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Small crowd talks safety, single-sex education in North Philadelphia

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

Myron Patterson wasn’t taking any chances.

The dozen or so police officers from the 22nd District milled around in the Strawberry Mansion High School auditorium Thursday night – just in case.

“You can have a volatile meeting,” explained Patterson, a police chief inspector in charge of safety in the District.

In one of 17 scheduled community meetings on the facilities master plan, officials had come to discuss proposed school closings and grade reconfigurations in this part of North Philadelphia.The most far-reaching would close FitzSimons High, convert Rhodes High to a middle school, and send students from both schools to Strawberry Mansion.

Strawberry Mansion and FitzSimons are just blocks apart, but serve students representing different factions in intense, longstanding neighborhood rivalries.

To be sure, the issue of safety came up. But there were no tensions on display at the sedate and uneventful meeting, which was attended by three members of the School Reform Commission and two state legislators, Reps. Ron Waters and Vanessa Brown. The police listened for a short time, and left.

The 56 parents, community residents, and students who showed up were at least as concerned about the recommended end of the single-sex education provided at Rhodes, for girls, and FitzSimons, for boys. That innovation was introduced nearly a decade ago when the two schools were turned over to Victory Schools, an education management company.

“I am a proud parent of a graduate of FitzSimons,” said Anna Figueroa, who was wearing her “Parent Power FitzSimons” jacket. “I believe in single-sex education. The boys don’t have to prove themselves in front of the girls. A lot of the boys came out of FitzSimons and went to college and they achieved.”

Other parents described how their daughters had benefited from attending Rhodes, adding that they felt better about safety in an all-girls environment.

Danielle Floyd, deputy for strategic planning initiatives, assured them that options for preserving gender-segregated instruction in the bigger Strawberry Mansion were under consideration.

“We’re looking at ways to keep the integrity of the single-sex model,” Floyd said.

Gary Williams, a lifelong neighborhood resident who attended Strawberry Mansion and a ward leader, asked Patterson about plans to protect students traveling through hostile territory.

“Through the years real and perceived boundaries are all around here, bringing folks in from the other side,” he said. “What do we have in place for students to get from A to B safely?”

Patterson noted that these “boundaries” are constantly fluid, and said that he plans to keep in constant communication with the community.

“On a daily basis, we discuss these matters,” Patterson said. “We assess these situations and act on them. What I’m telling you is we will diligently and relentlessly insure to the best of our capabilities that children and the rest of the community are safe.”

In fact, Patterson said later, the show of police at the meeting was evidence that he could marshal resources when they were needed to keep peace.

Williams talked privately afterward with Patterson. “Getting students safely from portal to portal is a real cause for concern,” Williams said.

Rhodes junior Tatianna Stevenson asked what she feared was a “minor” question – what would happen to the extracurricular offerings and sports once students moved to Mansion for their senior year. For instance, she said she participates in badminton, tennis, field hockey, and bowling.

“That’s not a minor question,” Floyd responded, adding that officials intended to consult students about activities to carry over, including a jazz band at FitzSimons.

Initially, District documents indicated that juniors at Rhodes and FitzSimons would finish out their senior years at those schools, but the handouts at the meeting said that all but 7th graders would move. District spokesperson Fernando Gallard said that the latter option represented the current plan.

“I was at Rhodes since 8th grade,” Stevenson said. “I think that we made a lot of progress at that school.”

The District wants to convert Rhodes to a middle school and close FitzSimons, whose building is in the worst shape. It has also proposed to remove the 6th grade from the area’s feeder elementary schools, Whittier, T.M Peirce, Pratt, and Wright, converting them to K-5. Rhodes would serve grades six through eight.

No one at the meeting asked about the implications of the grade configuration changes.

SRC Chair Pedro Ramos and Commissioners Wendell Pritchett and Lorene Cary came to the meeting. Cary, whose nonprofit Art Sanctuary works in the neighborhood, said afterward that she wanted to draw heavily on student leadership to help solve the various neighborhood and school issues.

Sometimes, students are involved in what she called “false leadership” projects; “this will give young people real life leadership training” she said.

Officials presented some stark numbers:

  • The three schools, with a combined capacity of more than 3,000 students, serve barely more than 1,000.
  • All three schools are below 30 percent usage.
  • Just a quarter of the students in the feeder pattern for the three high schools actually attend them: 224 of 837 students are assigned to Strawberry Mansion and 512 of 2,024 students are within the boundaries of FitzSimons and Rhodes.

Most students in the neighborhood opt for charters, vocational, special admission, and comprehensive high schools in other neighborhoods.

Williams acknowledged that the numbers are striking and something must be done.

“On paper it looks so simple, like ABC, a no-brainer,” he said afterward. “But everything is not numbers.”