This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
William Penn High School had a rich history, having produced Ruth Wright Hayre, the first full-time Black high school teacher in the District’s history, an award-winning track team, and some stellar magnet programs.
So when the District announced in 2009 that it was scheduling the 14-acre campus for closure, citing declining enrollment, poor academic performance, and millions in needed repairs, many were outraged.
But those most impacted by the news were the students. Nearly 250 had to leave friends, favorite teachers, and their first high school experience at the end of their freshmen and sophomore years.
Ninth and 10th graders were given preference at the District’s 17 special admission and 12 citywide admission high schools, and asked to list their top three choices. They could also attend their neighborhood high school. Eleventh graders were permitted to stay, becoming members of the graduating class of 2010, with the school then slated to shut its doors temporarily
Naima Bell, an 11th grader at Paul Robeson High School, was deeply disappointed.
“That was the last school my mom went to, and she was happy that I was going to William Penn too,” said Bell, who still gets heated when thinking about having to transfer.
“What was the point of letting kids come to the school if they were going to shut the school down? They shouldn’t have allowed us to come in the first place because the entire 9th grade clicked with each other and now we were all going to be separated and had to start all over.”
Chelsi Rex-Bey, now an 11th grader at Bodine High School for International Affairs, was also upset that she would not be able to continue a tradition that had begun in her family.
“My mom and aunt went to William Penn, so I was excited to go there and was expecting to attend until I graduated,” she said.
Starting from scratch
When Bell was considering which high school to switch to for her sophomore year, she considered Constitution and Dobbins, but chose Paul Robeson in West Philadelphia. Her coordinator from Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit organization that helps students gain access to college, recommended the citywide admissions school and Bell filled out a transfer application. But she did not get accepted until two days before the start of the 2009-10 school year, and that began a rocky start for the 17-year-old.
“William Penn first sent my records to my neighborhood high school, which is Vaux,” Bell recalled.
“Since my records were so late getting to Paul Robeson I didn’t have a roster to apply for any classes, so when I started, I had to sit in the auditorium for the first week of school.”
Eventually her records arrived, but Bell then had to deal with classmates who were unreceptive to her being the new kid on the school block.
“People really didn’t know my name, so they called me the girl from North Philly, and it was irritating because people really didn’t get to know me. They had all these stereotypes about North Philly and when they found out that I went to William Penn, other stereotypes came out,” she said. “They were saying that William Penn was a bad school. So I pulled back from everybody and didn’t really want to get to know anybody.”
Then her grades slipped. At William Penn, Bell was an honor roll student. But at Robeson, she got her first D. It was in public speaking, a class where Bell was expected to deliver speeches in front of the class, but instead handed them in fearful of talking in front of the same students who were berating her.
Bell said these challenges were compacted by her commute.
“I live right around the corner from William Penn, so I went from having to travel just three blocks to having to take two trains and walk two blocks just to get to school,” she said.
“As a result I can’t do all the extracurricular activities that I want to. I wanted to do volleyball and cheerleading, but with the volleyball schedule I’d be getting home too late to finish any homework. I can’t do much [at Robeson].”
Bell said things have improved at her new school, especially relationships with other students, but that “my school year really didn’t start until the end of the year.”
Of the 131 9th graders enrolled at William Penn at the end of the 2008-09 school year, 27 percent transferred to a special admissions school, 56 percent went to a citywide admissions school, and 17 percent opted to attend a comprehensive high school.
For many of those students, leaving William Penn was hard because it meant having to start high school all over. But not every student was averse to the change.
Nzinga Lloyd, who was a 10th grader at the time, was actually trying to transfer out before news of the closure.
“I felt like the school wasn’t academically challenging me,” said Lloyd, now a senior at Lankenau High School.
“The teachers were willing to teach, but [some of] the students just weren’t willing to learn. Then the ones that wanted to act up, the teacher was more concentrated on them for the entire period instead of teaching.”
Lloyd was in the arts and communications academies, and earned As and Bs. But she said Penn did not prepare her for Lankenau, and she had to be tutored after getting a D in algebra her first year at the school.
“I never had to do so much work in my life. Instead of staying home to do my homework, I started going to the library every night.”
This year, Lloyd, who participates in the homework and recycling clubs, said her grades have improved, and though “they aren’t where they should be, this school is better preparing me for college.”
Reasons for closure
No matter how their experiences played out, most students agreed that William Penn’s closure came without warning.
But District officials said the signs had been building, as for years the school fell further below par in its enrollment, academics, and physical condition — three factors the District will now weigh when deciding which buildings to close under its facilities master plan.
William Penn, once a high academic performer, never achieved adequate yearly progress, landing the school in Corrective Action II – Year 6 status. Student enrollment was on a steady decline, dropping from 1,210 in the 2004-05 school year to just 641 in the 2008-09 school year. Although the 554,000-square-foot facility had the capacity to house 2,443 students, only two of its five buildings – the Broad Street building and the gymnasium – were in use at the time of the proposed closure.
William Penn was also in need of extensive and expensive repairs in architecture, and mechanical and electrical systems. According to a District presentation to the SRC, the District would need to invest at least $29 million just to renovate the Broad Street building and gymnasium. A renovation of the entire facility was estimated to cost $80 million, and if the District decided to demolish the existing facility and build a new high school with the capacity for 600 students, it would cost $53 million.
State Representative Curtis Thomas said the District is to blame for William Penn falling into disrepair and academic crisis, but he points the finger not at Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, but at changes made by former schools chief Paul Vallas.
“William Penn became the largest recipient of young people coming out of prison or on the verge of going to prison and needing to satisfy high school requirements,” Thomas said.
“William Penn no longer became attractive for students all over the city and could no longer maintain the kind of choices it was providing because it had to redirect money toward additional security and resources for young people that had issues that they had to deal with.”
Now, the fate of William Penn lies with the District, which said it will consider its use along with dozens of other structures that have either met similar challenges or sit vacant.
When Ackerman withdrew the SRC’s motion last year to shutter its doors for good, she asked the District to repurpose the school as a career and technical academy or some other type of school. Representative Thomas said “I think she and the SRC have to be held to that.”
The Coalition for the Revitalization of William Penn, a group of community activists and alumni, drafted and delivered proposals to the District to “raise the level of awareness around the space of William Penn, the history, and to also let people know a vision of what the school can be,” said Bunmi Samuels, a coalition member and North Philly resident.
Now the organization is transitioning into a nonprofit structure so that it can do more formal work around this effort.
Danielle Floyd, deputy of strategic initiatives, said the District met with the coalition several times to discuss program offerings, and as part of its facilities master plan will generate a “program disparity study” to identify which types of courses should be offered in different parts of the city.
But Representative Thomas said that since the initial meetings, feedback has been minimal, and so he intends to call another meeting with District staff to “talk about where we are on William Penn.”
Still, there’s no guarantee the school will reopen. In fact, when pressed about its fate, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery made no promises.
“We don’t know yet. It may open or it may not reopen.”
For the students with long-lasting memories of Penn, it’s hard to imagine its being closed for good.
“That was the best experience. That’s where I got accepted into Philadelphia Futures, that’s where I started my sports, and the As and Bs on my report card that mom was crying over and showing grandmom,” said Rex-Bey.
“William Penn is where it all started.”