Mark Gleason testifies before City Council on school closings

Today, Mark Gleason shared critical facts about the quality of the schools slated for closure and calls for dramatic changes across the system. Here is his full testimony:

Madam Chairwoman, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to comment today. My name is Mark Gleason and I am the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership. We are a nonprofit that is working to expand the number of great schools serving kids in Philadelphia. To date, we have invested just under $10 million to about a dozen outstanding schools across the city that are now serving approximately 7,500 more students as a result of those investments. As a reference, I’ve provided you with a map indicating schools we have invested in that are in your respective districts and across the city. We plan to give a total of $100 million to roughly 60 schools across the city by 2016.

But we’re here today to discuss the effect that proposed school closings will have on communities in Philadelphia. This is a critical question – there’s simply no doubt that closing schools is hard. Communities are experiencing a sense of loss and families are grappling with some tough changes. Equally important, though, is recognizing how the schools slated for closure have affected the future prospects of their students. And remembering that…fundamentally…these closings are about improving the futures of all Philadelphia students.

There will be a lot of general statements made today. I want to start by sharing some hard facts:*

In schools listed to close, just 35% of students are proficient in math and 29% of students are proficient in reading compared with 56% in math and 50% in reading in the rest of the district.

African-American students are vastly underserved in the schools selected to close. In these schools 30 percent more black students fall short of grade-level standards in reading and math than in the rest of the district’s schools. The unacceptable reality for African American students in these schools is that their chances of going to college or landing a good job are markedly lower than if they attended one of many other schools in the city.

The schools scheduled to close also are more dangerous for children. Last year there were almost three times as many violent incidents in schools selected to close compared with the rest of the district. Observers and families have fairly raised safety concerns for the young people who now may have to travel farther to get to school. But let’s not forget that there are big safety concerns confronting those students today inside many of the schools they attend now.

Finally, the high school graduation rate in schools listed to close is just 57%, 12 points lower than in schools not on the closing list. This means that a student attending one of these high schools is significantly more likely to drop out of school.**

Tens of thousands of parents already know these facts. Almost four in ten children who live in the catchment areas for these schools have already left. Families have chosen other options – in some cases all the way across the city, and in many cases to other district schools, in search of a better education for their children.

Ultimately, the larger problem is that we don’t have enough high-quality schools in our city. Next year, some students will likely have to move to schools that have proven no better than the schools they are leaving. And this is exactly why dramatic changes are needed across the system. Changes that will be hard to make unless we stop spending money to light, clean, and heat empty classrooms, unless we find a way to balance the school budget, and unless we stop accepting the existence of schools that don’t provide quality educational programs in safe and nurturing environments.

While it is right to ask questions about the impact of closings on particular schools, the biggest question we have to ask is what is the collective set of actions that will lead to a better education for all our students? There are public schools providing quality education to children from low-income communities in buildings across the city, but not enough of them. Last spring the SRC moved to increase access to many of our city’s best schools by adding more than 2,000 seats in more than a dozen of them. Students, parents and grandparents seek these seats out and fill them up. My hope is that District leadership and City Council will focus their energies on how we create more of these schools, and on how we can leverage planning, talent and resources to start schools that will receive new students next fall on the path to improvement. We are ready to be a partner in this effort; we have been meeting regularly with district staff and school leaders to identify ways that the Partnership’s Great Schools Fund can best ramp up its investments in district schools in accordance with Dr. Hite’s Action Plan.

Whatever the final outcome of the district’s Facilities Master Plan, it is clear that thousands of families will experience changes next year. GreatPhillySchools, created by the Philadelphia School Partnership together with the Urban Affairs Coalition, is a new website and print guide that can help families find, compare, and choose schools, or simply see how their school is doing in a variety of ways. Tens of thousands of families have already benefited and we are working with hundreds of government agencies, nonprofits, and community centers to ensure every family in the city has the information they need. We appreciate the support of Councilwoman Blackwell and her staff in helping us to get the word out to her constituents. Hopefully, you have all received some copies of the print guides, and we hope to work with you to continue to provide this information for parents and students.

Finally, I want to appreciate the powerful voices of vocal parents who have come out over the past two months to advocate for their neighborhoods and criticize and question the closings. On the one hand, their pain is harrowing to observe because we know that this city does not offer enough educational opportunities for all, and that these closings-while intended to be a step toward making things better-don’t by themselves give families much benefit in the short run. On the other hand, their voices remind us that parents’ love and involvement are key ingredients in our kids’ education. Public education in Philadelphia has not done enough to harness the ideas and involvement of parents and guardians. Let these closings be the spark that leads to a School Advisory Council at every school that remains open, and to greater, day-in, day-out partnership between families and schools.

Thank you again for the opportunity to be here today, and thank you for your commitment to ensuring that every child in every neighborhood of Philadelphia has an equal opportunity to a great education.

**CORRECTION on 2/14/2013: The high school graduation rate was previously reported to be 54%, 15 points lower than in schools not on the closing list.

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