Members of local public schools recently gathered to advocate for solutions surrounding the over capacity of students in South Philly classrooms.
As South Philadelphia’s development boom continues to inflate, the repercussions of growing populations in neighborhoods across the area have innately led to instances of overcrowding.
Notably, these effects are felt in South Philly public schools, particularly in buildings east of Broad Street, as last week, concerned parents, teachers and community leaders from Vare-Washington Elementary School, Andrew Jackson School, George W. Nebinger Elementary School, Southwark School, Meredith Elementary School, George W. Sharswood School and a few others convened at Capitolio Playground to advocate for solutions regarding overcapacity in classrooms.
Ranging from lessons taught in auditoriums to safety concerns at lunchtime, meeting attendees shed light to a scope of issues that have surfaced for South Philly students in grades kindergarten to eighth grade over the last few years.
“You can see relative capacities on the school district website and you can see where your school may relate, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to what’s actually going on in the building, I feel,” said Sarah Kloss, a member of Jackson’s School Advisory Council. “So, part of this conversation was just people being able to share what is going on in your schools based on the fact that you’re starting to feel the strains of your school filling up.”
During the 2017–2018 school year, data provided by the School District of Philadelphia reveals several South Philadelphia elementary and elementary-middle schools were filled above or near the building’s capacity.
Jackson’s building can safely hold 517 students, but during last year, the enrollment totaled 581, according to data from the district. Meredith’s building can safely hold 477 students, but during the 2017–2018 school year, 573 children were enrolled. This is even less than its 614 count recorded during the 2016–2017 school year, according to data from the district.
Other schools have increasingly grown close to their respective capacity numbers over the last few years, such as Southwark, which held 800 students last year, which is just 15 shy of safe capacity.
“There has to be an even playing field, and the school district does not have a vision of how to make that happen,” said Marina D’Angelo of Jackson’s Home and School Association. “What we wanna know is how to make that happen. We want to have those ideas.”
Several parents at the meeting said they’ve reached out to the school district in the past few years regarding capacity concerns, including conducting meetings with Superintendent Dr. William R. Hite. The district, parents say, was often proposed with three standard solutions to the problem.
First, to stop accepting out-of-catchment transfers, including computerized lottery selections. Second, to remove all outside programs in the building, such as the Head Start Pre K program. Finally, and perhaps the most contentious, is the redrawing of catchment lines.
Throughout the meeting, parents weighed in on the advantages and disadvantages of this neighborhood rearrangement.
For larger schools that are over capacity, such as Jackson, parents feel this option will not make a significant difference, especially considering new developments continue to spring up around the area east of Broad, including a 70-unit apartment complex proposed for the southeast corner of 9th and Washington.
For this reason, some parents favored the idea of extracting grades five to eight in current elementary-middle schools and shuffling them to a new building. Suggestions included establishing a specialized middle school, such as a Science Leadership Academy Middle, or SLAM.
Yet, for smaller schools, such as Nebinger, which was actually under capacity last year with only 376 of 517 seats filled, redrawing catchment lines could solve some of its “stepchild school” concerns, as a couple of years ago, the building was designated to receive any overflow of in-catchment Meredith kindergarteners, which caused some backlash in the Queen Village community, since Meredith school is considered to be one of the top in the city.
“We get put into this very tough situation,” said Ben Schindler of the Nebinger School Advisory Committee. “Because we have to take out-of-catchment families, and we take out-of-catchment families from all over the city, including from many of your catchments … but the reality is that it puts us in this bind.”
The majority of the meeting surrounded brainstorming both short- and long-term solutions.
Considering the gradual influx of new populations into these communities, several parents say establishing more lasting solutions is ideal, including erecting a new building, establishing already existing structures as schools or even leasing space in some of the booming development.
“I think we have to start making the case now to public officials that this is all shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Chris Havener, a parent at Southwark. “There is no way there’s enough physical capacity in South Philadelphia today to teach all the kids who will be there in five years.”
Meeting attendees say they’d like to schedule another meeting in the near future with Hite, members of the school board, building commissioners and teachers’ unions, to voice such concerns and figure out answers.
“You need the union, because we have the power,” said Philadelphia school district teacher Honey Polis-Bodine. “I mean, there are thousands of teachers who agree with you. They don’t want 37 children in a classroom. It’s difficult to teach, and we want to teach our kids. We want to see them progress. It’s totally demoralizing for us.”