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Redevelop William Penn High building as STEM center?

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

by Aurora Jensen

Instead of building more charter schools, State Rep. Curtis Thomas and organizers of the William Penn Development Coalition say, the School District should refit and reopen closed neighborhood schools to address growing educational inequality in Philadelphia.

“It is time to declare a moratorium on charter schools,” Thomas said in an interview last week. He said charter schools had not lived up to his office’s expectations for district-wide improvement in education.

Faced with expenses that are higher than available recurring resources, the School District of Philadelphia is facing pressure to sell closed school properties for a profit, while facing harsh criticism from people like Thomas and Inez Henderson-Purnell, director of the William Penn Development Coalition (WPDC).

William Penn High School, which was closed in 2010 and never reopened as promised, stands as a reminder of the abandonment of these neighborhood schools in favor of charter schools, Henderson-Purnell said. The hope is to revive the site as a center for pioneering ventures in science, technology, engineering, and math – often called STEM education.

“With the closing of schools throughout the District and the lack of access to high-performing educational environments [outside of exam and special admit schools], we believe our youth deserve the opportunities that STEM education provides,” Henderson-Purnell said.

In a Feb. 5 town hall meeting, about 40 community members discussed the potential for the redevelopment of the site of William Penn High School on North Broad Street, not far from Temple University. Thomas, who attended the meeting, said that “William Penn High School is not on the School District’s property disposition list, and the 2010 School Reform Commission decision to reopen WPHS in 2014 remains the current status.”

The people at the meeting became the first official members of the WPDC, with the launching of their new membership program. Beverly Coleman, Temple’s assistant vice president for community relations and economic development, also attended the meeting.

The plans for the new William Penn High School campus were launched in 1966 by then-superintendent Mark Shedd in an effort to bring new educational opportunities to lower-income neighborhoods and address festering educational inequality in the city. However, by the time the school was closed in 2010, its enrollment had fallen to a fourth of its estimated capacity.

Henderson-Purnell and Thomas recognize the low enrollment of WPHS when it was closed down and attribute it to the District’s neglect of the originally high-quality, innovative campus and a disconnect between the school’s financial support and its original promise to boost educational achievement in the area.

Rather than continuing to pour money into charter schools, Thomas advocates a change of focus that addresses the needs of the under-resourced, under-enrolled and under-achieving neighborhood schools that have been affected by the expansion of charters over the last decade.

Besides a revival of STEM at a revived William Penn, Thomas wants to see the addition of more trades and more partnerships with community organizations, industries and corporations that will help students prepare for specific career paths that exist within the city. He hopes that an investment in repairing and maintaining school facilities and this new model for a public school will allow students to regain trust in the School District, empower them and prepare them to enter Philadelphia’s workforce.

Temple University has expressed interest in buying the site of WPHS. Henderson-Purnell hopes that Temple could be a potential ally in a public-private partnership to repurpose the site and said that Coleman, the Temple representative who attended the town meeting, expressed interest in meeting with and potentially partnering with the WPDC.

Thomas, however, is wary of a partnership, citing reports that Temple wants the site for athletic uses. He fears that a sports or athletic development on the site will “destroy the peace and tranquility of the Yorktown community” and all nearby neighborhoods.

Aurora Jensen is an intern at the Notebook.

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