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Asbestos closes Philadelphia high school, forcing students to another facility and sparking anger

White buses with red strips near the top line up on a street in front of a brick building.

Four SEPTA buses line up outside the Building 21 school in Philadelphia Monday morning to take students to Strawberry Mansion High School, where they have been relocated due to asbestos remediation work at Building 21. But most students at the school didn’t show up to take the bus, and the situation has created unease at both schools.

Dale Mezzacappa/Chalkbeat

The temporary relocation of Philadelphia students and staff from a high school got off to a shaky start Monday, following the district’s announcement last week that the school would close after inspectors found potential signs of flaking asbestos during a routine check.   

Just 10% of students from Building 21 (36 out of 366) attended in-person classes on Monday at Strawberry Mansion High School, as parents and students continued to say that they considered it unsafe to go into the North Philadelphia neighborhood where Mansion — as the school is known — is located. Another 126 accessed virtual classes, said district spokesperson Monique Braxton. 

The inspection of Building 21, a small innovative high school founded in 2015, revealed the flaking in the auditorium and stairwells during a routine inspection on Tuesday. Classes were held virtually Thursday and Friday, and parents didn’t learn about the plans for this week until receiving a letter from the district on Friday.

The sudden closure of Building 21, which is located in a 109-year-old building that used to house Kinsey Elementary School, underscores ongoing concerns about the age and safety of many Philadelphia school facilities. The average age of Philadelphia school buildings is roughly 75 years, and health hazards ranging from lead in drinking water to asbestos have been serious problems in the district for years. Such conditions have sparked protests from students and parents in recent years.

Building 21 students and families criticized the abrupt relocation, voicing fears about the safety of Mansion’s surrounding neighborhood. This led to pushback from Mansion students who said that such comments about their school were unjustified.

A Facilities Conditions Assessment filed in 2022 for Building 21’s facility noted that there was asbestos in the auditorium and other areas of the building. Asbestos is not considered dangerous unless it begins to flake. Braxton didn’t know whether work had been done in the building or had been scheduled, but added the district takes action “as soon as asbestos becomes dangerous.” 

While Braxton said the remediation work at Building 21 could take “a few weeks” to complete, she also said that Tuesday would be the last day for the specially-provided SEPTA buses. After that, students would have to use TransPasses available from the district, or get to school another way.

Of the 36 students, 22 arrived in the early morning at Building 21 and rode to Mansion on district-provided SEPTA buses. The others got there by other means. Because of the small numbers, no traditional classes were held. Instead, students completed assignments they could access through Google Classroom.

Four of SEPTA’s long “articulated buses” lined the street in front of Building 21 Monday morning, but only one was needed, and it was less than half full. 

Braxton said that Mansion was chosen for the relocation because it was relatively close and has been retrofitted as a “swing” school for just such circumstances as this. But at a meeting at Mansion on Sunday, about 200 parents showed up to express their displeasure with the change. 

One parent said their children would be “targets” in the neighborhood, citing its history of violence. “How dare they try to send our kids there?” said another parent, Sheila Johnson, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Frustration continued into the school week. As she boarded the bus Monday, Ta’Neseia Edwards, an 11th grader at Building 21, said she thought remote learning would have been a better solution for students at the school. 

“They shouldn’t have picked Strawberry Mansion. I understand it’s not a good environment,” Edwards said.

One boy getting on the bus Monday was more blunt. “They are putting our lives in danger,” he muttered.

Wanda Sekle, the parent of a Building 21 10th grader, said she was concerned about the situation. “I don’t feel good, I may transfer my son to another school. I don’t feel good at all,” she said. 

Just one of the buses went to Mansion Monday afternoon to pick the students up. At dismissal time, several Strawberry Mansion students commandeered TV microphones to say that their school was being unfairly maligned.

“It’s rude to talk about us that way, the school is way better than it was years ago,” said senior Marissa Cooper. “It’s disrespectful to say what they said.”

Building 21 students will have their own entrance, classrooms, and cafeteria while at Mansion and “don’t interact at all” with the students who normally attend Mansion, Braxton said.

The district had planned to phase out Strawberry Mansion, which now only enrolls 200 students, in 2008, and repurpose the block-long complex where it’s housed for various alternative education programs. But those plans were shelved after opposition from City Council President Darrell Clarke, a Mansion alumnus, and others. The City Council is a major source of the revenue for the district, and the Board of Education has no power to raise its own funds. 

Some tried to turn the situation into a more positive moment. When Building 21 students arrived at Mansion Monday morning, a phalanx of community activists known as Men from Mansion formed a line to welcome them as they walked into the building. 

Pennsylvania Department of Education regulations allow only five days of the required 180 days of instruction to be virtual, and those five days are “to be used … if a circumstance arises that prevents instruction in the customary manner.” Braxton said that Building 21 has used them all up, including the two from last week. 

The district is seeking an exemption for Building 21 from the state. It had not heard back as of close of business Monday. 

From now on, Braxton said, Building 21 students who do not come to school will need to provide a written note with a reason in order for it to be an excused absence.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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