PHILADELPHIA: Community Members Resist School Relocation Plan

Photo: Parent Charlotte Williams at community meeting called in response to school closures.

By Alberto Rosse

This Monday classes resumed for students of Benjamin Franklin High School at their new temporary location in the former Khepera Charter School in Northern Philadelphia. Last week parents, students, teachers, and other community members of Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy (SLA) confronted Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite, and other district officials, over the proposed plan to relocate their schools and the handling of their schools’ closure at a community meeting.

The North Philadelphia building that housed both Benjamin Franklin High School, the alma mater of well-known political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, and SLA was shuttered after exposed asbestos was discovered during renovation work in late September. The building has been undergoing construction since the school district decided to split the building between SLA, a magnet school, and Ben Franklin, a neighborhood public high school which originally had sole use of the 60 year old building.

Many parents feel that the district only was willing to renovate the dilapidated building once magnet school students were involved. One former teacher said that “prior to SLA coming in, there was really no concern about the health of the children at Ben Franklin.” As a testament to this, after the school was shuttered SLA students were provided with laptops to continue their education at home while Ben Franklin students have been left effectively without schooling since the closure on October 1.

In Philadelphia, the poorest working-class families are relegated to attending underfunded and neglected neighborhood public schools. These children are mostly Black, but also include Philly’s sizeable working-class immigrant communities. According to district enrollment data from the 2016-2017 school year, 99% of students who attend Ben Franklin qualify for free lunches, and 86% are black.

To discuss relocation plans, the district held community “town meetings” on Monday.  While the SLA town hall was held at 5:30pm, the Ben Franklin meeting was held at 9:30am, a tactic one former Ben Franklin teacher alleged was used to discourage the working-class parents from being able to attend the meeting.

Despite the timing, the Ben Franklin community showed up in force, and disparaged the district over its mishandling of the closure and its negligence.

When Strawberry Mansion High School, a campus contaminated with lead, mold, and asbestos, was floated as a possible relocation site by Superintendent Hite, community members were in disbelief at the district’s continued disregard for the student’s safety and well-being. Shouts of “Hell no!” and calls for the superintendent to resign were heard.

Faced with intense community resistance, the district announced last Thursday that the relocation plans had been changed and that Ben Franklin students would be relocated to the campus of an already vacant charter school in North Philadelphia, and that SLA would split its time between the district administrative building at 440 N. Broad St. and Rodeph Shalom Synagogue.

The district has repeatedly stated it does not have the money to remove asbestos and other contaminants present in the district’s school buildings. Many teachers fear the district plans to use this budgetary crisis as a way to eliminate the public-school system entirely, and replace it with a charter-school only system as has previously happened in New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and Washington DC.

While new space has been found for both SLA and Franklin, this story will almost certainly not end here. If the broader Franklin community want control over this process, they will need to take it. The anger shown at last week’s “town hall” is a good start, but that anger will need to be organized, and care will have to be taken to prevent co-optation by NGOs and the legal “left,” both of whom will want to channel the energy expressed last week into the twin dead ends of the courts and the ballot box.

If this episode illustrates one thing it is that the School District of Philadelphia and the municipal government more broadly are enemies of people, who will stop at nothing until the working-class students of Philadelphia are treated like second-class citizens in their own city.