Displaced Franklin, SLA students get new homes, will return to class soon

After parents rejected an early proposal, Philly officials have found semi-permanent homes for 1,000 high school students displaced by asbestos, construction delays.

The exterior of Philadelphia School District headquarters

Philadelphia School District headquarters. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

After missing more than two weeks of classes due to construction delays and the discovery of asbestos in their school, about 1,000 Philadelphia high school students will finally return to class.

The school district announced today that students from Benjamin Franklin High School will relocate to the former Khepera Charter School in North Philadelphia on Monday. Science Leadership Academy (SLA) students will split time between a space at district headquarters in Center City and another at Rodeph Shalom, a nearby synagogue. SLA will “begin phasing into the campus model this week,” the district said. That phase-in will continue through next week.

The district expects students from the two schools to attend these backup sites until January, when officials expect to finish renovations on their home building.

“We significantly underestimated the challenge of maintaining a healthy school environment at the shared campus while conducting construction,” district superintendent William Hite said at a press conference.

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Thursday’s announcement brings some level of resolution to an expensive and evolving facilities crisis that spans years.

The district began a $37 million renovation on Benjamin Franklin High School at Broad and Spring Garden Streets in 2018. The purpose, officials said, was to rehab the 60-year-old building and create space for Science Leadership Academy — a district magnet school — to co-locate with the neighborhood high school already there.

The new school opened three days late after a construction delay that officials blamed on broken elevators.

But when teachers and students returned, they complained that ongoing construction created an unacceptable level of dust and noise. The district agreed to temporarily halt construction.

Matters got worse, however, when district and union officials discovered exposed asbestos in the school’s boiler room during a walk-through in late September.

That discovery prompted the district to shut down the school entirely and look for backup sites that could house displaced students and staff.

At the School District headquarters on Monday morning, parents and students at a packed meeting discuss the closures of Ben Franklin and Science Leadership Academy high schools because of asbestos remediation. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At a Monday town hall, the district proposed moving students to South Philadelphia High School or Strawberry Mansion High Schools. When parents rebelled, officials reconsidered.

A task force of administrators, teachers, parents, and students came up with new solutions and polled community members on the new options. That process resulted in the decisions announced Thursday.

“I really like it here,” said SLA senior Sierra Radford, standing inside district headquarters. “I’m just happy to have a building.”

SLA principal Chris Lehmann said his school community was willing to try a split campus if it meant staying in Center City. The school draws from every zip code in the city, Lehmann explained, which meant parents and students valued a central location.

“Remaining in Center City where they can get to where they need to go is incredibly important,” he said.

Ben Franklin parents and staff wanted to stay in one building, said principal Christine Borelli. She said there were no sites in Center City that could accommodate a student body of nearly 400 on relatively short notice.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations around the location being a place where all students could stay together,” Borelli said. “But we are looking forward to going home.”

These temporary relocations will cost the district more than $300,000.

The district will pay $75,000 a month to rent the space in North Philadelphia for Ben Franklin students. Rodeph Shalom, meanwhile, will charge the district a flat fee of $80,000 through the end of December.

There were discussions between the School District of Philadelphia and the Archdiocese to use space at John W. Hallahan, a nearby, all-girls Catholic school. That plan did not come to fruition.

A Hallahan alum started a change.org petition urging officials to block the move.

“We need to make sure that Hallahan and the Archdiocese do not put financial gain before the education, safety, and welfare of the Girls of Hallahan High,” the petition read, in part. “All children deserve a safe place to learn, the girls of Hallahan deserve a safe place to learn.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the petition had roughly 700 signatures.

Hite said both sites offered the district the possibility of staying through the end of the school year if the construction project hits more snags. He does not anticipate that happening.

Hite added that the Franklin-SLA drama taught district staff the importance of slowing down and soliciting community feedback, even in a situation that seems time-sensitive.

“We tend to put our heads down and try to accomplish the work and not think about all of the options that are readily available,” Hite said.

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