This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
South Philadelphia’s Save Smith School Committee held a press conference Wednesday in the Point Breeze neighborhood calling for the School Reform Commission to stop the sale of Walter G. Smith School building and reopen the former school.
Sen. Anthony Williams, State Rep. Jordan Harris, Councilwoman Helen Gym, and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson joined the committee and other members of the community in front of the former elementary school at the corner of 19th and Wharton streets.
The group’s concern is a part of the larger issue of Point Breeze’s rapid gentrification within the past 10 years. The influx of young, affluent professionals continues to attract development companies looking to make a profit.
“Nobody here is a fool,” said Williams. "This issue of closing schools is related to moving people out and moving other types of people in.”
The Philadelphia School District closed the school in 2013, along with dozens of others, as part of a plan to cut costs. A year after its closing, rumors of a purchase by Independence Charter, one of the city’s best schools, brought optimism to the community. But hopes were dashed when the community received news that the school would be sold by the District to an outside developer — along with four other Philadelphia schools — for $6.8 million. The plans are to transform the historical landmark into market-rate condominiums.
In October 2015, the District filed a petition for get permission from the Court of Common Pleas to complete the private sale of Smith and the other four schools. That following December, the petition went to a hearing, at which Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and community member Claudia Sherrod objected to the sale of the Smith school.
The petition was denied in February 2016, so the District filed an appeal with the Commonwealth Court.
“We’ve got to save our children and save our Smith school,” said Point Breeze resident Betty Buford. “Because it is important that we have a community, and not a community of houses. Without our school the community is dead.”
The Save Smith School Committee and the residents of Point Breeze are concerned that the SRC is prioritizing private development dollars over the interests of the community’s children.
Point Breeze resident Wilma Frazier said that now that the school is closed, the children of the community have to travel longer distances to school. Some students skip breakfast as a result and are irritable in class which can be overwhelming for the teacher.
“It’s really a hardship not to have Smith school,” said Wilma Frazier, community member and former comprehensive daycare teacher at the school.
“Smith school was a middle way for these kids and their parents are having a hard time because they have to work and sometimes the children are walking to school by themselves, We need Smith school opened.”