Jackson hosts overcapacity meeting with district, politicians

Dozens convened this week at the South Philly public school to discuss solutions to overcrowded classrooms.

Andrew Jackson School hosted a meeting this week to discuss overcapacity concerns with the School District of Philadelphia. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

In light of overcrowding afflicting South Philly public schools, parents, politicians and members of the School District of Philadelphia convened this week at Andrew Jackson School, 1213 S 12th St., where they considered solutions to the inflating issue particularly affecting students east of Broad Street.

As development has increased in South Philadelphia, some public schools, including Jackson, Southwark School, Meredith Elementary School and D. Newlin Fell School, have experienced overcapacity or near-overcapacity in the last few years.

Parents say the overcrowded classrooms cause a scope of safety and education concerns, which they’ve discussed in recent meetings, including a community meeting at Capitolio Playground last month.

Parents and other community members of the Passyunk Square neighborhood have been demanding action from the district, leading to Wednesday night’s public meeting where officials from the district presented tentative short-term and long-term plans to a gymnasium of concerned individuals.

“We’ll be looking at all options that are available in terms of — how do we solve long term for what we know will be increased enrollment over the next couple of years,” said Danielle Floyd, chief operating officer of the School District of Philadelphia.

As far as immediate solutions, the district stopped accepting out-of-catchment students for Jackson, which includes not conducting an enrollment lottery for the 2019–2020 school year.

An announcement on Jackson’s website reads that, “Only students who have a bonafide primary residence within the school’s catchment area will be registered at this time.”

The district says this action will lead to more vacant classroom seats in the near future.

According to data presented by the district, 169 of the 586 students currently enrolled in Jackson are considered out-of-catchment. This includes students who remained in the school after moving out of the catchment and students who participated in the school selection process. Roughly 71 percent of enrolled students live in the neighborhood, also according to district data.

Data from the district indicates that Jackson’s building’s capacity is only 517 — about 70 less than the school’s current population.

Dr. Shawn Bird, the district’s chief schools officer, says by not accepting students who live outside catchment boundaries, 110 seats will be created over the next five years in Jackson, as out-of-catchment students in every grade eventually filter through to high school.

Andrew Jackson catchment area. (Source: School District of Philadelphia)

Grades with the largest out-of-catchment populations include fourth with 26 out of 63 students being out-of-catchment and sixth with 23 out of 52 students being out-of-catchment, according to district data.

“We’ve already started this, but we will enforce not accepting out-of-catchment students at this school, including siblings,” Bird said.

For students who move to a residence out of the catchment, the district will enforce sending them to the neighborhood school of their new home at the end of the school year.

But, parents who already have out-of-catchment students expressed concerns about their children potentially being shuffled to new schools.

“I think this is the first time I’ve heard the idea that current out-of-catchment students might be displaced,” said Sarah Kloss, a member of Jackson’s School Advisory Council “And I find that really upsetting, because we live in a neighborhood that’s, obviously, housing prices are going up, and people are being pushed out, and then kids who have already invested in this school and have already been here for years. I mean, it doesn’t seem like you’re really, in the long term, freeing up any space and it’s just distrupting those kids for no real end point.”

For now, the district says it does not intend on removing current out-of-catchment students, but rather focus on not accepting new out-of-catchment students.

“It is not our plan, at this time, to kick anyone out,” said Karyn T. Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services. “We would not want to create that type of anxiety and hysteria.”

Another short-term solution presented by the district was maintaining three kindergarten classrooms at Jackson, which total 90 seats. Experience from recent years at Jackson confirmed the need for three classes.

Although a lottery enrollment is not planned for this time, parents say there is still panic pulsating in the catchment regarding securing spots during kindergarten registration, which began this month.

But, currently, the district does not anticipate Jackson’s enrollment of in-catchment students to exceed 90 in the 2019–2020 school year.

However, despite these prompt fixes, both the district and parents agree that long-term solutions need to be instilled, especially considering the influx in populations east of Broad Street.

Starting this month, the district is drafting a request for proposal for a demographic study to be done by an outside firm, which will analyze various areas of the city, including South Philadelphia.

The RFP, which will be released in February and due in March, intends to find an outside data research agency that will project the population, housing information and other statistics of the Jackson area within the next decade.

“I think the first step for us is to make sure that we get a study done and be able to act on what the data is telling us in terms of performing future actions,” Floyd said.

Ideally, from July through November of this year, the process will not only include data gathering and demographic projections but community engagement with parents and teachers.

Based on the data collected, a set of recommendations, which could include anything from catchment redrawing to capital projects, will be submitted through a proposal to superintendent William Hite in November.

The district says such potential recommended solutions could be implemented as early as January 2020.

Andrew Jackson School student enrollment from the 2016–2017 to the 2018-2019 school year. (Source: School District of Philadelphia)

But, some parents feel the study will not be particularly effective, as even if new buildings are proposed, the schools would likely not open for multiple years.

“The district keeps saying the same thing. Nothing ever happens…A study would be good, but I think it’s very late in the game,” said Jackson parent Aaron Edelman “…Nobody has confidence that they’re gonna get this done correctly.”

At the end of the evening, Councilman Mark Squilla, Councilwoman at-large Helen Gym and state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler addressed concerns to the crowd.

All three agree solutions require allied forces from both the city and state levels.

They agree formulas for alleviating overcrowding should not solely come from the district but also from the community. The sooner solutions are solidified, the sooner, they say, funding from both the city and state levels can be instituted.

“People come when there’s a sense of urgency about an issue, and the more this room is filled to capacity, the more likely people are going to step up and pay attention to what’s needed,” Gym said. “If we do it right, we don’t just win it for Jackson and for the South Philadelphia community, we actually win it for everybody.”

Follow Grace on Twitter at @gracemaiorano.

Grace can be reached at gmaiorano@newspapermediagroup.com