Twenty-three Philadelphia schools are set to close, including University City High School and Alexander Wilson Elementary School, after a vote by the School Reform Commission.
The decision was made last month due to the increasing deficit which is expected to reach $1.4 billion within the next five years. These 23 schools account for more than 10 percent of the district’s schools.
Joseph Dworetzky, a member of the current School Reform Commission, said it was an extensive process to choose which schools to shut down. Schools were analyzed on about ten different factors, he said.
“We looked at the utilization of these schools, trends in enrollment, physical conditions of the buildings and the cost of bringing them to a reasonable level of fitness,” Dworetzky said.
University City High School celebrated its 40th anniversary last year and became a Promise Academy in 2009. As a Promise Academy, the school’s mission was to focus on students’ skills and create an environment full of opportunities for achievement.
The initiative failed to succeed and students test scores continued to dwindle. In 2012, 80 percent of University City High School juniors read below grade level compared to the state average.
Enrollment at the high school also decreased by 117 students this past school year. Poor building conditions and the attraction of charter schools were the main reasons behind this shift in numbers.
Current principal, Timothy Stults, worked for four years to better the education the teenagers were receiving. He helped student’s math proficiency rise to 14.4 percent from 3.6 percent but his dedication was not enough to save the school.
Alexander Wilson Elementary School faced similar problems as their enrollment reduced by 36 between 2012-2013. Although these children did not perform as poorly on standardized tests, they still faced the same outcome.
Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, works with other public school parents to put children and education before the district budget. She said if she sees school closings as an investment process, then there is a chance of making sure these closings lead to a better school environment for children.
However, 80 percent of children in the current situation will go to schools doing no better and in some cases actually performing worse than the ones they currently attend, according to Research for Action.
“What then has been accomplished in uprooting students and moving them across dangerous neighborhoods? It’s not about the school closing. It’s about what kind of education are we promising our children? What legitimacy does a District have in arguing for school closings that do not result in better educational settings for children?” said Gym.
On Monday morning, Gym and other parents gathered before City Council to hear plans regarding the district’s $60 million request. Mothers from Parents United and students from various schools attended to hear the upcoming budget plans.
“What do we want? Funding! When do we want it? Now!” children loudly chanted.
“Trippling our taxes. Crippling our schools,” read the signs in parents’ hands.
Pedro Ramos, chairman of the SRC, was questioned by council members about the poor academic performance of these schools in recent years. Ramos said these numbers correlate with decreasing scores across the state.
During the 2011-2012 school year, grades dropped significantly on the PSSA’s. Scores plummeted nine points in math and seven points in reading.
Philadelphia schools need more money from the city now, Ramos said. Ramos did not provide a straightforward answer to where this money would come from.
“I think, collectively, we’re all responsible for getting there,” Ramos said.
Regardless of the current outcome with the Philadelphia public school system, most can agree that something needs to be done and soon.
“School closings are not an end in themselves but they are a means to an end. If you’re not investing in receiving schools, upgrading facilities, bringing in new possibilities, then of course you’re just collapsing failing schools into failing schools and we will repeat more school closings,” added Gym.
Dworetzky said although he agreed with most of the decision about the school closings, he knew reaction from the community would not be positive.
“None of us expected there to be happiness surrounding the most recent closings. There is a loss that people experience for their schools and an enormous amount of pain and anguish over the process,” Dworetzky said.
University City High School students will transfer at the end of the current academic year while most Alexander Wilson school children will move to Lea Elementary School located at 47th and Locust streets.