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July 13, 2014, 9:15 am

Amid cuts, Phila. to close 37 public schools

  • Written by MARYCLAIRE DALE
  • Published in News Headlines

The city school district plans to close 37 public schools to address budget cuts, declining enrollment and enduring achievement gaps.

The closures would account for about 15 percent of the city's nearly 250 schools, and include about 10 high schools. The overhaul comes after tens of thousands of students moved to public charter schools over the past decade, contributing to sharp enrollment declines in traditional public schools.

The district had to borrow $300 million this year alone to pay its bills.

Superintendent William Hite Jr. was expected to release the list of proposed closures Thursday afternoon. An internal email with the list was obtained.

The overhaul does not include teacher layoffs, but the district expects to save about $30 million a year from other staff cuts and building closures. Some programs at shuttered schools will be moved to other sites, the district said.

The proposed cuts must be approved by the School Reform Commission, a state-controlled panel that runs the district. It plans to vote on the issue in March.

Philadelphia badly lags the national average in reading and math scores, ranking below peer districts like New York, Houston and Miami. About 61 percent of its 146,000 students graduate from high school, while only 35 percent get a college degree.

One parents group accused officials of cutting a "back-room deal."

Parents United for Public Education said there's no solid research to show that mass school closings improve education.

"The school district has failed ... to assure families that our children will not end up in schools weakened by disinvestment or in worse shape than the schools they left," the group said in a statement that questioned how decisions were made.

"We feel strongly that private individuals have leveraged money and access to influence which schools may or may not be on the school closings list," the group said.

Hite came to Philadelphia this year from Prince George's County, Md., where he had faced similar financial pressures.

In the email, the district said the new master plan was designed to improve academic outcomes and ensure the district's financial stability.

"Adjusting the facilities footprint to reflect student enrollment will result in improved academic programs and support for all students, more equitable resource distribution across schools, and increased opportunities for students to learn in high-performing, safe, modernized schools," the district said.

The targeted high schools include Germantown High School, a nearly all-black school set to celebrate its centennial in 2014.

One Germantown activist complained Thursday that Hite didn't ask for community input or — in a school system plagued by violence — discuss how to safely merge students from rival neighborhoods.

"There are some things we can do to overcome some of that angst in children. But if they don't engage us, then how do we offset some of that?" said the Rev. LeRoi Simmons, a leader of both Parents United and the Germantown Clergy Initiative.

Germantown now has about 700 students, and a library refurbished a few years ago through a $100,000 community fundraising effort, he said.

Simmons said he has watched superintendents — and myriad school reform plans — come and go in Philadelphia over the past 30 years, with little classroom success to show for it. -- (AP)