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To begin to understand the impact of the planned closure of Germantown High School on the Germantown community one must first recognize the passion and the commitment of the people there as described by Betty Turner, who has lived in the community for 50 years.
“No matter what changes here that continues to surface, a passion and a commitment to Germantown,” Turner told attendees during a forum about the future use of the school building. “Every time, in all of the years that I’ve been here, that something has come up in this community to frustrate it, out of that frustration has come hope and new initiatives.”
Turner, president of the Germantown Community Connection, was one of six community leaders who spoke on a panel as part of “What’s Next? A Forum on the Future of Germantown High,” which was hosted by AxisPhilly in partnership with NBC10 at First United Methodist Church of Germantown on Friday afternoon. Other panelists included zoning attorney Bill Ewing, a former member of the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment, Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass, State Rep. Stephen Kinsey, Emily Dowdall of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative, and Allan Domb, president of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors. The forum, moderated by AxisPhilly’s Solomon Jones, sought to facilitate community discussion about the best use of the school building going forward.
In March, the School Reform Commission voted to close Germantown High. It is one of 23 city schools slated for closure at the end of this school year. In response to the closings, AxisPhilly in partnership with NBC10, PlanPhilly and The Public School Notebook launched Schoolhouse Watch, a community-building project designed for people who want to have a say in what happens next.
Kinsey, a Germantown High grad, said his office has fielded numerous calls about ideas for the building’s future use. Most want to see the building remain an educational facility; other suggestions include a retirement community and a cultural center.
But above all, it can’t be left to sit empty. Kinsey pointed to the problems associated with the vacant building that housed the Ada Lewis Middle School before it was closed several years ago.
“We’ve gotten calls about vandalism, loitering and so forth,” Kinsey said. “I said to the district is this the same process [for selling the school buildings] that you’re following that allowed Ada Lewis to sit for numerous years.”
Those lurking, idle buildings negatively impact the community and the Germantown commercial corridor. One business owner says when the school’s doors close, so will hers. “She said, ‘I’m closing. I’m going out of business because most of my business is from students.’ You can see it right across the street; it’s the consignment shop,” Bass said. “She said she doesn’t get the volume of business from the community but the students shop there.”
Dowdall acknowledged the importance of starting the discussion, “while there are still students in the school because what we found was that the longer a building sits empty, it becomes much harder to find a new life for it.”
One idea for new life received some positive acknowledgement from the audience and other panelists.
“Take Germantown High School possibly and go to Comcast and say to them we want you to adopt this school. We’re not asking you for money. We want you to become a Comcast high school where you actually train people in the school for the cable business. You train them to get a job. So that Comcast can hire these people when they graduate. Now you have all these people interested in the cable business populating this area,” Domb said. “What do you think that does to Germantown Avenue? It develops it … It rejuvenates your whole area.”
But some attendees weren’t ready to move the conversation that far along. During a short question-and-answer session, Vera Primus, president of the Germantown High Alumni Association said, “One thing that no one has paid attention to is the condition that these children are in right now and what this has done to them, and how it has affected their focus. … No one comes up there during the day and when they have community meetings to ask them how they feel. Nobody has asked these children anything.”