The key building blocks of the School District's new facilities master plan are now in place.
Monday night, the School Reform Commission (SRC) unanimously approved new "Adaptive Reuse" and "Rightsizing" policies without comment. Taken together, the policies will guide the District's efforts to close and sell up to 50 school buildings as part of a broad effort to reduce by half its current number of "empty seats," currently estimated at 70,000.
Bernie Rogers spends 45 minutes each day teaching inside a cramped storage closet.
Packed shoulder to shoulder, up to eight children sit in plastic chairs and hold their books and papers in their laps. Rogers stands almost directly on top of them while he conducts his supplemental reading lesson.
Only slightly more than half of students in the School District’s six current Promise Academies participate in one of the schools’ most significant – and expensive – interventions.
According to month-by-month reports released by the District this week, the median student attendance figure for the six schools’ Saturday school programming was 54 percent. The schools are open for two four-hour Saturday sessions a month, which are used for both academics and enrichment activities.
District officials set off alarm bells across the city last month when they announced as part of their facilities master planning process that the new recommended student enrollment for high schools will be between 1,000 and 1,200 students.
With only five of the District’s 61 high schools currently falling within that range, the announcement seemed to portend sweeping changes – and perhaps the end of Philadelphia’s small high schools.
The School District is pushing forward with plans to add more Promise Academies despite the worst budget climate in recent memory and inconclusive data about the model’s impact on student achievement thus far.
A parent spoke, and the School Reform Commission listened.
In an unusual, instantaneous response to public testimony, the SRC voted Wednesday to table until June decisions about the District’s new proposed Adaptive Reuse and Rightsizing policies regarding the closing of schools and the disposal of vacated properties.
The teaching staffs at Philadelphia’s first group of Renaissance Schools are younger, less experienced, and significantly less likely to be fully certified than they were prior to the schools being “turned around.”
At the same time, according to a new report, the seven externally managed Renaissance charter schools and six District-run Promise Academies have better student attendance and clearer expectations for student behavior than they did previously. The schools have also used an injection of new resources to improve their physical appearance and provide an influx of non-teaching adults who contribute to improved school climates.
The District plans to inform the School Reform Commission that it wants teachers in Promise Academies to be exempt from layoffs.
"The District’s recommendation is to make Promise Academy teachers part of the protected class. This recommendation will be shared with the SRC," said a statement from spokesperson Elizabeth Childs. It is unclear whether this means that the SRC will need to approve the recommendation.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan immediately responded that the union will fight this. He said that there is no language in the contract to justify singling out one group of teachers to make them members of a protected class.
The School District has revised its proposed policy governing the sale of shuttered District buildings so that it can offer discounts to some prospective buyers, but not disclose the amount of any such discounts to the public.
The School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote on the “Adaptive Reuse Policy” on Wednesday. The policy will govern the sale of up to 50 District buildings expected to be closed in the next three years.
The School District of Philadelphia hopes to preserve its declining ability to manage the growth of charter schools by offering a discount on unused school buildings only to charters that agree not to expand their enrollment.
But will charter school operators – who are gaining growing clout under the school-choice-focused Corbett administration – go for it?
ASPIRA, Inc. plans to reunite Olney East and Olney West High Schools.
The School Advisory Councils (SACs) at both Olney East and Olney West High Schools have voted to approve the plans, which still need SRC approval, said ASPIRA Executive Director Alfredo Calderon.
But "in the new year, they will be one high school," said a hopeful Calderon on Tuesday.
The School Reform Commission voted Wednesday to allow Universal Companies to operate Audenried High and Vare Middle schools as charter schools beginning next year.
The vote was 3-0, with SRC Chairman Robert Archie abstaining. Because of his longstanding ties to Universal, Archie recused himself from the vote – but not before publicly championing the organization.
The School Reform Commission plans to vote Wednesday on a South Philadelphia charter school deal that stands to benefit not one, but two nonprofits with ties to Chairman Robert Archie.
The scheduled vote comes amid controversy over Archie's behind-the-scenes conduct in a similar deal involving Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Germantown. There, Archie took part in pivotal private meetings about the future of the school despite having recused himself from public votes because of his law firm's prior representation of Foundations, Inc., one of the operators vying to manage the school.
Although they are facing a $629 million budget shortfall, District officials are adamant that their facilities master plan is not about saving money, but completely redesigning the way the District does business.
Rather than seek targeted school closures, say officials, they hope to dispose of up to 50 buildings, change grade configurations, meet new school size guidelines, alter feeder patterns, and radically overhaul the way the District delivers career and technical education, special education, early childhood education, services for English language learners, and athletics.
But with no money and a scheduled 50 percent cut in central office staff, will they be able to make it work – and should they try?
Even if your school isn’t likely to be closed, that doesn’t mean it won’t be affected by the District’s facilities master planning process.
Just ask the folks at LaBrum Middle in Northeast Philadelphia and Simon Gratz High in North Philadelphia.
Though neither of those schools is being shut down, both are set for significant changes as part of the District’s first set of “right-sizing” recommendations. LaBrum is being folded into its feeder school, Hancock Elementary, while Gratz is poised to add grades 6-8.