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For months, raw emotion fueled the debate on the future of Germantown High, a 100-year-old building in a community divided along stark socio-economic lines. Residents who live closest to the school were cautiously optimistic about Camelot Schools’ proposal to bring its alternative school model to the 350,000 square foot building. Those in the more affluent, far-flung areas of Germantown tended to be more opposed.
In the end, though, it’s not raw emotion that will keep the 800 students of Camelot Schools from occupying the building this September. It’s the School District’s inability to assure the safety of students.
As AxisPhilly reported in its Schoolhouse Watch project, Germantown High School is in need of up to $33 million in repairs, updates and code compliance measure. With the Philadelphia School District scrambling to raise $50 million just to open the remaining school buildings in time for the scheduled start of classes on Sept. 9, the funding needed to make repairs to Germantown is simply not there. And the School District can’t immediately send an inspection team to Germantown to assure Camelot that the school is safe without the repairs.
Unfortunately, that means Germantown will be empty come September, though Camelot or another tenant could move in later if the School District finds the money to make repairs or inspects the building and declares it safe. There’s no timetable for that, despite the fact that Camelot Schools received community support for its proposal to take over the building after a series of community meetings convened by Councilwoman Cindy Bass and state Rep. Stephen Kinsey.
Bass, for her part, was disappointed in the outcome. “I’m disappointed that the district would have a community that’s already fractured go through this exercise for no reason when they had the information at their fingertips that something was wrong with the building,” she said. “They contacted us and said ‘There’s this interest by this organization. What do you think?’ And we took it to the people. We had a lot of heated dialogue, tempers flared, there were a lot of conversations, and all along they knew it was a non-starter. What does that say about the district? It says that the district is either completely uninformed about their own building inventory, internal processes and procedures, or incompetent. There was no reason we would have entertained any of this but for the district bringing it to us.”
The district did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Meanwhile, the community remains caught in the middle. Even so, community leaders were willing to give Camelot a chance based on the meetings convened by Bass and Kinsey.
“[Camelot] had some data identifying their program helping kids catch up and transition,” Vern Moore, of the Germantown Clergy Initiative, told AxisPhilly after the last of those meetings. “The stats and data look good. [Camelot was] well prepared and pretty enthusiastic about partnering with the community. It went well.”
The alternative school model run by Camelot serves two kinds of students—those who are returning to school to earn needed credits for their diplomas, and those who have broken district rules and are mandated to attend. Currently, Camelot’s 800 students are scattered in three buildings in North and Northeast Philadelphia. But , Moore said there were community concerns. Camelot addressed many of those concerns, and the deal to bring its students to Germantown was on the verge of happening when Camelot raised the issue of student safety.
Ironically, that gives a reprieve of sorts to community members who, like Moore, felt that the whole thing didn’t pass the smell test. That’s especially true for those who were opposed to Camelot’s proposal, like Rev. Leroi Simmons of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
“These students have been put out of their local schools or dropped out of their local schools and they don’t know anything about Germantown,” Simmons told AxisPhilly.
Enon, which has a Germantown location just blocks from the school, was actively involved in trying to prevent Germantown closing, even funding a study which called for the school to remain open as a k-to-12 facility. The study ultimately failed to sway the SRC, and Simmons was among those who voiced his displeasure with Camelot’s proposal early on.
“It’s just a volatile mix to put in here,” Simmons said in an interview with AxisPhilly. “Camelot kind of runs their place like a penal institution. The children have to walk around with their hands behind their back like they’re inmates almost. And they kind of control the atmosphere in the school, but they don’t control the outside, and the outside is what I fear for. The mix between, Germantown and the students is going to be volatile in my view.”
Residents who lived in more affluent areas of Germantown that are farther away from the school also voiced their displeasure with Camelot’s proposal. Many who commented privately were put off by the specter of an alternative school in the community. Some felt it would negatively affect both property values and community atmosphere. Others felt the proposal was being rushed through without adequate community input.
For their part, both Councilwoman Bass and state Rep. Kinsey sought out community leaders to review Camelot’s proposal, ultimately holding a private meeting with 15 community groups that representing the areas closest to the school.
Bass and Kinsey ultimately recommended that Camelot’s proposal be approved, but the School District has run into the same problem that precipitated the need to close Germantown in the first place. The money to properly repair and maintain the building is just not there. Without the repairs or the approval of School District inspectors, the students’ safety can’t be guaranteed. Both Bass and Kinsey said that’s not good enough.
This brings the community back to a dangerous square one. With large vacant buildings like the Town Hall building, the old YWCA and the former Dept. of Public Welfare building surrounding Germantown High School, can the area really afford to absorb another 350,000 square feet of vacant space?
I don’t think so. Having seen the effects of abandonment in areas like North Philadelphia’s Sharswood community, and in large stretches of West and Southwest Philadelphia, I know that vacancy breeds crime. And that, more than anything else, brings down property values and negatively impacts the quality of life. It’s an issue that I discussed with experts early on while looking at possibilities for Germantown High’s future.
“[The] thing about school buildings is that they might be the biggest building in the neighborhood and that is true of Germantown High School,” Emily Dowdall, author of two Pew studies on school buildings told me in April. “Not only is it one more empty building. It’s a much bigger profile empty building. That vacant land really stands out.”
After running through several possible uses for the building, Dowdall made a pronouncement that in hindsight seems almost prophetic.
“The worst case scenario is letting the building sit empty, attracting illicit activity, becoming dangerous and becoming blighted.”
Central Germantown, a place where with a still-vibrant commercial corridor snaking through pockets of poverty, is a neighborhood that is already teetering between decline and resurgence. If Germantown High School remains vacant for an extended period of time, that could push the community toward decline.
Though finding the money for repairs is doubtful, the district could still find a way to inspect the building, and hopefully, declare it safe. If that happens, there’s a possibility that Camelot or another tenant could come in and occupy the building before the end of the school year.
Here’s hoping someone finds a way to make that happen.