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October 01, 2015

Philadelphia School District proposes massive restructuring plan

State budget impasse makes cost of reforms a persistent question mark

Education Schools
School District of Philadelphia headquarters Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The School District of Philadelphia headquarters on North Broad Street.

A broad set of proposals unveiled Thursday by the School District of Philadelphia would impact 5,000 students and about 15 schools if approved by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.

How the District's plans would be funded isn't clear, particularly amid Pennsylvania's ongoing budget impasse. 

The changes, presented Thursday morning at a press conference, would include openings, closings and conversions among district and charter schools, Newsworks reports. 

'Diverse Needs'

In a release, SDP Superintendant Dr. William Hite said the recommendations aim to "enhance and improve educational opportunities" with a particular focus on achieving greater equity.

Two new schools, a Science Leadership Academy middle school (SLA-MS) and a Big Picture High School, would aim to create new choices for 860 middle and high school students at full capacity.

The SLA middle school would open in 2016-17 in partnership with Drexel University, following the "grow a grade" model, and eventually serve students in grades 5-8. The project-based school, which focuses on science, technology, math, and entrepreneurship, originated in Philadelphia in the mid-2000's in a partnership with the Franklin Institute. It currently has two locations in Center City and at Beeber Middle School.

The Big Picture High School, a partnership with the non-profit Big Picture Philadelphia, would join three similar schools that opened last year through the Office of New Schools. Starting with 125 ninth graders, the open-admission school would offer project-based learning and internship opportunities to 500 students at full capacity.

The District also hopes to select up to three chronically low-performing schools for turnaround programs that would off a support framework for students, teachers and families.

To improve middle school offerings, the District proposes consolidations and grade reconfigurations affecting West Philadelphia's Dimner Beeber Middle School and northwest Philadelphia's Morris E. Leeds Middle School and Hill-Freedman World Academy, which would be merged. Dimner Beeber would be phased out over the next two years, redirecting students from its feeder elementary schools. An expansion to 8th grade is proposed for elementary schools that currently send students to Leeds.

Finally, the District proposes to expand the number of charter operated schools by converting them into Renaissance Initiative schools. The program is credited with transforming several struggling schools, improving educational outcomes and reducing the number of school incidents. If approved, parents would select from several charter operators for Jay Cooke, Samuel B. Huey and John Wister elementary schools.

"Our students have incredibly diverse needs that deserve to be met," Dr. Hite said. "For more than 5,000 students across these 15 schools, these proposals represent an opportunity for life-changing learning experiences."

Budget Limbo

The cost of the proposed reforms was not stated by the District during its presentation Thursday.

State school funding has been frozen for the past three months amid the stalemate in Harrisburg. 

According to the Pennsylvania Auditor General, the School District of Philadelphia has already borrowed $275 million to make up for the missing funds, reports. Locked in a battle with Republicans, Governor Tom Wolf vetoed another stopgap budget this week that would have provided $11 billion in state funds to schools, local governments and state vendors, retroactively covering the months of July-October.

In a statement following the veto, Wolf strongly criticized Republican leaders for failing to present legislation that adequately increases taxes and enables higher government spending on education.

"Just like their sham budget in June, this stopgap budget makes it clear that Republican leaders not only want to do nothing to move the commonwealth forward, but they are intent on taking us backwards," Wolf said. "If the Republican budget became law, our deficit would balloon to $3 billion, and instead of restoring education funding, even further cuts would become necessary, and our credit rating would become junk status – that’s unacceptable."