Closures, crime and clergy are just three of the issues facing the School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission, stemming from the school board’s recent decision to end a 90-day grace period for the shuttering of schools announced for closure, and the viral videos of student-on-student assaults in public schools that have become popular on video sharing sites such as YouTube.
Coupled with the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity’s recent stance on the district’s non-inclusion of a member of the clergy on the SRC search team, it has been a contentious week indeed.
At its last public meeting, the SRC board voted to end the three-month waiting period, reasoning that the general public has been well informed of the already agreed upon closings, and that more meetings about them — above and beyond the ones already scheduled — were unnecessary.
“We’ve suspended the 90-day waiting period between the public hearing for the school closing and the actual vote on the closing,” said School District of Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard. “The reason for the suspension is that the district has been involved in public outreach and gathering public input, actively, since November. We’ve had over 17 meetings, and more than 1,100 people attended those meetings, so we felt we already had sufficient input.
“We also wanted to accommodate calls from the community members that wanted a vote as early as possible — so they could start planning for the changes.”
Others weren’t so sure that the elimination of the 90-day window is in the best interests of either the students or the district.
“All of us can and should have our say, even if they don’t ultimately get their way. It’s good to have parents who want to get involved, and we shouldn’t do anything to diminish that,” said City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, co-chair of Council’s education committee, and a former teacher. “It doesn’t have to be 90 days — I realize that. But there should be a period of time where students and parents have their say.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan believes that instead of eliminating the window, it should be expanded to ensure that every question and concern has been addressed, particularly the thorny issue of students traveling outside of their neighborhood and attending another school in a more hostile section of the city.
“A school is the hub of many neighborhoods, so it’s important that people be able to comment on why the schools are closing. I think we’ve all learned from watching the school closings in Chicago, where students were forced to cross certain turfs, which led to violence,” Jordan said. “In Chicago, unfortunately, some kids were killed. So it’s important to include the community in the conversation.”
Gallard also said there will still be separate public meetings for the nine schools scheduled for closing — Edwin M. Stanton Elementary School, Harrison Elementary School, George Pepper Middle School, FitzSimons High School, Washington Rhodes High School, Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary School, Philadelphia High School for Business and Technology, Sheridan West Academy Middle School, Charles R. Drew Elementary School and William Levering Middle School — on Saturday, March 3 at district headquarters. Gallard said those meetings are open to the public, and urged the public to call 215-400-4010 for more information.
If the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity has its way, its membership will also have a say in the selection process of choosing the School District’s next superintendent.
At the last SRC meeting, Black Clergy president Terrance Griffith petitioned the SRC to include a member of the clergy on the search team.
While the SRC hasn’t officially commented on the inclusion of the Philadelphia Black Clergy, the idea of adding the organization has growing support.
“Well, there’s always value in having the best speakers at the table … in this case, you’re talking about a school district that is predominantly minority, where tens of thousands of students attend the very same churches these clergy lead,” Reynolds Brown said. “Bravo for the leadership of the Black Clergy for making it plain and making it clear that they want to be involved in a participatory way.
“Some would argue, ‘where has the Black clergy been?’” Reynolds Brown continued. “Now they have the leadership that wants to be actively engaged and make contributions.”
“The members of the Black Clergy represent many families of children who attend school in Philadelphia, and they have the interests of children and families at heart,” Jordan said. “And they certainly are aware of the importance of having a well-funded and well-operated school district.
“I don’t think there is anything that should be kept secret about the search, and cannot understand any problems with any of their members serving on the search team.”
Perhaps the Black Clergy can assist when it comes to student-on-student violence. Recently, video clips of harrowing assaults on schoolchildren have made their way to YouTube and other sites; the school district contends that social media is heightening awareness of violence in schools, but that the number of assaults is about level to what it’s been in previous years.
“It is important to note that these incidents highlighted on video have been appropriately seen by the schools and reported to the proper authorities — the school district police and the Philadelphia police — and principals have taken appropriate steps to handle this,” Gallard said. “The actual videotaping of these incidents is unfortunate; people have more access [to the Internet and video-hosting services] and that can sensationalize what is going on in our schools.
“We don’t take it lightly, and we are taking steps everyday to ensure the safety of our students and teachers.”