Despite their zombie makeup, there was nothing lifeless about the members of the Philadelphia Student Union on Wednesday. PSU members, dressed as zombies, gathered in front of the Philadelphia Public School District (PPS) building to protest the district’s plan to close 37 public schools. The students executed a flash mob dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in protest of the potential school closures. Their zombie attire, and signs reading “RIP Philly’s Schools,” symbolized their ‘dead’ futures without the education of Philadelphia public schools.
The zombie students are not the only ones up in arms about the school closure proposal. When Philadelphia Superintendent William Hiite announced his plan to shut several public schools in December, the backlash from parents, kids, and teachers was immediate. To date, Hiite plans to close 21 elementary schools, five middle schools and 11 high schools.
The main reason for shutting down the schools is a lack of funding. PPS believes they will save $28 million annually by closing these 37 schools. Deirdre Darragh from the School District of Philadelphia spoke with TakePart about the specific benefits of the proposed closures. She said, “The idea is that we have over 50,000 empty seats in the school district. We’re looking to redirect the funds we spend on heating and cooling large school buildings that aren’t being utilized back into the classroom. This way we can provide more enrichment programs and things that help the academic performance of schools.”
The Philadelphia School District is extremely underfunded. Superintendent Hiite has said that if action is not taken soon, the district will run out of money to operate its existing public schools.
In the long run, school district officials believe the relocation will also improve the quality of academics in Philadelphia. Most students will move to better performing schools under the current closure plan. Darragh sums up PPS’s aims in closing schools: “Officially we have two goals. One is to make the district financially stable. As part of that we’re closing buildings that are underused. The other is to improve academic performance for all students.”
Opponents to the district’s plan, the dancing zombie students included, believe that the negatives outweigh any foreseeable gains. Critics say that the annual $28 million the district plans to save does not account for new expenses that will be incurred from transitioning students into new schools. Another major concern is safety; many students anticipate violence from bringing new students from different neighborhoods into an existing school. Parents are also worried that closing public schools will cause increased enrollment in charter schools. This could cause a further decline in the quality of Philadelphia’s traditional public school system.
Those who disagree with the plan to close schools have not stood idly by. The Philadelphia Student Union has organized many protests, in addition to its zombie flash mob. The Philly Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) has several planned rallies and protests. The goal of these groups is a one-year moratorium on school closures until more research into the consequences of closing schools can be done.
The public opposition to the district’s plan has not fallen on deaf ears. Darragh told TakePart the district listens to the public opinion through community meetings. “So far,” she said, “we’ve had four community meetings and we have five more this month. We want to hear reactions to the recommendations [for school closures]. We’re definitely taking into consideration their concerns. We’re also accepting community proposals. If a school believes they have a better idea it’s more than welcome to submit a proposal.”
The Philadelphia School District is not the first to turn to school closures as an attempt to save the district money. Both the Chicago and D.C. Districts are pushing forward with proposals to close schools. If the outcome in D.C. foreshadows that of Philadelphia, all 37 schools may not be shut down. Washington, D.C. Public School Chancellor Kaya Henderson originally planned to close twenty schools, but is now only “consolidating” fifteen due to “strong reactions from the community,” according to a press release from her office.
Given the outrage caused by the school closure proposal, Philadelphia may have a hard time seeing its plan through. As made clear by the PSU’s zombie flash mob, these schools will be taken from them only over their cold, dead bodies. Until then, however, the hallways may be among the walking dead.