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Germantown High School is an aging behemoth that looms over the surrounding neighborhood. Like the crumbling Town Hall across the street, and the nearby Department of Public Welfare building, the school is empty. But that could soon change.
Today, as a follow-up to previously held community meetings, 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass and state Rep. Stephen Kinsey will meet privately with Germantown leaders to discuss for-profit Camelot Schools’ plan to bring alternative education to Germantown High School.
“We targeted 15 organizations in a 15 block radius, organizations that are directly impacted or have worked with Germantown,” said Kinsey, who represents the 201st legislative district. “We’re going to have a small Q&A and then a private discussion. Based on that discussion we will make a recommendation to the School Reform Commission (SRC) within 3 days.”
For their part, neighborhood residents are leery of the Camelot proposal, and some are also mistrustful of the government officials heading the meetings. But when I asked them about their concerns, neighbors spoke not only about Camelot. They also spoke of the wounds the community sustained while fighting to save Germantown High School.
It was just a month ago, after all, that Germantown High, a nearly 100-year-old structure,
became one of 23 school buildings to be shuttered by the School District of Philadelphia. The closings were an effort to narrow what was then projected to be a $304 million budget deficit, but the numbers didn’t matter. The people of Germantown were angry. They’d fought to save the school, and they’d lost.
Though Germantown didn’t close until the school year ended, the SRC’s decision to shutter the school came in April. Shortly thereafter, AxisPhilly and NBC 10 held a community forum on Germantown’s future. Neighbors spoke of turning Germantown into a K-to-12 school. They also spoke of anger and disappointment. That’s why mistrust concerning Camelot’s plan to house 800 alternative education students at Germantown High should be expected, especially since most of Camelot’s students won’t be from Germantown if the company’s proposal is approved.
“It bothers me that you can take kids out of the community school and close the school down and not have a place for them to go to school,” said Vera Primus, of the Germantown High School Alumni Association. “But you can take the school, which is a landmark for the community, and bring in outsiders and bring them into the community. And the district claims they have no money. It bothers me.”
It bothers other residents, as well.
“I think that it’s a poor fit for Germantown,” said Rev. Leroi Simmons, of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, adding that many of the students who would attend the school under Camelot’s plan would be from North and Southwest Philadelphia. “… They’re talking about paying $8750 per student, and they’re only going to use 100,000 square feet of the [350,000 square feet] available in the school. They’re only using a quarter of the space and getting almost $9,000 per student. Why not keep Germantown open, and use the entire building for only a little bit more per student?”
Simmons has a point concerning the wasted space, and also makes an interesting point concerning the cost. If the Camelot plan is implemented in 2013 with 800 students at $8,750 apiece, it will cost the District $7 million. Had Germantown High School remained open with 600 students, which is close to the 2012 enrollment, the per student cost of $12,620 would have cost the District $7.57 million, about 8 percent more.
However, if Camelot’s proposal is approved by the SRC, said Camelot spokesman Kirk Dorn, Camelot will pay to lease the building. The lease amount will not be determined prior to the proposal being approved, he said, but it will presumably help to cut costs for the School District.
In a school district facing a $304 million deficit, that matters. But so do the students—both those who will be displaced due to Germantown closing, and those who’ll be forced to travel across the city if the Camelot plan is approved.
Camelot runs an alternative program that includes three schools in North and Northeast Philadelphia, respectively. Two of those locations house accelerated programs where over age or under-credited students attend by choice in order to get their diplomas faster. The third location houses a transitional program for students who have violated the School District of Philadelphia’s code of conduct. Students are mandated to attend by the district.
Because the per-student fee Camelot receives from the School District has dropped by 16 percent, from $10,100 per pupil to $8,750, Camelot says it can no longer afford to run three programs in three different buildings, a fact that has brought us to this moment.
Given the realities facing Germantown, the truth is simply this: Just as Camelot can’t afford to run three different programs in three different buildings, the community of Germantown can’t afford to have its largest and most important building sit vacant.
You see, Germantown is more than just the school. It is a collection of neighborhoods split by a cobblestone street that snakes between them. On one side of Germantown Avenue, near Wissahickon Avenue, there is an area that is affluent and white. On the other side of Germantown Avenue, near Morton Street, there is an area that is poor and black. Between them is a school that serves as a neighborhood anchor.
Fill it with students, and the Germantown Avenue commercial corridor whose stores, restaurants and boutiques depend heavily on student patronage can thrive. Allow it to remain empty, and the neighborhood’s delicate economic balance will begin to falter.
Experts like Emily Dowdall, co-author of the Pew study, Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life, have said that large school buildings cannot be allowed to remain vacant for long. If they do, they not only become a drag on neighborhood property values. They also become magnets for crime, ultimately damaging a neighborhood for the long haul.
This is especially true in Germantown, where large abandoned buildings already loom large in the area surrounding the school. That’s why the building must be occupied, and occupied quickly.
Asked which way she is leaning, Councilwoman Bass said, “Right now I am leaning towards [Camelot’s] proposal. But I do have some questions and concerns and things I’d like to propose. It’s not a done deal. One of the things they’ve talked about is service to young people. There are a lot of people in distress who would fit their population. How do we address that in the immediate community, so we’re not just serving kids from other areas of the city, but kids in Germantown, as well?”
Kinsey, the state representative who is also a Germantown High alumnus, is holding out hope that the building can someday become Germantown High School again. It’s not something that would happen instantly, he said, but he still believes it’s possible.
As for Camelot, the company understands the neighborhood’s concerns, but they hope they can overcome them. “We understand the skepticism of some in the community,” said spokesman Kirk Dorn. “We’ve been through this before when we’ve moved to a new location. We know talking about it is not going to change that. But we plan to earn the trust of the community.”
They’d better earn it quickly. If Germantown is allowed to remain vacant, the future of the community is at risk.
Sources who attended the July 31 private meeting with Councilwoman Bass, state Rep. Kinsey and community leaders said there was cautious support of the Camelot plan. For a more detailed story on the meeting, Click here.