After contentious town hall, Philly high schools could be closed longer than expected

Maurice Boston, a freshman at Ben Franklin H.S., shows his support at a packed meeting discussing the closures of Ben Franklin and Science Leadership Academy high schools because of asbestos remediation at the school district building Monday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Maurice Boston, a freshman at Ben Franklin H.S., shows his support at a packed meeting discussing the closures of Ben Franklin and Science Leadership Academy high schools because of asbestos remediation at the school district building Monday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated: Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 at 9:17 a.m.

Philadelphia school district officials may have to abandon their plans to relocate students from two Center City high schools after parent outrage boiled over at a town hall meeting Monday morning.

The district originally vowed that students from Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy would be moved to new locations by Thursday. Now students will be out until at least next Monday, if not longer.

The district also announced that the building the two schools share at Broad and Spring Garden Streets will be closed until at least January. A delay-plagued construction project, coupled with the discovery of exposed asbestos in the building’s boiler room, has already caused students to miss nine days of school.

At a tense town hall with parents, faculty, and students, district officials pitched the idea of moving students to South Philadelphia High School and Strawberry Mansion High School as soon as Thursday.

When those relocation options went up on a projection screen before a packed auditorium, the audience started grumbling.

“Hell no,” yelled out one parent.

It only got more contentious from there.

Mom Charlotte Williams has two teenagers at Ben Franklin high school. Williams is incredulous the district would suggest sending her kids to Strawberry Mansion high school. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I know you wouldn’t send your children to Strawberry Mansion,” Franklin parent Charlotte Williams told Superintendent William Hite in a question-and-answer session. “That’s not even an option. I swear I will transfer my children to a different school before I send them there.”

Many parents worried their students would be unsafe at Strawberry Mansion or South Philadelphia, two neighborhood high schools with excess space due to declining enrollment. Some said their kids would be targeted if they crossed neighborhood lines.

“The neighborhoods can’t mix,” said Tylia Henry, mother of a senior at Franklin. “Our city is in a war.”

Hite defended the reputation of Strawberry Mansion, located in North Philadelphia and recently considered for closure. He said staff have been working hard to improve the school culture.

But he also seemed to concede that parents weren’t satisfied with the current contingency plan and that the district may have to delay school further to come up with better options.

Ben Franklin high school students Janayah Holloman, junior, (left), Kareeb Graham, senior, (center) and Camille Bryant, junior, (right) put their concerns on a poster for a packed meeting discussing the closures of Ben Franklin and Science Leadership Academy high schools because of asbestos remediation at the school district building Monday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

District officials have already said they won’t allow students to go back to their home building until workers finish a $37 million renovation project. The original plan was to let students use part of the building while workers finished the project.

That project was supposed to bring Franklin and SLA into the same building, and ultimately save the district the cost of spending millions to rent a space for SLA, one of the city’s premier magnet schools.

So far, though, the merger has only produced angst, while laying bare some of the inequities lurking in Philadelphia’s choice-driven high school system.

Franklin staff and families say many of their school building’s issues predate the arrival of students from SLA, but that those issues only prompted action when the magnet school moved in.

“I’m glad that SLA is there, but prior to SLA coming in, there was really no concern about the health of the children at Ben Franklin,” said Lou Williams, a 1972 Franklin graduate and a former Philly teacher.

The revelation that a Philadelphia public school teacher suffers from a deadly cancer caused by asbestos exposure has placed extra scrutiny on the conditions inside the city’s public schools.

District officials could not say how long there had been damaged asbestos in the boiler room at Benjamin Franklin High School. Nor could they definitively say whether students and staff were at risk, in part because of the long average lag time between asbestos exposure and the health impairments it causes.

That uncertainty has left the public school community on edge.

“At the end of the day, I’m not willing to go into an unhealthy environment,” said Elena Vasilatos, a teacher starting her 14th year at Ben Franklin High School.

An overflow of parents and students gather around a feed of a packed meeting discussing the closures of Ben Franklin and Science Leadership Academy high schools because of asbestos remediation at the school district building Monday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘We missed this one’

Perhaps the largest applause came after Steve Cohen, parent of an SLA junior, suggested that district administrators clear out of their building at 440 North Broad Street and let students from the displaced schools learn there. District headquarters is only one block south of the Franklin-SLA building.

Hite said the space could not accommodate 1,000 displaced students. But he was contrite during the nearly three-hour town hall.

“We missed on this one,” Hite said. “But now one of the things we want to focus on is what do we do now to ensure that we get young people back into classrooms as quickly as possible?”

Philadelphia superintendent William Hite hears grievances from students at a packed meeting discussing the closures of Ben Franklin and Science Leadership Academy high schools because of asbestos remediation at the school district building Monday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Some community members, though, wish the district would focus less on speed and more on safety.

“Quickly isn’t always the answer,” said Elijah Afrifa, a senior at SLA who lives in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia. “There’s a difference between quickly and efficiently.”

Afrifa said some of his peers were “talking about transferring” instead of attending Strawberry Mansion High School, but he notes that some SLA students felt the same way about Ben Franklin High School before the two student bodies got to know one another.

He thinks the same could happen with Strawberry Mansion High School if there’s a similar kind of convening.

“We’re getting outside perspectives on Strawberry Mansion, but none of us have really been in there to come up with our own narratives of what Strawberry Mansion actually is,” Afrifa said.

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