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School district may shutter Washington, relocate Vare

A plan to close a Pennsport school and relocate its students
to a Dickinson Narrows site has bred communal discomfort.


By Joseph Myers

Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 17, 2013

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Demonstrators from Abigail Vare School have voiced continuous opposition to their site’s proposed closing.


Photo by Dana Jenkins


Mapping the Future: The first in a three-part series covering proposed changes to the School District of Philadelphia’s learning institutions. 


Neil Mininger has sent his son, Ryan Stem, to Abigail Vare School, 1621 E. Moyamensing Ave., for four years and has delighted in observing the second-grader’s progression into a stellar student thanks to tireless teachers.


The proud father might need to root for his offspring at a different site next year, as the School District of Philadelphia has proposed closing the Pennsport facility and relocating its enrollees to George Washington School, 1198 S. Fifth St., whose program options the educational overseer plans to halt. 


The potential changes and two further recommendations for South Philly’s public institutions constitute a tiny, yet powerful portion of a design that could shutter 37 schools and lead to grade changes, program co-locations and mergers for many more.


“This community has to continue to have Vare as a resource,” Mininger, of the 400 block of Reed Street, said Tuesday morning during the location’s monthly parent meeting, the first since Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.’s Dec. 13 announcement of what would be the largest constriction in the district’s history. “This school has taken off in the last few years and deserves chances to keep excelling.”


Ninth-year principal Joanne Capriotti guides 387 pupils at the 111-year-old location and led the parent gathering in a discussion on how to keep Pennsport’s last elementary school from closing, with Our Lady of Mount Carmel, formerly 2329 S. Third St., and Sacred Heart of Jesus, formerly 1329 E. Moyamensing Ave., schools having merged last year with Epiphany of Our Lord School to form Our Lady of Hope School, 1248 Jackson St.


“Not in my wildest imagination had I expected to be on a proposed closures list,” Capriotti said. “What’s most pressing is finding out why the district chose us.”


She and her colleagues had expected to receive that knowledge Friday yet remained uninformed as they addressed their guests, leaving them to theorize that the building’s age sealed their inclusion. Lacking any feedback, Capriotti could not further plans for a formal rebuttal of claims but vowed to represent Vare at Jan. 29’s Facilities Master Plan community session taking place 6 to 8 p.m. at South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St.


Mention of the Lower Moyamensing secondary site also occurred last month at the district’s North Philly headquarters. In his seventh full month helming the scholastic entity, Hite has needed to face sobering facts, such as, according to the master plan, a 27 percent enrollment reduction since 2002; 53,000 empty seats; and $300 million borrowed to cover this year’s expenses. He voiced plans to push the district-wide capacity rate from 67 percent to 80 percent with myriad moves that could save his employer $28 million beginning in ’14-’15. In addition to Vare, whose community coordinator, Marge Petronis, said faced closure in the 1970s, once for desegration purposes and one time for supposedly being non-fire-resistant, and Dickinson Narrows’ Washington, the district, if given approval from March’s School Reform Commission vote, would relocate the Career and Technical Education programs at Edward Bok Technical High School, 1901 S. Ninth St., to Southern and would close Smith Academics Plus, 1900 Wharton St., giving the youngsters Chester A. Arthur, 2200 Catharine St.; George W. Childs, 1599 Wharton St.; and Edwin Stanton, 1700 Christian St., schools as replacements.


All together, the closings and other alterations, which Hite devised through suggestions from the Boston Consulting Group, would affect 17,000 students and 2,000 staffers. They also would help the nation’s eighth largest school district to hit his goals of improving academic results and ensuring financial stability. As Vare last year bested the district average in 10 of 12 areas on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, Capriotti knows her charges already have academic acumen.


“I understand the district needs to do something,” she said, “but I just hope it looks at the heart and soul so many pour into this school.”


Capriotti encouraged the parents to be crusaders, lauding their spot’s diversity and autistic support services as boons. The Pennsport Civic Association and 1st District Councilman Mark Squilla, of Front Street and Snyder Avenue, have helped, too, and the parents pledged to call more officials to balk at the proposed exodus. Like their Pennsport contemporaries, many of whom have demonstrated in front of Vare, Washington figures have found themselves fighting the plan, with rallies, appearances at district meetings, social media posts and chats between parents and Principal Omahr Ashe, who declined to comment, leading their opposition.


Although blessed with dedicated students, who can boast about having topped the district’s marks in nine of the PSSA competencies and achieving adequate yearly progress on the federal government’s No Child Left Behind law seven out of the last nine years, the site would no longer operate its initiatives, according to the recommendations summary, with Vare personnel to assume responsibilities, although to what extent remains unknown. Capriotti anticipates Hite’s following through with a vow to be transparent, as does first-year Washington teacher Amanda O’Hara.


“I’m saddened by this news not only because of my position, but because of the potential George Washington has,” the autistic support teacher for kindergarteners said of her spot’s potential conversion. “We’re a community of lifelong educators and learners.”


Her site, with 277 students, has, according to published reports, a sturdier infrastructure than Vare. O’Hara said, though, its figurative stability should matter much more than its technical advantages. As the quest for answers from her superiors intensifies, the educator knows that Washington registrants can remain at the location next year or enroll at George W. Nebinger School, 601 Carpenter St. Should the commission approve Hite’s recommendations, she heard she and other employees might remain at their present spot or end up transferred to Nebinger, but O’Hara, who fears surrounding schools will not be able to instruct autistic students adequately, yearns to return to Washington, where in less than five months she has developed an unwavering affinity for its young minds.


“The school district is making a mistake,” she said. “If you want to continue the excellence and keep safe, high quality academic schools open, George Washington should remain open as well.” 


Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com or ext. 124.

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