Like a real estate agent trying to convince a prospective buyer, the York City School District gave the community the soft sell, hard sell and everything in between on its middle school closure idea.
Wave after wave of the sales pitch was tossed out to the parents in the packed William Penn Senior High School cafeteria on Tuesday night, led by Superintendent Deborah Wortham.
York City is proposing to close Hannah Penn and Edgar Fahs Smith middle schools and move those fifth- eighth-graders into their neighborhood elementary schools to create a K-8 model, saving money, staff and resources. Hannah Penn students would go to Goode, Jackson or Davis elementaries, and Smith students would go to Devers, Ferguson or McKinley elementaries.
Normally when it comes to the idea of closing a school, let alone two, school districts offer a basic explanation of their reasoning and how they'll handle the move, usually encountering strong resistance.
But Wortham spent Tuesday night in more of a motivational speaker mode, having the audience applaud again and again at the district's academic progress and its vision for a K-8 future, making it more about a coordinated vision than about closing two long-standing schools. "It's time," Wortham had the audience say.
It's time, she went on, to move away from having separate middle schools, which in recent years have been half-empty because of charter schools. With a $19 million deficit next year, it makes sense to do something big, she said, especially since she believes it also will improve achievement.
Money savings: As revealed Tuesday, the K-8 model switch in the fall would save York City $2.6 million a year in utility, maintenance and supply costs. And a K-8 model would reduce the need for cost-saving furloughs, Wortham said.
On the academic side, Wortham referenced research of urban school districts that did well with a K-8 model. She also brought in a familiar face at the meeting via an online video chat with former assistant superintendent Brandon Hufnagel. Hufnagel is now the superintendent of Warren County School District in northern Pennsylvania, where they have two K-8 schools.
"There's nothing scary. It's been very successful," Hufnagel said, adding that it's "very cost effective."
As if to hammer home how thoroughly coordinated the effort has been to make the transition smooth, Wortham had each of the elementary principals go over how their building would add the fifth- eighth-graders. All indicated there would be ways to have the older students enter and exit at different doors than the younger kids, and have their own sections of the school to stay in and different meal times.
"I'm excited at the prospect of getting my children back," Jackson principal Rhea Simmons said.
District security director Michael Muldrow said the K-8 model would work better for his team because it's easier to monitor seventh- or eighth-graders in smaller groups, divided up among the elementary schools, rather than by the hundreds at the middle schools. Each elementary school would also have its own security team, he added, and peer mentor programs would be developed.
Architect weighs in: And if the outside thumbs up from Hufnagel, the research, the support of the principals, the financial incentive and the minimized walking distance weren't enough to make the hard sell, Wortham also had an official with EI Associates architectural firm talk. EI Associates, which built Ferguson Elementary, believes the older students would benefit from moving away from the older middle schools to the modern, green, renovated elementary schools.
Asthma attacks could be reduced with better air quality, and students would be using more efficient lighting and bathrooms, too, EI Associates said.
As for the middle schools, Wortham said they would be used as staff development space or for community use in the next year while the district figures out a long-term plan, such as converting them to magnet programs. Magnet programs use a special theme to attract students, similar to a charter school.
Reservations: Although the applause was spread throughout the presentation, some parents still saw a pitch for snake oil. They got their own applause after pointing out perceived flaws, such as sticking middle school kids with 5-year-olds.
"I understand where y'all are coming from. But how is your plan going to work when our kids don't want to come to school," Jessica Nieves, a mother of five, said to applause after she voiced concerns over bullying.
Another parent pointed out York City just a few years ago moved all the fifth-graders to the middle schools because of elementary overcrowding. What's changed, she wondered, in such a short time.
Renovations, the district replied. Rounds of elementary school renovations have created excess capacity in the hundreds at each building, more than enough to accommodate about 175 or so middle-schoolers.
TanoueOnishi Sweeney, a district hall monitor, had an entirely different concern that the administration didn't have a direct response for but caused a stir of support in the crowd. What about all the pregnant middle schoolers, she said, or the drug deals going down at the middle schools she's reported but still persist? Should elementary students be lumped together in that environment?
Board president Margie Orr, whose board has until July to decide, simply concluded the members would take all the comments into consideration.
"Everybody just pray for us. We'll do the best we can," Orr said.
- Reach Andrew Shaw at 505-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ydblogwork.com.