Text and images by Elizabeth DeOrnellas.
As federal stimulus money offered in response to the 2008 financial crisis began to run dry, the School District of Philadelphia found itself facing a $1.35 billion budget shortfall.
The District turned to school closures to save money.
After a fraught process marked by community protests, the School Reform Commission ultimately voted to shutter 23 schools, one out of every 10 of the city’s District-managed schools. A 24th school was later added.
At the time, District officials claimed the closings would result in $28 million in annual savings. The actual savings is unknown. The District did not return comment.
The March 2013 closure vote took place while hundreds stood in the cold outside the locked auditorium and 19 protesters were arrested.
“Sometimes the easiest solution is the one that is worse for community members,” said Erika Kitzmiller, a Barnard professor who wrote a book about the history of Germantown High School.
The lack of transparency and rapid pace of the closure process left families, students, and teachers reeling, Kitzmiller said.
“When you tell people that their school isn’t worth saving, it’s horrible,” Kitzmiller said. “It’s absolutely demoralizing.”
City officials acknowledged that the closures primarily affected students of color.
“This substantial and imminent set of closures will affect more than 10,000 students, disproportionately concentrated in some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods,” stated the findings of the city controller’s report issued by Alan Butkovitz in 2018. “Nearly 80 percent of the affected students are African-American — in a District that is 55 percent Black.”
According to Chalkbeat, District officials said the vast majority of schools marked for closure had low utilization due to under enrollment.
“The majority of students in schools with low utilization are African American; therefore it follows that African Americans are a majority of the students affected,” said Fernando Gallard, then the District’s spokesperson, as quoted in Chalkbeat.
In addition to financial pressures, Philadelphia schools were struggling to raise their test scores to the level demanded in No Child Left Behind legislation.
“Federal government policy oftentimes does ratchet up the expectations, but it doesn’t, in turn, increase the resources for meeting those expectations,” said Elaine Simon from the University of Pennsylvania. “And so that equals failure.”
Chalkbeat reported that then-Superintendent William Hite defended the closings by citing “dismal” student achievement data.
“Even if we had more money – if only for a year – it is difficult to justify investing funds in schools that are not serving children’s needs,” Hite said, according to Chalkbeat.
A decade later, Hite responded to a request for comment with a written statement that called the school closures an “unescapable economic necessity.”
“We understood the profound impact it would have on parents, our community, District personnel and most importantly, the kids,” Hite wrote. “But when we carefully weighed the options and the empirical evidence, we knew that it was the most promising strategy we had for improving educational outcomes for our students.”
As part of their book research, Simon and Penn colleague Julia McWilliams are tracking the fate of the closed schools, including an additional six that were shuttered in 2012.
Counting the properties that closed in 2012, a total of 30 Philadelphia schools were shuttered in the 2013 wave of closures.
One-third of the properties became charter schools and one-third remain vacant (or were condemned), according to Simon and McWilliams’ accounting. They classify 2 to 3 percent of the resold properties as public-private partnerships, such as nonprofits or alternative District schools, and the rest as examples of gentrification, such as the reconstituted BOK building.
The vacant buildings represent market failures and perpetuate neighborhood blight, McWilliams said.
Butkovitz’s report anticipated that negative effect. The controller’s report found that buildings located near closed school buildings would suffer an average of $2,000 in lost property value.
Butkovitz predicted the closed school buildings would be hard to sell and pointed out that the District didn’t have the funds to tear down vacant properties.
Instability in the property market has meant some buildings have been bought and sold several times, Simon said. She’s observed that developers who are tracking the city’s gentrification patterns often hold properties vacant until the neighborhood flips.
“They’re not public assets anymore,” Simon said. “They’ve lost their durability that way.”
Germantown High School is one of the properties that has remained vacant since its closure. Developer plans to turn it into apartments have not progressed far, and the now-graffiti-covered building sits empty amid piles of gravel and construction equipment.
“It’s still something we see every day that sits vacant,” said Julie Stapleton Carroll, board president emeritus of the Germantown United Community Development Corp. “It’s kind of like a gash on the community to see that.”
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