Mezzacappa of Public School Notebook
Audio interview with Ben Herold/WHYY
"We will have to look for those savings in other areas."
-- William Hite, superintendent, Philadelphia School District, on the fact that the revised plan means that the District will have to cut an additional $3.5 million annually in order to meet its five-year goals for reaching budget balance
The revised school closings plan to shutter 29 instead of 37 schools will save less money but will result in fewer students being transferred to lower-performing schools and traveling more dangerous routes, according to Superintendent William Hite.
The new plan "is a result of listening to a lot of input from the community," Hite said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning. "We had lots of proposals, not just from the community, but from elected officials ... and we analyzed those to see if, in fact, they were better recommendations."
About 4,000 people attended community meetings around the city.
If the revised plans are adopted, about 14,000 students — instead of 17,000 — will be displaced.
The North Philadelphia effect
The revised plan offers an altered blueprint for North Philadelphia, which was slated to lose 11 elementary schools and Strawberry Mansion High School, creating what some had complained was an "education desert" in one of the city's neediest areas. Five schools in the neighborhood were spared.
Hite said the District is working with Community College of Philadelphia to create a "middle college and workforce development" program at Mansion — now at just 25 percent utilization — which is similar to one he started in Prince George's County, Md.
The new program may be ready as early as the second semester of the next school year.
"A lot of things have to fall into place," he said.
He said he was confident this "upgrade" would help increase enrollment at the school, as would the decision to redirect students from the closure of Vaux High School to Mansion instead of to Benjamin Franklin High School.
Plus, he said, officials took into account that some students had just transferred into Strawberry Mansion when Rhodes and FitzSimons high schools were closed last year.
"We didn't want to further impact those students by moving them a second time, and in a few cases, a third time during their high school career," he said.
Elementary schools spared
North Philadelphia's Meade, Duckrey and Morris elementary schools will now stay open, while M.H. Stanton is proposed to close instead. Hite said that the decision took into account that Duckrey has somewhat higher performance, better daily attendance, fewer violent incidents and safer walking routes for students than Stanton.
In addition to Stanton, Beeber Middle School has been added to the closure list, while Overbrook and Gompers elementary schools will stay open. The Overbrook and Gompers students were slated to transfer into Beeber, which is on the state's "persistently dangerous" list.
"We were going to convert three schools in that catchment to one," Hite said.
However, after public outcry, the revision is meant to "allow two relatively well-performing schools an opportunity to remain and flourish in their buildings. And by closing Beeber, we remove another persistently dangerous school," he said.
He said that closing Beeber instead of the others would result in a net savings of about $600,000 a year.
Sam Reed, a Notebook blogger and teacher at Beeber, said that the staff planned to meet after school to contemplate its next steps.
"My head is still kind of spinning," he said, adding that at the community meetings, "you could hear loud and clear that they didn't think it was a good idea for elementary kids to be coming into here."
But sending the 7th and 8th graders to Overbrook High, as the revised plan recommends, "creates another problem," he said, due to limited research on how that benefits the younger students. "Whatever happens, the transition is going to be rocky," he said.
Although some changes, like the one involving Beeber, Gompers, and Overbrook, will actually save the District money, Hite said, the overall impact of the revisions will reduce the planned savings from $28 million to $24.5 million annually, starting in 2015.
Officials have acknowledged that the full savings will not be reached next fiscal year due to "substantial" one-time transition costs. No estimate of those costs has been offered.
The revised plan means that the District will have to cut an additional $3.5 million annually in order to meet its five-year goals for reaching budget balance.
"We will have to look for those savings in other areas," Hite said.
He said that the District is finalizing plans to "make certain things available" in the receiving schools, including options for before- and after-care, focused early literacy, technological upgrades, music and arts.
"Schools will have at least three of those five things, depending on the populations they serve," he said.
Hearings will be held Feb. 21-23, and the School Reform Commission will vote March 7, as planned, on the 27 closures announced earlier. The date for hearings and the vote on Stanton and Beeber will be announced later.
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