In making multiple visits to Philadelphia, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has shown he isn’t afraid to take the fight deep inside a longtime Democratic stronghold. And Romney’s campaign is attacking President Barack Obama’s stance on the one issue most critical to the majority of Philadelphians: public education.
Romney visited Guion S. Bluford Elementary School in West Philadelphia — a Renaissance School matched with a “turnaround” team led by Universal Companies and its founder, Kenny Gamble — on Thursday. In declaring that African-American schools need more money, Romney ripped a page from Obama’s playbook by bringing the conversation to the group of people affected the most.
The Republican presidential candidate visited the school a day after declaring education is the “civil rights issue of our era.”
Romney repeated that declaration during the school visit, but struggled to defend his view that class sizes aren’t a major factor in educational success. Local African-American leaders also said his push for more two-parent families isn’t realistic in their community.
As of press time, officials with Universal haven’t returned calls seeking comment. The School District of Philadelphia also wasn’t aware of Romney’s visit. Bluford sits in City Councilman Curtis Jones’ 4th district, and during Thursday’s Council meeting, Jones voiced his displeasure at both Romney’s low-key visit, and the presidential hopeful’s stance on education.
“Unbeknownst to many people [Romney] was here this morning at Bluford Elementary school where he was espousing his ‘class sizes don’t matter’ and everybody knows, even internally, size matters — class sizes,” Jones said, thanking his Republican colleagues on council for not meeting up with the former Massachusetts governor.
Jones said he only became aware of Romney’s visit through an update on KWY newsradio. Mayor Michael Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams joined a rally outside of Bluford, condemning Romney’s stances — and for creeping quietly into Philadelphia.
In advance of his visit, Romney and his election campaign have simultaneously attacked Obama’s stance as elitist while urging districts to do away teacher unions.
“You know, President Obama likes to talk about how he’s for the underprivileged, but when it comes to the money that comes from the teachers union, he’s putting that campaign cash ahead of the needs of our kids. We have to recognize it’s time to put kids first, to get education on track by giving people greater choice in schools, by making sure we reward the very best teachers with great careers and rising income,” Romney said via a statement released by his campaign. “We know what to do to make our schools better.”
Those remarks mirror what Romney recently told Fox News’ Stave Doocy. When asked about the president’s education agenda, Romney wasted little time in going into attack mode, pointing to a Washington, D.C., school choice program that Romney claims Obama and the teachers union shuttled.
“We have a teachers’ union that too often stands in the way of the kind of reforms that would make education work. We know, for instance, in Washington, D.C., that school choice there helped immeasurably with young people - improving their quality of learning and their skills, and yet the President shut down the program,” Romney said on the news program. “We’ve got to put the unions behind, and put the kids first.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan assailed the notion that teacher unions are standing in the way of school reform. Jordan noted that the PFT has sacrificed and produced several rounds of givebacks during recent contract discussions. Jordan said there are other factors in union negotiations that either Romney doesn’t know about or fails to acknowledge.
“We have consistently [partnered with the district on cuts] and I would defy anyone from the board who suggests we haven’t been very effective in working with the district to keep health care costs as low as they can possibly be through negotiations,” Jordan said, during a recent editorial board meeting at The Tribune. “That’s a reality that all organizations have to build in; you shouldn’t ask people to work and not have health care.”
Lis Smith, a spokeswoman with President Obama’s reelection campaign, quickly responded to Romney’s visit to Philadelphia — and to the assertions Romney made; striking at Romney’s often-criticized business models and asking if the presidential hopeful will apply the same tactics to education as he did while at Bain Capital.
“When he’s in Philadelphia today, will Mitt Romney tell the truth about how he wants to apply Romney Economics to education? As we’ve seen throughout Mitt Romney’s career in both the private and public sectors, Romney Economics is all about the short term,” Smith said via a statement released by the Obama reelection campaign. “We’ve already seen what Romney Economics meant for Massachusetts students — larger class sizes, a de-emphasis on critical early education, teachers laid off, and in one year alone, the second-largest per-pupil cuts in the nation … these aren’t the priorities Americans want in our President.”
Tribune staff writer Eric Mayes and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Since this is not the kind of record anyone wants on their résumé, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s outrage about this city’s record setting murder rate is easily understandable.
Last year Philadelphia logged 324 murders — lower than the 391 in 2007 when Nutter won election to the mayor’s office but not the fifty percent reduction in homicides that Nutter sought to achieve during his first four-year term in City Hall.
This month Philadelphia logged 32 murders, according to a Philadelphia Police Department posting just two days ago — a rate higher than the 26 in January 2011 and the 24 murders in January 2007.
“To every criminal out there, I just put a $20,000 bounty on your head,” an angry Nutter lashed last week when announcing new initiatives to attack Philadelphia’s murder epidemic.
“We’re coming for you,” Nutter sternly promised murderers. “We will find you. …”
Nutter and many across the city are rightfully outraged at the public policy implications of gun related murders, non-fatal shootings and other crimes.
Crime-related expenditures for police, prosecutors, prisons, public defenders and courts consumes over a billion dollars annually, nearly one-third of the City’s entire yearly operating budget. Money spent on public safety is money siphoned from other areas like jobs-creating economic development and crime-impulse cutting education.
Companion to violence spawned public expenditures is the heartfelt concern carried by Mayor Nutter and others regarding how the chaos from crime ignites fear that saps the sense of safety that undergirds “quality-of-life.”
The reality is rampant murder rates make many Philly residents fearful on both the streets and inside their own homes because the gunfire producing murders often slams into the houses of the innocent.
The recent murder of corner-store worker Reyna Aguirre Alonso, in an execution reportedly related to her providing police with information about a previous murder, again underscores the need for an assault on both the killings and the conditions creating the climate where some care so little about snatching another life.
Mayor Nutter’s announcement last week of a reward fund to capture killers, a reward to recovering illegal firearms and more funding for witness protection is a good step towards addressing a part of the symptom — catching killers.
While a law enforcement crackdown on violent criminals is appropriate — especially murderers — an arrest-imprison dominated approach just recycles an already ineffective strategy, comparable to conservatives constantly saying tax cuts for the wealthy increases income and employment for the middle-class.
Philadelphia already sends more people to state prison than any other county in Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia is a city and a county.)
Courts in Philadelphia sent 2,420 people to state prisons in 2010 according to Pa Department of Corrections data. Allegheny County, which contains Pennsylvania’s second largest city of Pittsburgh, ranked second in sending people to state prisons in 2010 with 769.
Mayor Nutter, in his remarks last week, said “We have to send a message to every punk and every criminal … carrying a gun…”
Apparently shipping tons of people off to state prisons annually isn’t sending a message to STOP! — at least a message that violent criminals are heeding.
Incidentally, Philadelphians comprise 51.9 percent of the state prison inmates serving life sentences, and Philadelphians are 47 percent of those on death row in Pennsylvania.
If life in prison or death row isn’t curtailing persons from committing fatal crimes that “message” officials have been screaming with law-&-order policies of the past three decades is missing the mark. Murders in Philadelphia have exceeded 300 in each of the past five years.
Nutter is not naïve, nor does he like to hear himself talk tough. He knows, for example, that improving education and increasing employment can do more to root out crime at its cause than doubling the size of the Police Department or DA’s Office.
But that education-employment “message” is one persistently dismissed by conservative legislators in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., who willfully cut funding for education and jobs development programs in urban areas while willingly spending more on police, prosecutors and prisons.
Pennsylvania, during the past two decades, spent six times more on its prison system that on spending for higher education according to the findings of a NAACP report released in April 2011.
That NAACP report entitled “Misplaced Priorities” stated that in 2008 Pennsylvania taxpayers spent “nearly $290 million to imprison residents sentenced from just 11 Philadelphia neighborhoods…”
This NAACP report, that received little mainstream media coverage, also noted that 66 percent of Philadelphia’s “lowest performing” schools are located in those 11 neighborhoods with the highest rates of incarceration.
Suggestions in that report include shortening prison terms as incentive for prisoners to complete schooling and diverting drug addicts from prisons to treatment.
Obviously criminals are not the only persons needing to get a “message.”
It’s a crime for conservative Pennsylvania’s elected officials to spend over $30,000 to keep one inmate in one cell for a year, more than eight times the amount allocated for spending on college students.
That crime of inmate-not-education funding compounds the felonious fact of massive prison spending primarily providing jobs for whites in rural area. Placing prisons in rural areas increases governmental allocations (and electoral representation) in rural areas because of the presence of those incarcerated bodies — pick-pocketing urban needs.
Until conservative leaders get the “message” about the dire need for increasing education/employment-creation funding, mayors like Michael Nutter will find themselves handcuffed in cutting homicides.
Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.
It’s another record for Philadelphia — the longest “Soul Train” line — officially noted by Mayor Michael Nutter on Wednesday when he accepted a certificate issued by the Guinness Book of World Records.
“We have a lot going on in Philadelphia,” Nutter said. “But, sometimes we just need to celebrate.”
The mayor, against the advice of all his advisors, he said, took part in the “Soul Train” line last February and noted that it was magical moment for participants.
“It was incredible,” he said. “It really felt like the whole city had come together for one unique moment.”
A crowd of 291 people took part in the “Soul Train” line on Feb. 13, 2012 in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in honor of “Soul Train” creator and host Don Cornelius, who died last year. Philadelphia’s record beat the previous record of 211 people set in by students and staff at Beverly Hills High School.
“We figured that was a number we could beat,” said Sheila Simmons, one of the event organizers present at Wednesday’s press conference.
She vowed — as did several others present — that Philly would fight to keep the record, which was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records last month.
“This record belongs in Philadelphia,” she said.
Mannwell Glenn, the man behind the record breaking idea, agreed.
“You can come after this record if you want — but we’re going to keep it,” he said.
More than 2,000 people showed up at the event last winter, many dressed in Afro wigs and bell bottoms to honor Cornelius, host of the long-running TV show “Soul Train.”
He was a music legend, as was the show’s theme song “TSOP” (The Sound of Philadelphia) which ran in the background during the press event.
TSOP was written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who recorded it with MFSB, the Philadelphia International Records house band, with the Three Degrees singing the vocal parts in 1974. In just a few months the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and on the Hot Soul Singles chart.
The 75-year-old Cornelius committed suicide on Feb. 1, 2012. He had been suffering from health problems, a difficult divorce, and had pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor spousal battery charge in 2009.
The circumstances surrounding his death did nothing to change his legacy, said E. Steven Collins, one of the organizers of the “Soul Train” event.
“He was a great person,” Collins said, noting that in his final days Cornelius was in a great deal of physical pain.
The former site of the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza Homes is now nearly an acre of green with a special nod to the slain civil rights leader – a public art installation in his honor.
“It’s a fitting tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Cindy Dunn, deputy secretary for conservation and resources with the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources who was on hand Monday for the ribbon cutting, officially opening the park. “He was a person who drew his inspiration from nature.”
The park replaces a 576-unit public housing complex that dated from 1960 and was once considered one of Philadelphia’s worst crime areas. King gave a speech at the community center in the old tower complex in 1965 and the complex was re-named in his honor in 1970. The tower was demolished in 1999 and plans were laid for the park – called Hawthorne Park after the surrounding neighborhood. Funding was announced in 2008 and ground was broken last year.
Now, the three-quarters of an acre site boasts 50 trees, 4,000 square feet of plant beds and a 19,000 square foot lawn.
At the center of it all is a stainless steel raised podium, created by sculptor Warren Holzman and called “Object of Expression,” to commemorate a speech King gave near the site in 1965.
According to Michael Johns, acting executive director of housing operations for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the lectern will serve as a “pulpit for the expression of progressive ideas.”
The park is surrounded by 245 housing units built in the housing authority’s new low-density style – red brick, single-family townhouses or apartments. Nineteen of them overlook the park.
Mayor Michael Nutter praised area residents and planners for bringing the park to the neighborhood.
“Every neighborhood should have green, open spaces,” he said, adding, “We are going to keep it clean,” explaining that by “we” he meant area residents in partnership with the city.
“Keep it clean. Keep it safe. Keep it beautiful,” said Nutter.
In addition to creating a markedly different look for the neighborhood, the park brings some cutting edge environmental features to the area.
In the southeast corner of the park, a brick plateau rises to overlook the lawn. It is constructed of 6,000 water permeable bricks that reduce storm-water runoff. Another feature of the park is a high efficiency irrigation system and drought tolerant plantings.
Celebrating the official opening of a 101-unit public housing development in West Philadelphia, federal, state and city officials gathered at Mantua Square in West Philadelphia this week for a ribbon cutting.
The $28.1 million Philadelphia Housing Authority development, which replaced Mantua Hall, a notorious 18-story tower at 35th Street and Fairmount Avenue, was lauded as an example for the city and the nation.
“This is our future right here,” said Jane Vincent, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We consider this a very successful model of what can be done.”
The stark contrast to the crumbling and dangerous Mantua Hall, built in 1960 and demolished in 2008, caught everyone’s attention.
“This is a very, very different place,” said Mayor Michael Nutter as he looked over the tidy square in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
In an attempt to give the development a suburban feel, each of the red brick units is set behind a small lawn on the street side and faces an interior courtyard that houses parking and a small park at the center of the court.
“You feel like you’re in the suburbs and you’re in the heart of Mantua,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who represents the district.
In addition to one-, two- and three-bedroom units ranging from 725 to 1,441 square feet, the complex includes 10,000 square feet of commercial and community space.
But, it was the green features that caught the attention of the officials gathered for the grand opening.
Each unit has energy saving appliances, the park enhances natural drainage and 793 solar panels.
“You don’t even see solar panels in Chestnut Hill,” joked Sen. Vincent Hughes, who noted that construction of the complex involved 250 jobs and the new, friendlier complex could help renew the neighborhood.
“That’s what this is all about, the revitalization of the neighborhood,” he said.
The official opening of the project comes at a time when Congress is trying to cut funding for public housing. So, in addition to the grand opening, officials announced that October is Housing America Month, a month dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of public housing.
“This is not a time to disenfranchise our nation’s most vulnerable citizens by reducing funding,” said John Bohm, director of congressional relations with the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, who went on to note that 1 in 6 Americans lived in poverty in 2010.
In an interesting side note, Blackwell told the assembled crowd that she hoped to return to her position as housing authority board member.
“I’m hoping one day to get back,” she said in a remark that received more than polite applause.
Blackwell has long been known as a housing advocate and served on the PHA board for nine years.
She stepped down last year in the wake of the Carl Greene scandal, a move that paved the way for a federal take over of the authority. At the time she told reporters that she was stepping down in an effort “be part of the solution.” Her departure, the first, spurred the other board members to follow her lead and eventually all resigned and the agency was placed in the hands of a federal receiver.
Blackwell said as she resigned that she hoped to return when the feds once again returned the agency to local control. Officials at HUD have said they hope to relinquish control by March.
City, School District and charter school officials have joined forces in an effort to win a share of $40 million, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aimed at boosting school performance.
“Our goal is to enhance educational opportunities for about 50,000 students in the poorest performing schools in our district and charter school systems by creating high quality alternatives,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, at a joint press conference Tuesday at the Stetson Middle School in Kensington. “By 2016, our goal is to not have a single student in a low-performing school while raising the standards and quality of higher performing schools.”
The coalition of city, School District and charter officials has formed the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact — promising to share education strategies and methods at schools across the city. Philadelphia was one of 14 cities — including New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Baltimore — across the nation to form similar pacts, allowing them to compete for the Gates Foundation funds.
Nutter made the announcement with School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos and organizations representing the majority of the city’s charter schools as well as Don Shalvey, with the Gates Foundation.
The foundation has already approved a $100,000 grant to support the creation of the Great Schools Compact.
“I can remember a time when a compact between charter schools and district schools would have been unheard of,” Shalvey said. “But, Philadelphians took a bold move with this compact — to stand together in the interest of the youth at every single Philadelphia school, to change the opportunity equation for your futures.”
The School District is already in the midst of a reform plan intended to boost student performance.
Eighty-eight schools — charter and district schools serving 46,000 students — have been identified as the city’s lowest performing schools. Since 2010, the District has shifted approximately 20,000 students from 22 schools of those schools to new management and/or school models through its “Renaissance Schools” and “Promise Academies” programs.
There are about 210,000 students attending Philadelphia’s public and charter schools.
New reform plans will unite charter and district officials, who promised to set aside past differences and focus on the kids.
“The newly constituted SRC intends to pursue the aims of the compact vigorously,” Ramos said. “We know this requires great effort and steadfastness from all of us who have a stake in our students’ future — which means all of us in Philadelphia.”
Mark Gleason with the Philadelphia School Partnership, a non-profit dedicated to school improvement, also promised his support.
“The signing of the compact represents a great first step for Philadelphia,” said Gleason. “Already, we have seen funders rally in support. We formed PSP knowing that our city has lots of people and institutions who care deeply about improving schools, but unless we are all working and funding in concert we won’t be able to achieve results on a large scale.”
Shalvey too lauded the effort.
“Despite facing a number of challenges this year on the education front, Philadelphia has brought together an impressively broad group of stakeholders to support the vision of the Compact,” he said.
In addition to seeking funding from the Gates Foundation, city and education officials are looking for other outside funding. The Philadelphia School Partnership has begun putting together a “Great Schools Fund” to invest in the creation, expansion and sustainability of high-performing schools. Its goal is to raise $100 million by 2016 from individuals, corporations and foundations; it is currently in discussions with donors for matching commitments that could run as high as $20 million.
The Urban League of Philadelphia’s Empowerment Week Gala serves to celebrate diversity in the corporate community and award college scholarships.
Fifty scholarships worth more than $100,000 will be awarded during the gala held May 19 from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, 1201 Market St. Ten years ago, ULP initiated its Community Scholarship Program by awarding six college scholarships totaling $12,000 at its annual gala.
“Our theme this year for Empowerment Week is strengthening the Economy through Empowering Partnerships. Nowhere is this theme more evident than in our Community Scholarship Program,” said Patricia A. Coulter, president and chief executive officer of ULP.
“All of our scholarships are donated by private individuals affiliated with our organization, our board members, Affinity Group members and our corporate sponsors. What can do more to empower our community and strengthen our economy than supporting our young people in the quest for higher education?”
ULP board chair Robert Keyes challenged his fellow board members to raise $100,000 this year — and they responded by exceeding that amount and easily surpassing last year’s total of $70,000.
“The scholarships are my passion, and that passion is contagious. I commend all of our board members and friends who contributed these scholarships,” Keyes said. “All of the scholarship winners will attend the gala and will meet the person who donated the scholarship face-to-face. This is a very touching moment.”
During the event, ULP will present PECO with the Vision Award, Union Packaging of Yeadon with the Spirit of Innovation Award and Michael Rashid, president and CEO of Amerihealth Mercy, with the inaugural Power of Diversity Leadership Award.
The ULP’s Vision Award is presented annually to a company that has a strong corporate tradition of diversity. PECO, the Philadelphia region’s supplier of gas and electricity, is known for its support of diversity throughout the organization.
Pearson, president of Union Packaging, will accept the Spirit of Innovation Award, given to an African American-owned company. Union Packaging, based in Yeadon, produces environmentally-friendly packaging for fast-food chains, including McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s.
Rashid has led Amerihealth Mercy from being a local HMO serving Medicaid recipients to becoming a national force, providing health care for the country’s underserved population. His Diamond in the Rough program has enabled hundreds of enthusiastic but under-educated employees to succeed in their jobs and continue their education.
The gala will be hosted by NBC 10 anchor Lori Wilson.
The gala is the culmination of a week of activities including an Empowerment Week kickoff celebration held May 14 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Hyatt Regency Penn’s Landing, 201 South Columbus Blvd.
The evening features a small business showcase. Curtis Gregory of the city’s Commerce Department will moderate a panel discussion titled, “So You Think You Want to Run Your Own Business.”
Panel members, including caterer David Simms, Yvette Mitchell and this year’s Spirit of Innovation honoree Michael Pearson, will offer insights on building a business from the ground up. The evening will conclude with a social hour.
A jobs summit will be held May 15 at Drexel University, Bossone Research Center, 3140 Market St. where ULP’s partner companies will empower 200 pre-registered job hunters and set them on the road to economic strength. Companies will discuss employment opportunities at the opening session.
Afterwards, participants will attend one or more of the breakout sessions. Sessions will focus on the ULP’s Connect to Work program; the status of the current job market; and professional development, including presentation and networking skills.
A youth employment day will be held May 16 at South Philadelphia High School. This event connects participants in the 2012 Urban Leadership Forum class will connect with 9th- and 12th-graders from South Philly High to engage them on matters pertaining to college preparation and future careers.
A Sweet Scoop of Community Empowerment Day will be held May 17 from noon to 12:30 p.m. at Bassetts Ice Cream Stand, Reading Terminal Market, 45 North 12th St.
Coulter will join Mayor Nutter and other community leaders at the PBJ Celebrity Scoop sponsored by the Philadelphia Business Journal with proceeds donated to Habitat for Humanity. Bassetts, the nation’s oldest ice cream maker, created this limited edition Peanut Butter and Jelly flavor to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Philadelphia Business Journal.
ARAMARK is the lead sponsor for the 2012 Empowerment Week lineup.
Mayor Michael Nutter joined officials from the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation in announcing “With Art Philadelphia” — a $2-million, two-year campaign designed to position the city as a premier arts destination.
The campaign will launch in March, before the May opening of the Barnes Foundation’s Philadelphia campus on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Barnes opening has been touted as the biggest art story in the world for 2012.
“We maximize this great opportunity by launching the first-ever coordinated, sustained visual arts marketing campaign in the city’s history,” Nutter said Thursday morning, as he addressed 150 members of the city’s tourism and hospital industry.
“The goal is to highlight Philadelphia as one of the world’s great artistic and cultural destinations, and therefore increase visitation to our region from around the world.”
With Art Philadelphia — with a tagline of “Curate Your Own Experience” — will highlight the city’s visual arts exhibits, museums on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, arts education institutions, gardens and horticultural sites.
As the initiative evolves, it will go beyond the traditional definition of visual art to embrace the region’s gardens, high fashion boutiques, independent collectives, public art and annual events.
“We are no longer a historic city located between New York and D.C. With the message that will be carried by With Art Philadelphia, Philadelphia will build a lasting reputation as a outstanding center for arts and culture that invites visitors to return year after year,” said City Representative Melanie Johnson.
The campaign is the result of a partnership between a growing coalition led by the city of Philadelphia and GPTMC. Partners include the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Philadelphia Visitors and Convention Bureau, Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Parkway Council Foundation, PNC and PECO.
The campaign will be marketed through advertising, public relations, media partnerships, a new microsite and social media events.
GPTMC President and CEO Meryl Levitz also unveiled the new With Love, Philadelphia XOXO winter tourism campaign, geared toward getting couples to stay at Philadelphia hotels.
The $825,000 campaign runs January through March and offers a new look and 29 Nights of Dates sweepstakes — featuring more than 60 prizes on facebook.com/visitphilly. The With Love, Philadelphia XOXO campaign will be advertised in the Philadelphia, Northern New Jersey and New York markets.
City Council had little say about reorganization
A lack of input from the community and the city’s powerful politicians may prove fatal to the School District’s new plan to close more than three dozen schools across the city.
“I think the process is flawed,” said Council President Darrell Clarke, noting that, according to school officials, the process of selecting which schools would close has been going for more than a year. The public just learned the details in December. “You should have started having this conversation early on.”
Several members of City Council made similar arguments — chiding the district for its handling of the plan. Council members faulted the plan on several grounds, worrying that the closings didn’t take into account the impact those closings would have on the surrounding neighborhood, or how students would be affected when moved to different neighborhoods, or by the distance some will be required to travel.
“There are a lot of questions about how this was done,” said Jannie Blackwell, head of Council’s education committee. Eight schools in her district are expected to close. “It’s just not tightly enough put together.”
Despite repeated attempts, Superintendent William Hite could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Blackwell said she hopes to hold hearings on the plan next month. The dates are still up in the air but she told the Tribune she wanted to schedule them on the first or second Tuesday of February.
Every council member polled by the Tribune agreed that some schools will have close.
“I certainly understand the School District’s position and financial circumstances,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “We all know that they have been bleeding for many years.”
But, all three said they’d like to see the plan delayed.
Clarke, speaking as a representative of his district, and not council president, said he didn’t oppose “right-sizing.” And, Blackwell acknowledged that some schools will have to close.
No one blamed Hite, who has been in the District’s top position only since September.
School District officials, last month, released a list of 37 schools they expected to close due to falling enrollment. The plan would shift about 17,000 students to different schools. School officials contend it’s necessary for the cash-strapped district to close schools in an effort to save money.
However, the council president is not particularly pleased that Council was not part of the conversation as school officials drew up the proposal.
“They needed to have conversations outside of the School District family,” he said.
Doing so would have helped the District look beyond its present circumstances, said Clarke. As an example, he spoke about plans to close L.P. Hill Elementary and Strawberry Mansion High School because the number of students there has been dropping. However, he said, at least 194 new houses are being built near the school, which could bring a minimum of 200 students to the neighborhood.
“They had no idea about that,” he said. “This decision was made in a vacuum. There was a bean counter behind it.”
His sentiments were echoed by others on Council.
Blackwell said the plan didn’t seem to take into account the reality for many students in Philadelphia.
“Kids in this district can’t just go anywhere. We’ve got enough crime now — we don’t need that kind of crime,” Blackwell said.
“They have not given adequate thought or preparation to those closures,” she said, adding that she hopes to see a one-year moratorium on implementing the plan.
As an example she cited plans to close T.M. Pierce Elementary School and move students to E. Washington Rhodes Middle School.
“Walking from Pierce to Rhodes will be quite a challenge for young people,” she said, noting that the area between the two buildings was troubled by crime and blight.
Though he expected a broader discussion among council members, Clarke said this week, there has been very little group discussion so far.
Nearly a third of the schools expected to close are in North Philadelphia.
Ten of the 37 schools targeted for closing are in Clarke’s Fifth District. Two are in the adjoining portion of the Eighth District, represented by Bass, who has a total of five targeted schools in her district.
Clarke wondered why so many closings were planned in such a small area.
“There is a disproportionate number of schools to be closed in North Philadelphia,” he said.
That could seal the fate of an already troubled area.
“Realistically, the likelihood of a re-use of some of those buildings is extremely limited,” he said. “They close these schools down, and they walk away.”
That adds to blight and steers families away from the neighborhood.
“The first question always is ‘where are the schools?’” Clarke said.
The council president said that Hite briefed him personally on details of the plan the day before it was released to the public in a brief telephone conversation. Bass and Blackwell said they too had been briefed the day before the public announcement but none were consulted during the process of putting the plan together, they said.
Council’s options when it comes to influencing School District policy and SRC decisions are limited. Members can, and often do, give their opinions — but beyond that there is little they can do, aside from slashing school funding.
Council approved more money for the district in each of the last three years though in the last two budget cycles the city has sought to increase its power by first instituting a cooperative agreement with the district and then, last year, by awarding a portion of school funding as a grant, giving Council the opportunity to withhold funds.
Clarke said he expected the tug of war over money to intensify this year.
“We have no ability to influence operations,” he said. “The conversation, as to their ability to get more tax revenue out of the city, is going to be extremely limited.”
Blackwell was more explicit.
Noting that the SRC will not vote on the proposal until March she pointed out that Council will be heading into budget negotiations at the same time and the issue would be fresh in members’ minds.
“I am hopeful that we get some of this stuff worked out because if we don’t — you’re doggone right — we’re going to have a real problem here,” she said.
Clashes between city politicians and school officials are not new.
Former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman left the District after several high profile battles with the administration and City Council. Ultimately, she lost the support of many elected officials including Mayor Michael Nutter and several members of City Council, a fact that led to resignation.
Clarke urged residents to continue to oppose the plan.
“I think the community should continue to show its displeasure,” he said, adding that he too supports a moratorium on closings.
“We are hopeful that in the end, we can have not all of these schools close,” Blackwell said. “We’re hopeful the District will reconsider and have community input because they know what works in their area and what doesn’t.”
Mayor, community groups, head of teachers union welcome new superintendent
According to early reports, the School Reform Commission seems to have gotten it right with the selection of career educator Dr. William R. Hite Jr. as its next School District of Philadelphia Superintendent.
A myriad of stakeholders unanimously hailed the SRC for its choice, giving embattled school officials rare praise.
“Today, we take a giant step toward providing safe, high quality educational opportunities for all Philadelphia children,” said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos last Friday, when the decision had been reached. “Dr. Hite is an eminent educator and a proven transformative leader.”
Hite Jr. comes from the Prince George’s County Public Schools system, Maryland’s second-largest school district with an enrollment of 135,000 and a budget of $1.6 billion.
The SRC has promised to release the details of Hite Jr.’s contract as soon as it is finalized.
Nutter, kept abreast at every stage in the superintendent search, also praised Hite Jr. for his education acumen and dedication to students.
“I was very impressed with Dr. Hite’s passion and commitment to educating children, support for the professional development of teachers and principals, and his dedication to working with the broader Philadelphia community,” Nutter said in a joint statement released by the SRC. “He understands that a high performing, high expectation system of schools is critical to the future of the City of Philadelphia. I would like to thank Wendell Pritchett for leading this effort by chairing the search committee and to all of the members of the community who attended meetings, offered advice and were involved in this thorough process.
High-ranking members of City Council were equally impressed with the new superintendent’s education acumen and his straightforward, yet affable nature. While Hite Jr. seems at ease in Philadelphia, even with taking on such a monumental challenge, veteran members of Council expect Hite to deliver on the hype.
“I am very pleased. He was my choice — and not that the other guy couldn’t do the job — but [Hite Jr.] was my pick from the beginning,” said Education Committee Chair Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, noting that Hite Jr. was very forthcoming about the problems identified in the district, including combating low morale and dealing with special education issues. “But I am interested in what he plans to do about crime and truancy, and how he wants to handle alternative education for the kids who don’t make it out of regular classes.
“We look forward to the opportunity to directly engage him.”
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, co-chair of Council’s education committee, echoed Blackwell’s sentiments.
“I believe the background of Dr. Hite is important, as he has served as an educator, principal and superintendent. He faced numerous and similar challenges as the Superintendent in Prince George’s County School District that we face here in Philadelphia,” Reynolds Brown said. “That history will be vital and inform how he tackles the numerous budget and academic issues that confront the Philadelphia School District. He also seems well aware that the district cannot face the problems that it faces on an island — that it takes a community effort of all stakeholders. I appreciate that approach. I look forward to working with him as we move the needle forward for our students.”
To form that relationship with students and teachers, Hite Jr. must first form a relationship with the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union. Previous superintendents had, at best, lukewarm relationships with the union, but PFT President Jerry Jordan seems willing to start anew with Hite.
“On behalf of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the city’s educators and staff, I congratulate and welcome Dr. William R. Hite as he assumes the role of Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. In a time of great upheaval for our schools, we are hopeful that Dr. Hite’s appointment signals the beginning of stability and clarity that has been lacking for many months,” Jordan said in a statement released by the PFT. “Dr. Hite’s background as an educator and administrator in urban school districts should serve him well as he navigates the unique challenges facing Philadelphia’s Public Schools. The PFT looks forward to collaborating with the new superintendent to ensure our students and teachers are given the support, tools and conditions that foster high quality teaching and learning.”
Leaders with the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity — long a watchdog organization in the superintendent search — have yet to meet with Hite, but its leadership is looking forward to working with the new schools chief.
“I have not had the opportunity to hear or meet with Dr. Hite, however, some Black clergy, our general secretary and others, have met with him and conveyed that Dr. Hite was very charismatic, and his presentation was very good,” said Black Clergy President Rev. Terrence Griffith, referring to the recent community forum Hite Jr. attended. “It seems that he has done a tremendous job in Prince George’s County in terms of resuscitating that school district.
“I don’t know if being charismatic qualifies somebody, but it goes a long way in reaching a lot of people,” Griffith continued, “but if those people who attended the forum are correct, then the SRC has chosen wisely.”