Center City Schools May Soon Collapse Due To Their Own Success

Over the past several years, School District of Philadelphia (SDP) enrollment has been in continuous decline due to lower numbers of school-aged children as well as the sizable growth of charter enrollment. For many of us, all we know is a declining school district, as the District has been shrinking since its 1970 peak of 300,000 to today's 134,000. However, in the midst of this decline is an unforeseen and looming challenge. This challenge, is on on the verge of the tipping point and one that threatens the most successful schools in the District.

This challenge, of schools over capacity and unable to educate any more students, are concentrated in two areas: 'Greater' Center City and the Lower Northeast. The Lower Northeast has seen growing enrollment as immigrants and Black residents have moved to the Lower Northeast, replacing a predominately older-resident White neighborhoods. I have not yet analyzed the data in this area, but know that growth has been sizable and continues to grow. Of particular acute challenge here is Mayor Kenney's plans for Universal Pre-K and Community Schools, both of which would be especially important here given the ELL and income demographics, but may not be possible due to no available space.

The other area which is experiencing overcapacity is the 'Greater' Center City area, which has seen significant population growth, both in middle and upper income residents, as well as Hispanic and Asian immigrants. Many of these schools have seen double-digit enrollment increases. In addition, as I started to review this, I am seeing predominately Black schools that appear to have been over capacity both in 2009 and 2015, that must be further reviewed, especially as it relates to unequal resources. Given the prevailing narrative that low-income Black schools have seen continual decline due to movement to charter schools, I did not expect to identify instances of overcrowding at schools. In a future study, I'd like to parse these numbers.

For data sets, I used the School District of Philadelphia's capacity numbers. Unfortunately, I am not aware of this in Excel format, so it had to be manually entered, thus limiting the scope of my assessment. Enrollment data from 2009 to 2015 was gathered from the School District of Philadelphia's Open Data page

Jackson Elementary saw the largest enrollment growth, of 67% in 6 years. In 2009, it was only at 58% of capacity to today's 99% capacity. The catchment area has remained constant during this time. Every demographic grew in this six year span, but the largest growth is in the Hispanic population (doubling in size), multi-racial and White population. The SDP suppresses demographic data when it is a small size and thus some data suppressed in 2009, so I am not able to compare the initial numbers for multi-racial and White students.

The following Center City schools are over 85% capacity. The SDP has previously cited 85% as the ideal capacity number based on best practices.

  • Greenfield - 90% Capacity;
  • Jackson - 99% Capacity;
  • Kearny - 107% Capacity;
  • Kirkbride - 86% Capacity;
  • McCall - 118% Capacity;
  • Meredith - 123% Capacity;
  • Spring Garden - 108% Capacity;
  • Comegys - 96.1% Capacity; and
  • Powel - 147% Capacity.

This would be one issue if schools were slightly above the 85% metric and were not anticipated to grow much larger. However, this is exactly the opposite of what is happening. In only six years, many of these schools and others have seen double-digit growth. A handful of these, such as Stanton and Arthur, grew due to enlarged catchment areas. However, most of these schools saw no change in their catchment size between 2009 to 2015:

  • Arthur - 28% Growth;
  • Bache-Martin - 15% Growth;
  • Greenfield - 23% Growth;
  • Jackson - 67% Growth;
  • Kirkbride - 43% Growth;
  • McCall - 44% Growth;
  • Meredith - 25% Growth;
  • Nebinger - 41% Growth;
  • Southwark - 40% Growth;
  • Stanton - 57% Growth;
  • Waring - 32% Growth;
  • Ludlow - 21% Growth;
  • Vare - 16% Growth;
  • Powel - 22% Growth.

Given these significant growth numbers, it is anticipated that those that do not currently exceed capacity may soon exceed capacity. Those schools that already exceed capacity are very likely to see continued expansion pressure, pushing these schools to the limit.

It appears that the SDP was not prepared for this, even as recently as the 2011 Facility Master Plan:

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The Facilities Master Plan devotes much of its pages to reducing seats, not expanding seats and indeed, many of the catchments that we discussed show a reduction in school age children or minimal growth.

In contrast to the Facility Master Plan, I've created a Fusion Table showing the percentage growth in these Center City schools: 

Several questions come to mind given the current utilization numbers, six year growth, and anticipated growth:

  • How can Mayor Kenney's plans for Community Schools and Universal Pre-K happen in a school that is over capacity? If there is literally no extra room, how are these programs possible?
  • What is the District's short term and long term plan for these schools? Temporary pods may be a quick fix, but ultimately, a long term solution must be identified. One no-cost solution may be adjusting catchment boundaries so that surrounding under capacity neighborhood schools could balance the numbers out (Full disclosure: My neighborhood school is under capacity and I would gladly accept more students [as long as the resources come as well])
  • What is the District doing to adequately project school capacity and find solutions for pending problems right now? If catchment boundaries will change, it is imperative that this is communicated years in advance. Parents are paying a premium to buy in school catchments, under the assumption that these boundaries will remain fixed. If these boundaries will not remain fixed, there must be a clear transition plan laid out in advance and communicated to all stakeholders. Failing to do so jeopardizes the ability for these capacity problems to be solved.

Given the lack of communication in the school closure process, it concerns me how the SDP is going to handle this. Given the lack of projection to identify capacity issues in previous SDP documents and no public discussion that I am aware of, I am concerned that the SDP is not ready as more schools go over capacity and literally run out of room. It is my hope that this can start to move the conversation forward and decisions are made to address this looming problem right now.