Education: The Lasting Effects of the 2013 School Closures

Fulton Elementary
Fulton Elementary School, which closed in 2013. Photo by Elizabeth DeOrnellas.

Text by Michala Butler, Elizabeth DeOrnellas, Kendra Franklin and Ella Lathan.

Six Philadelphia public schools were shuttered in 2012, and then there were rumors there were going to be more.  

“Nobody really believed you could close down 30 schools,” said Kristen Clark, who was raised in Germantown and now serves as the executive director of Kinesics Dance Dynamics. “Like, where do the kids go?” 

One year later, in 2013, 24 more Philadelphia public schools were shuttered, including eight schools in North Philadelphia, two in Southwest Philadelphia, and the historic Germantown High School, which was built in 1914.

Clark graduated from Central High in 2012 but can recall the aftermath of the closings quite clearly.  

“The shock was reflective of not thinking it was actually possible,” Clark continued, “nor something anyone would do to a whole community.” 

Ten years after the 24 schools were closed, several former public school buildings remain vacant, four have transitioned to charter schools, two have been reconstituted as learning centers for the District, two have been redeveloped as residential spaces and others have taken on new life under different businesses. 

The history of the closures

The story of Germantown

The impact on crime and violence

Was it a coincidence that the majority of the closures took place in areas that face some of the most difficult economic hardships – North Philadelphia, Germantown and Southwest Philadelphia? 

“These were schools that were under-enrolled, where there’s a lot of economic and achievement segregation,” said John MacDonald, a University of Pennsylvania professor of Criminology and Sociology. “In other words, the poorest kids with the lowest performances were clustered in these schools that they closed.” 

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, which controlled city schools from 2001 through 2018, voted to close 23 schools, one out of every 10 of the city’s district-managed schools.  A 24th school was later added to the list.

The March 2013 vote took place while hundreds stood in the cold outside the locked auditorium. Nineteen protesters were arrested

In addition to financial pressures, Philadelphia schools were struggling to raise their test scores to the level demanded in federal 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, who teaches anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. “And so that equals failure.” 

How nonprofits have stepped up

How closed schools have returned … as schools

A young resident’s perspective

According to experts, the impact of the closures has been vast, including:

• Increased truancy,

• Increased violence and crime,

• A decline of social resources, including for mental health issues, 

• Eroded trust in the School District and city government,

• Neighborhoods have lost community anchors,

• Academic achievement has diminished.

The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress found a significant drop in math scores for 4th and 8th graders since the last tests in 2019. It was the largest decline in math since testing began in 1990. 

“The 2013 school closures of the city of Philadelphia were a huge disservice not only to young people of 2013,” offered Kristen Clark, “but to the implications of the legacy of the city of Philadelphia.”

The violence and disparities that exist in Philadelphia today are the legacy of past public policies, including the mass closure of public schools, experts explained.

“There is absolutely no love in erasure,” Clark explained. “There is no love in displacement, or in prioritizing capitalism over humans over wellbeing over youth.” 

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