This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Two passionate, contentious town hall meetings on Monday ended without any resolution about where to relocate more than 1,000 Ben Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy students while construction continues in their shared building. The ongoing project to renovate the building at 550 N. Broad St. has disturbed asbestos insulation and shaken loose dangerous airborne fibers, prompting its closure to students and staff.
At the morning meeting, Superintendent William Hite floated a plan that would quickly relocate students to one of two schools: South Philadelphia High School or Strawberry Mansion High in North Philadelphia. A packed house of parents and community members greeted that proposal with a chorus of groans and boos, peppering District officials with questions about their children’s health and safety, and demanding to know why the District hadn’t devised a better contingency plan months ago.
By the afternoon, Hite had backed off that plan, but did not rule it out. Other sites were floated as possibilities, including two buildings abandoned by charter schools that closed.
But neither of those are near the building at Broad and Spring Garden Streets where the two schools started co-location this year, and the District embarked on a fraught $37 million construction project to divide and upgrade the building.
At the end of the day, Hite said that the goal is to notify families on Thursday where they should report on Monday. He said he wanted to get students back in school as soon as possible. District officials are asking the public to contact them to share any additional suggestions for sites.
SLA teacher Daniel Symonds: “Philadelphia, no one is coming to save us. … I need all of us to remember that when someone in a suit tells us there’s no money to fix these problems, that there IS money to fix these problems.”
Angry parents and students berated District officials for poor planning at both meetings and at an afternoon rally outside District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St., where they were joined by several elected officials. And after a brief pledge last week to try to work with the District cooperatively, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) blasted the District’s handling of the construction project and its building safety protocols in general.
“From the management of the construction, to their handling of asbestos hazards, to their communication with school communities, the District has failed to properly address the myriad concerns raised by this utterly shambolic renovation project,” said a press release from PFT president Jerry Jordan. It said that the “righteous anger” on display at the meetings “could have been avoided if the District worked more closely with the PFT on potential solutions.”
Students and staff feel “disrespected and neglected,” the release said.
At the meetings, students and parents shared worries about the relocation plan, often in strong language. Relocation will mean major disruption of classes and extracurricular programs, they said, and potentially expose students to violence from their new building-mates.
The second meeting lasted two hours, most of it filled with heated denunciations and questions from many unhappy students, staff, and parents.
Officials changed their tack, saying moving into an empty building would be “ideal.” There was agreement that no students should return to the Ben Franklin building until construction is complete, which is likely to take three months.
Any joint temporary site should have separate entrances, high security, and be close to public transit. Hite emphasized the goal of getting the students back to a “normal” school experience as soon as possible.
Parents, staff, and students raised many questions about the impact of a disrupted school year, including SATs and college applications for seniors. There are concerns about long commutes to a new site, accommodation for students with special needs, and the future of Career and Technical Education courses, which have strict requirements about the number of hours required for students to become licensed in a specialty.
Said one SLA junior: “Next year, I have to apply to colleges, and when they look at my transcript and say, ‘Wow, that’s weird,’ I’ll say, yeah, the School District sent me to three different schools and none of them were adequate.”
Another SLA student wants co-location to work, but said he’s very upset with 440 leadership for letting students down: “I’m as happy as can be in that building, and I want this to work.”
Asbestos, a common insulation used before 1980, is present in most of the District’s buildings, and it is not dangerous if contained. But airborne fibers shaken loose by damage to pipes, ceiling tiles, and other areas where it is used can cause lung disease and other cancers.
Some airborne asbestos was detected in a boiler room and in the area of the renovated building used as the SLA commons, although the District said the level was in the acceptable range. The PFT begged to differ, saying that the type of testing used wasn’t the most precise available. And the community was already reeling from news that a longtime teacher at Meredith Elementary School in South Philadelphia had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, which is directly linked to asbestos.
Hite said Friday that he decided to close the building “out of an abundance of caution.”
Ben Franklin junior Jeramie Miller speaks at a rally outside District headquarters as (from left) State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, City Council member Helen Gym, and State Sen. Vincent Hughes look on. (Photo: Bill Hangley)
At the rally Monday afternoon, Benjamin Franklin junior Jeramie Miller said students don’t want to live with uncertainty about environmental dangers around them.
“Going to school in an active construction site is hard for everyone,” he said. News of asbestos “was shocking, to say the least.”
The problem, he said, is that straight answers aren’t easy to get. Students are told, “We ‘probably’ weren’t exposed, we ‘probably’ won’t catch anything – no one has any answers for anybody.”
Completely dealing with environmental hazards in the District’s more than 200 school buildings, average age 80 years, is beyond the District’s financial capacity. City Council member Helen Gym urged people to pressure Gov. Wolf and the state legislature to “pay up on fixing our schools.”
The morning meeting was dominated by the discontent about the District’s initial suggestion to relocate students to Strawberry Mansion or South Philadelphia, raising uncomfortable issues.
Ben Franklin student Marilyn Clanton. (Photo: Bill Hangley)
“I live around Mansion, and that’s why my parents refuse to send me there, because of the kids there. I’m not even comfortable driving past when school’s letting out,” said Ben Franklin student Marilyn Clanton.
Parent Majeeda Monea, who has two children at Franklin, told Hite that violence and trouble were virtually inevitable under his plan. “If we take the children from Ben Franklin and move them to Strawberry Mansion, we know what’s going to happen,” she said to cheers from the audience. “Their safety should be our first concern.”
Franklin sophomore Javier Raymond said, “I don’t like it – I’m gay, and I don’t feel that it’s going to be safe for our LGTBQ community in that building.”
Added his mother, Carolyn Corrley: “Mansion is real dangerous – I hear a lot of bad things.”
Franklin teacher Patricia Brown said, “When they leave this community for another, we know what is going to happen. They’re still going to have to leave the building. They’re still going to have to find safe transit home. You, as a District, should have thought of a contingency plan.”
Clanton said that this week’s surprise closure is just the culmination of months of disruption caused by the construction, which has filled classrooms and hallways with noise and dust since work began last year. She said it was absurd for students to be expected to take this fall’s state assessment tests.
“We missed nine days of school. Are you going to give me back my French class?” she asked. “How are you going to test us for our growth when we missed nine days of school?”
Darlene McCray, whose 19-year-old son is in a special needs program at Franklin, said she was less concerned about his schooling than his health. She told Hite and his staff that she’d seen her own mother die painfully of asbestos-related disease and didn’t want to see that kind of illness again.
“These kids need to find out if they’re OK. I made a doctor’s appointment for my son,” she said. “I know what can happen. Five or 10 years down the road, they can lose their life.”
Later, she said tearfully, “It took my mother three years to die.”
Hite opened the meeting with an apology. “We didn’t get it right,” he said. “We are deeply sorry. … I apologize.”
He confirmed that the District had never expected to need to relocate the students entirely. But now, he said, it’s going to be necessary to rehouse the entire student bodies of both schools through December.
A survey of available spaces – including chats with Temple University and the Community College of Philadelphia – revealed only two workable options, South Philly and Mansion, Hite said. Other options all had shortcomings: West Philadelphia High lacks the space. The former L.P. Hill Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion is available but needs too much work. District headquarters would likewise need “major renovations,” Hite said.
But numerous parents and staff demanded that Hite and the District hear more from them before making any final decisions. Hite agreed to hear from a hastily assembled “task force” of community members, who stayed after the meeting to discuss other options, such as the former World Communications Charter School building on South Broad Street.
Hite promised to present revised options at tonight’s meeting with SLA parents. Some at the morning meeting counseled patience. Longtime activist “Mama” Gail Clouden warned families not to write off the possibility that co-location could work. “You have a chance for the Ben Franklin children, the Strawberry Mansion children, and the SLA children to all sit down and show the world that they can learn together,” she said.
But Clouden also warned the District: “If you join with Strawberry Mansion, make sure they get what they’re supposed to get, too.”
Others shared a similar concern: Not only could Hite’s relocation plan create problems for the incoming students, but also for their new building-mates.
Strawberry Mansion has been cited for its own asbestos issues, many noted, and its own student body is already short on resources.
“I’m not willing to go into an unhealthy environment. I’m also not willing to go into another school and disrupt their environment,” said Ben Franklin teacher Elena Vasilatos. “Every word I hear is ‘quickly.’ It should be ‘thoughtfully.’”
And among the morning’s loudest cheers came for the parent who suggested that Franklin/SLA students move into District headquarters, while administrators move to Strawberry Mansion.
“It would not be the worst thing in the world for the administrators to work aside students at Mansion, who don’t get the attention we do,” he said to loud applause.
By the end of the meeting, a beleaguered-looking Hite said that he was ready to rethink his plan. His initial priority had been to get students back into classrooms as quickly as possible. “Obviously, from the comments this morning, we have to rethink that.”
Superintendent William Hite speaks with Ben Franklin student Mecca Taylor. (Photo: Bill Hangley)
After talking with Hite personally after the meeting, Franklin senior Mecca Taylor said she wasn’t confident that the disruption would end soon.
“We just went back around in a circle,” she said. “It’s the same problem as when they brought SLA into Ben Franklin. They link us together, then pull us apart, then they link us together again … it’s not going to work.”
“Trust has been lost,” said Brian Lynch, a special education assistant at Franklin, who lives in the Meredith Elementary School catchment area and sends his children to Nebinger Elementary, both of which have contamination issues of their own. “I’m getting hit three times with this asbestos nonsense. I’m here as a father of two but also of all these kids here. … You’ve said ‘I don’t know’ too many times. If we can’t come up with a solution, as a father and a taxpayer, I demand resignations.”
Hite’s response: “You’re right. Trust has been broken.”