Philly’s Pennsport section laments a sudden dearth of schools

Residents of one up-and-coming Philadelphia neighborhood say something’s missing. Pennsport, which borders the Delaware River a bit south of Center City, doesn’t have an important feature that every family seeks: a neighborhood school.

“Pennsport is probably one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city right now,” said Pennsport Civic Association President James Moylan. He said the surge of new businesses and new homes plus the neighborhood’s accessibility all make it desirable.

But there’s a problem: “We currently have no elementary educational options within the boundaries of our community. No Catholic, no private, no public, no charter,” Moylan said.

This is the outcome of a confluence of trends and factors that have touched just about every neighborhood in Philadelphia, but few as hard as Pennsport. Pennsport’s current anxiety is an early warning sign of the impacts the city school district’s money woes and school closings may have on various city neighborhoods’ growth and vitality.

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Philadelphia School District representative Deirdre Darragh said the Abigail Vare school building was recently closed because of low enrollment and the age of the school. Vare’s students will move this fall to the Washington Elementary School. Darragh added that by combining the two public schools, students will now have access to more programs.

For Pennsport residents, a closed school makes life more challenging. Moylan said the Vare’s closing came hard upon the loss of both of the neighborhood’s Catholic schools.

“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia abandoned us,” he said, “despite the fact that we had significant efforts and promises from the neighborhood to help stabilize, support and save at least one of them.”

Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said the two parish elementary schools that had served the Pennsport community—Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Sacred Heart—merged into another location due to shrinking enrollment. Gavin said the decision was made based on recommendations from an advisory panel that was asked to respond to the archdiocese’s demographic and financial challenges.

The shuttering of the Catholic schools made a mark on Mike Gillespie’s family. His kids used to be able to walk four blocks to attend school there. Now, said the father of four girls, “We are sending our kids to Our Lady of Hope, which is the regional Catholic school designated by the diocese to serve this community. It isn’t in this community—it’s at 13th and Jackson, which is about a mile and a half away.”

The Gillespies are emblematic of the influx that has invigorated many city neighborhoods like Pennsport.

Gillespie said he and his wife both grew up in the suburbs and over a decade ago they made a choice to move to Pennsport. But the lack of a school now shadows their feelings about where they live.

“It was a strong community that had roots and among the roots was a good school system. Both a public school and Catholic school. So it’s hard for us now not having a school close by,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie said having kids go to school further away also changes their social lives because friends live further away and the kids can’t venture there alone.

Pennsport Civic’s Moylan said he regularly hears about families that are talking about moving out because of the lack of schools. “Schools are the heartbeat of a neighborhood, they’re the soul of a neighborhood,” Moylan said.

At a park nearby, guidance counselor Steve Silvasy was enjoying Friday’s sunny weather with his 18-month-old daughter Brie.

“It will really determine the next four and a half, five years—if we’re going to stay here or not,” Silvasy said. “It is a bit problematic if there’s no public schools in the area. You certainly don’t want to increase problems of logistics with going farther away for school.”

Silvasy is glad Brie is still a few years away from kindergarten. By the time she’s ready, he said, maybe something will have changed.

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