This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As South Philadelphia High School opens its doors this fall for the new school year, it is a dramatically different place than it was in June.
More than half the estimated 1,400 students enrolled by late August to begin classes in the building on Sept. 9 would have been enrolled at the nearby Bok Technical High School, if Bok had remained open.
Instead, Bok and 23 other schools were ordered shut down by the School Reform Commission this spring, as a cost-saving measure.
As a result, thousands of children are heading for new schools this fall, creating new opportunities for some and the danger of chaos and disruption for others, as administrators already overtaxed by the District’s recent draconian cutbacks work to cope with the transfers.
The five-story South Philly High building had space to house the influx; the school, known as Southern, finished last school year with about 600 students.
The school and District administration raced to refit the building by the first day of school, with few staffers on hand during the summer to help out. Even if the physical preparations are completed, “because so much will be new … it would still be a heavy load to carry, to bring in so many students at one time,” principal Otis Hackney said in an August interview.
The school is coping by using a variety of measures to ease the transition. This summer, students from Bok and Southern came together to build trust and friendship. Hackney developed a plan to preserve the Bok school name in Southern’s vo-tech programs, and asked athletes to help unite the school.
He said he is optimistic. “We want to hold on to the best of what both schools had to offer, in starting a new tradition. … This can be better than both schools, separately, ever were.”
There is some potential for friction between former Bok and South Philly High students because the schools were athletic rivals, but Bok drew its students from all over the city, so there is not much problem with neighborhood conflicts carrying over, Hackney and others said.
Lea School also grows
The K-8th grade Henry Lea School in West Philadelphia also faces new challenges. Lea is increasing from 400 students last school year to 635, with the extra 235 children coming from the now-closed Alexander Wilson School.
The closing of Wilson, located in Southwest Philadelphia about a mile away from Lea, presents some parents of younger children with transportation problems, because rides are only provided for students who live more than a mile and a half from a school. And there are neighborhood rivalries to contend with as well.
Still, said Sterling Baltimore, the director of the Lea Community School, an afterschool partnership between the West Philadelphia community, the University of Pennsylvania and the School District, “I think the overall attitude will be how to make Lea even better. … It will all come down to good leadership, and Dr. Harrison has a strong record.” Sonya Harrison, the new principal this fall at Lea, is the former head of Wilson, and is respected for her work there, Baltimore said.
Harrison said in an interview that the merger is going well. This spring, the two schools launched a pen pal program, with students exchanging letters.
In May, many students and some parents and staff walked from Wilson to Lea – to address concerns about the extra traveling distance, Harrison said – and the pen pals met each other. “There was a lot of excitement,” Harrison said.
Before school started, parents and children from the two schools were invited to a Lea “mix-and-mingle” event, Harrison said.
Eight teachers from Wilson are moving to Lea this fall, as is much of the art work from Wilson. “We are doing everything we can to make the students and parents feel comfortable,” she said.
A summer program held by the Lea Community School drew a mix of Lea and Wilson students who formed bonds that should help this fall’s transition, said director Baltimore. Neighborhood rivalries are not as big a factor at K-8 schools as they are with older students, he added.
The big challenge, he said, is simply “a matter of kids learning to make new friends. And we’re building on a good atmosphere that’s already there” at Lea.
Baltimore noted one disappointment: Hoped-for funding that would have allowed the Lea afterschool program to expand from 100 to 200 did not materialize. Still, students from both Lea and Wilson will be included in the Community School going forward, he said.
Getting ready for Bok’s migration
To prepare for their transition, South Philadelphia High and Bok students participated in a trust-building exercise as part of an Outward Bound program at Wissahickon Valley Park. (Photo: Dan Hardy) At Southern, it was also a busy summer of preparation for the migration.
Hackney said that one effort to preserve the Bok heritage that has drawn praise is the decision to name Southern’s career and technical education program the “Bok Technical Institute at South Philadelphia High School,” and to have graduating seniors from the program wear a special sash with the blue and white Bok school colors.
A special six-week Outward Bound program at Wissahickon Valley Park for Bok and South Philly High students combined discussions on diversity, conflict resolution, and a group exploration of personal identity. Trust-building measures included traversing ropes suspended high off the ground while the other students in the course held on to safety harnesses.
As a result, said Kevin Taylor, a senior this fall who was at Bok for the last three years, “we understand each other and I learned to trust them. I can really see when we go to South Philly, introducing them to my friends and them doing the same; everything will be all right.”
Taylor added, “Usually, when I see a problem, I try not to get involved in it. But this [course] is telling me that things become bigger things if you don’t do something about it. So if you see something that might get escalated to a different level and you can stop it, why not stop it?”
Outward Bound participant Casey Williams, a sophomore this fall who played on Bok’s football team last year, said sports will play a special role in bringing students together. “If we get a good connection and we do great in the season, that can carry into the school year,” he said. “With all the different perspectives and with African Americans and Asians on the team, we can take that into the classroom.”
Hackney agrees. “I told the football team: ‘You guys have the opportunity to set the table – to set the tone. … If you get off to a great start, that will help bring the school together.’ “
Besides the general goal of harmony at South Philadelphia High this fall, there is a more specific concern. In December 2009, dozens of Asian students were attacked at the school, mostly by African American fellow classmates. Hackney was brought in as principal to oversee a difficult and protracted rebuilding process that both he and students at the school say has made great strides at addressing a history of conflict and violence.
Now, an influx of mainly African American students from Bok who haven’t been part of that process threatens to escalate tensions.
Asked about the situation, Hackney responded, “Is it something I’m aware of? Yes. Is it something I’m concerned about, like it’s going to explode and go back to four years ago? No. … If there is an issue, we will address it.”
Outward Bound participant Alex Seng, a Southern junior in September, said he’s not worried: “Any fights are rare now; South Philly High is not what people think about it.”
Estephany Abedejos, a senior at Southern this fall and a student there for the last three years, said that under Hackney, a sea change has taken place. “Whatever stereotypes people might have about our school are just stereotypes – they are wrong,” she said. “It has been getting better and better, every year.”
One thing that will make the merger more difficult: fewer counselors at Southern this fall. Hackney said in late August that there were four last school year; he expected to have just two when school started.
“I ask a lot of them – to really get involved with students and outside agencies,” Hackney said. “Sometimes, their intervention stops that kid that might hurt somebody later in the day. … They’re very important.”