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At school-closings forum, young students worry about safety

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

by Charlotte Pope

The biggest fear for the young students who came out to the school-closings meeting at Overbrook High School on Tuesday night was clear: Would their safety be at risk?

In a room of about 300 people, some of the youngest voices in the school-closings debate took the floor at the West Philadelphia school to relay their concerns about the hazards of traveling across unknown neighborhoods, bullying, and increased conflicts among students.

"I want my school to stay open, where I feel safe," said Judea Williams, a 3rd grader at Gompers Elementary, one of the schools slated for closure. "I don’t want to have to watch my back all of the time. If I move to Beeber, I will have to be in school with a bunch of 8th and 7th graders, and I don’t want to be around them because they might have fights. The little children that are tiny might get hurt.”

This meeting, the fifth of nine planned meetings this month, covered the proposed merger of Gompers and Overbrook Elementary into Beeber Middle School to form a K-8 school, and the closure of Lamberton High School, which the District says is under capacity, in order to increase enrollment at Overbrook High School. Overbrook is now operating at 40 percent capacity, according to District data.

Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student services, promised to work with home and school associations to identify safety measures for students.

“We are developing plans for each of our schools so that our students are safe," Lynch said. "That plan is going to involve parents, the community, principals, and the leadership from all schools. We are really hoping that is going to involve people like you.”

The District’s chief safety officer, Cynthia Dorsey, added, “Gompers, Overbrook, and everyone who is here, you are doing something right. We want everyone to be safe, whether they are pre-K all the way up to 12th. We know we have some work to do, but we have to do it together.”

Lee Jones, a parent of a kindergarten student at Gompers and member of the Gompers Save Our Schools Movement, was concerned about the climate at Beeber, which is one of six Philadelphia schools on the state’s 2012-13 list of persistently dangerous schools.

“Our 5-year-olds are going to be with some of the most dangerous 13-year-olds in the city,” Jones said. “They won’t get a quality education if they have no guarantee of additional support.”

Aaron Troisi, an organizer with the community group Philadelphians Allied for a Responsible Economy, questioned the District’s justification for the proposed closure of Gompers.

“The reason to close Gompers has nothing to do with the quality of Gompers, the quality of education, or the quality of the community that they are affecting at Gompers,” said Troisi, whose organization is also a part of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools.

PCAPS member organizations, and many students and parents, continue to call for a moratorium on school closings to allow time to examine the impact of the plan on the community.

“If they decide to close our schools without our permission, we will strike,” Jones said. “We will do anything within our means to make them understand that we must have education our way for the benefit of our children.”

Charlotte Pope is an intern at the Notebook.

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