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One for the Community

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A remarkable thing happened at the School Reform Commission Wednesday — impassioned community pleas actually had an impact.

My take on it is that Ruth Hayre was pulling strings from above.

After hearing from more than a dozen North Philadelphia community members, including State Rep. Curtis Thomas, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman recommended to the SRC that it table its resolution to close William Penn High School. While the details are still sketchy, the financial implications unknown, and whether the buildings will be renovated or replaced still up in the air, Ackerman made it clear that she wants to see a school named William Penn High School continue to exist in North Philadelphia.

The SRC agreed with her suggestion, to the cheers and tears of community activists, alumnae/i, and others who for the past several months have been outlining the sad history of the school’s decline.

Ruth Birchett put it bluntly and eloquently: "The School District of Philadelphia rendered William Penn High School to a condition of diminished capacity. Its closure will be your failure."

Shauntee Agnew, a relatively recent graduate, outlined in poignant detail how "all the amenities that made the school attractive were not being used." She described computers scattered on the floor of the once-vaunted communications academy, a dance studio being used for storage, trash in the hallways. "Why wasn’t the school kept up?" she asked, noting that its plummeting enrollment should be no mystery: "Students don’t want to come to a school that offers them nothing."

An overall facilities master plan is still in the works to "right size" the District and maximize the efficiency of its more than 300 buildings given the city’s changing demographics and declining public-school enrollment.

School District facilities managers had deemed William Penn — an architectural wonder and state-of-the-art facility built in the 1970’s with a swimming pool, underground parking, and other amenities — as deteriorating and too expensive to be saved. They also admitted to a long record of maintenance neglect.

Despite the euphoria, there is still no clarity on what exactly will happen next. It will take an estimated $29 million to repair two of the five buildings on campus and $53 million to build a new school, the options now under consideration. For now, next year only 12th graders will be enrolled; rising 10th and 11th graders have already chosen new schools. The earliest a new Willliam Penn could open would be the fall of 2012.

Ackerman said that more school closings are likely when the master plan is rolled out — and that keeping William Penn open will likely result in a "trade off" and the closing of another unnamed school in an unnamed neighborhood.

As for her about-face on this, Ackerman said that while she knew some of the history of William Penn — which opened in 1910 as a high school for girls and moved to the new building in 1973– she said "I didn’t have the history of purposeful neglect" and that the statements at this meeting were "the tipping point" for her.

"I changed my mind," she said. "This community deserves the opportunity to have a school that works for them."

For the record, the history of broken promises and historical neglect was laid out pretty extensively here and here three months ago, when the planned closing was first announced and the community coalition began its protests.

As I’ve noted before, fixing or constructing a building is the easy part; making education work is the hard part. The community has plenty of ideas, including a construction trades academy, a health academy with a working clinic, and a restoration of the communications academy. Seeing these through to productive fruition will take effort and resources. And if history is any guide, chances are Ackerman may not still be here when the new school, whether brand new or renovated, reopens.

Back to Ruth Hayre. When she became principal of William Penn in 1956, she was the first African American principal of a high school in the city’s history. She fought hard to keep an academically rigorous curriculum when higher powers wanted to water down courses as the school’s African American population grew. Hayre, of course, went on to be a regional superintendent and then president of the Board of Education.

She would certainly hope that the events of Wednesday signal a new commitment rather than another promise to an underserved community that is never quite fulfilled. If her spirit was behind Ackerman’s and the SRC’s turnaround, her work isn’t done.