Reinventing schools as community institutions

    The sight of children lamenting the School Reform Commission’s decision to close 23 schools was heart-wrenching. And while I feel for those students, I’m convinced that the decision to close some of Philadelphia’s schools is the right one, because a school district with 70,000 empty seats is unsustainable.

    Still, I understand the angst of those who live in the affected communities, because the city has spent decades earning their mistrust. When blacks from states like South Carolina moved to Philadelphia in the 1940s, racial attacks and employment discrimination were followed by white flight and disinvestment. The unease of the fifties and sixties preceded police abuses under Frank Rizzo, and when drugs poured into poor communities like Kensington in the 1980s—destroying lives regardless of race—increased violent crime and mass imprisonment ensued. We have yet to recover.

    Today, with neighborhoods like Francisville, Northern Liberties, Point Breeze and others on the upswing, the impoverished are being pushed out in favor of well-heeled-newcomers, and new property tax assessments could accelerate that process.

    I have been poor, and from the perspective of the impoverished, history breeds mistrust. So when a school closing list that appears to target the poor is approved, all the history, all the hurt, and all the anger rise to the fore. That’s how we end up at a crossroads like this one. But now that we’re here, we have a choice. We can punish the poor once again, or we can bring neighbors to the table to re-purpose school buildings as improved community institutions.

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    I’ve thought about this for a while now, and I believe a collaboration between the city, private investors, and the community can effectively reshape the future of the jettisoned school buildings. It can also reshape the future of our city.

    The idea is simple. Every shuttered school building should be redeveloped through a public-private partnership that includes private investors, city government, and the community. The city would offer tax breaks and a streamlined regulatory process to encourage investment, and the plans for the buildings would include housing, retail, and community space. Each project would require developers to hire residents from the catchment area of the former school. Any retailers in the finished buildings would be required to do the same.

    The idea would create revenue for the city, jobs for the community, and income for developers, but it would do much more than that. It would maintain the school buildings as community institutions, and that, at its core, is what this fight is all about. In neighborhoods that have been ravaged by drugs, crime and the other social ills that come with poverty, schools are one of the only institutions that remain. Take those away, and we might as well shout from the rooftops that we are abandoning our most vulnerable neighborhoods. I don’t think we want to do that. I think we want to stand up for our fellow citizens, because they have surely stood up for themselves.

    In the wake of the painful decision to close some of our schools, let’s re-purpose those buildings as new community anchors. Let’s reallocate the schools as centers of community development. Let’s reinvent the schools as a source of community employment, and while we’re at it, let’s make sure the remaining schools provide the level of education all our children deserve.

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