North Central Philadelphia is being hit particularly hard by the School Reform Commission’s decision to close 23 schools, with five schools ordered to shut their doors at the end of the academic year.
General John F. Reynolds Elementary School and Roberts Vaux High School — located just one block apart — are among those five schools in North Central slated for closure.
“It really is just sad to see schools like these go,” Chaqueta Marshal said who is a parent, former student and employee of Reynolds Elementary. “I went here and my parents went here. Both schools mean so much to people in the neighborhood. It is hard to believe they’ll be sitting here empty in a few months.”
Many expressed concerns that the concentrated closures in North Central evidence how the children of the public school system are being forced to pay the price for decades of financial problems within the School District of Philadelphia.
Over the past few years both Reynolds and Vaux have experienced a decline in enrollment and test scores, leading to yearly budget cuts and eventually bringing them to the SRC chopping block. Between 2011 and 2012, Reynolds lost more than $200,000 in basic school operation funding and Vaux lost more than $300,000. Since 2009, the enrollment at Vaux has dropped by more than 100 students.
“With all the charter schools popping up, schools like Reynolds and Vaux didn’t really stand a chance,” Vaux High School Vice Principal Latrina Stewart said. “Now that the school is actually closing, a lot of students and families are battling their way into any charter school that hasn’t already been filled. A lot of these kids are working really hard so they don’t get sucked back into this neighborhood. They at least want a better chance to succeed.”
Though the students at Vaux High School were provided with charter school application assistance programs, the majority of students will be moving on to either Benjamin Franklin High School or Strawberry Mansion High School. With all three schools having an unenviable graduation rate of 54 percent, many are skeptical of the environment the students will be entering from both safety and academic stand points.
Ahkiria Brown, a freshman at Vaux High School, said she is fearful for her friends that will attend the schools in the surrounding neighborhood.
“Other schools already have beefs with us,” Brown said. “And those are the ones we actually know about. I’m lucky. I’m going to Bodine next year and hopefully won’t have to deal with all of that. But I think there are just going to be so many fights that teachers aren’t even going to know how to handle it.”
Parents and teachers from Reynolds Elementary are also concerned for the safety of their students that will be transferring to other schools. Faculty, parents and staff said that fighting between rivaling sections of the neighborhood has been an issue for years.
“I understand that the School District needs money,” Chaqueta Marshall said.
“But I don’t think they really thought a lot of this out. Most parents in this neighborhood can’t afford cars. They usually walk their kids to the corner and watch them go in the door and then run off to work,” Marshall said. “When I went to Reynolds, I was a second grader walking my brother who was in kindergarten to school. Now, we’re going to have six and seven year old’s wandering across parts of the neighborhood that they are not welcome in. It was a problem when I was little so I’m sure it will be an even bigger problem now.”
Though some feel very passionately about the closures of Reynolds and Vaux, others contend the lack of community support is what kept the schools on the SRC’s list. Despite numerous attempts from administration and faculty from both schools to hold community meetings, rallies and protests, their efforts fell short. Out of the nearly 500 students that attend Reynolds Elementary, only 30 parents came out to show their support for the school.
Dana Griffith, a member of the support staff at Reynolds, said it was sad to see such a lack of interest from the community.
“We cleared the lunchrooms and set up hundreds of chairs expecting a huge turnout,” Griffith said. “It is a shame that the same parents that will cuss and fuss about their kid not people able to go to a dance cannot take the time to try and save their school.”
Griffith, an employee of Education Works, an AmeriCorps based, non-profit organization that provides support services to schools throughout Philadelphia, said the budget cuts are sure to affect the programs they offer. In addition to the school closings and mergers, support staff in schools across the city is going to be cut. This leaves schools with an over abundance of children and not enough adults to care and supervise them.
As the school year draws to a close, students, faculty, staff and parents said that there is a noticeable change in the attitude of the students.
“The little kids do not seem to be that upset about the school closing,” Dana Griffith said. “But the older ones are definitely upset to see the school go. A lot of them have been together since pre-K and now they are not sure where all of their friends will end up. Even the eighth graders, who would have mostly likely gone to Vaux with the majority of their grade, are going to feel displaced.”
At Vaux, students are savoring the last few weeks they have in the school they have grown to love.
“I really love this school,” Ahkiria Brown said.
“It’s not fair that we have to leave. But I guess there isn’t much to do [but] take advantage of it while it’s here. I just know school won’t be the same without all my friends and my teachers. Honestly, I think there are some teachers that I will miss more than anything.”