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The announced closure of 23 Philadelphia School District school buildings has spurred a plethora of rumors in and around the neighborhoods in which the schools are located. They include rumors of schools being converted to condos, rumors of school closures as the first step toward wholesale gentrification of minority communities, and rumors about the existence of a mysterious cabal orchestrating it all.
The School District has put forth an Adaptive Sale and Reuse Plan (see below) for the sale or repurposing of the schools, but that plan is set to be revised, according to Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who will oversee the sale of the schools. The final plan has not yet been decided, and in the absence of that information, the rumors persist.
Rumors surrounding University City High School, the subject of AxisPhilly’s next Schoolhouse Watch forum on May 15, include the contention that either the University of Pennsylvania or Drexel University has already made a deal for the school building. It is a contention that is flatly denied by officials.
“There is no agreement for University City High,” said School Reform Commission Chief of Staff Loree Jones. “None of the school buildings that were just voted for closure have been put up for sale.”
Still, the rumors persist, and their perceived validity depends on one’s background and experience. For those who have never lived with institutional discrimination, the rumors make no sense. But for those on the opposite end of the spectrum — like many residents in communities with closing schools — the rumors are rooted in reality. That was the case in Germantown, where community leaders felt jilted by the school closing process.
“I participated in the comprehensive school based meetings [that took place prior to the School Reform Commission decision to close 23 schools],” said Vern Moore, of the Germantown Clergy Initiative. “The community rallied and gave input [through a study produced by Enon Baptist Church and Next Step Associates, LLC]. It didn’t seem like anyone was really interested in what the community said. It seems like there were microphones and people who appeared to be interested. …
“The bottom line was they had in their mind that Germantown High School was gone and that Fulton Elementary School was gone. It seems like there’s a master plot that the neighborhood will be gutted and someone has another agenda. And I’m not really clear on what their agenda is, but I would hope that it would be for the children. The sense of neighborhood will be evaporated completely. The neighborhood will be gutted and there’s just a lot of concern around that.”
Moore is not alone. His view is widely held in communities where schools are closing. It is a view that is fostered by generations of mistrust between rich and poor, majority and minority, between divergent communities pitted against one another in an awkward dance revolving around children and schools. It is a mistrust that is real, not imagined, born of fact, not fiction. And perhaps most important, it is a mistrust that has grown from a history of specific incidents.
In University City in the 1960s, urban renewal decisions influenced by a University of Pennsylvania-dominated organization called the West Philadelphia Corporation led to the wholesale removal of black families from the community where University City High School was later built. The WPC, as it was known, was a consultant to the Redevelopment Authority, which ran the urban renewal process that became known in black communities as “negro removal.” Ironically the Redevelopment Authority is one of the agencies that will now be involved in the sale or repurposing of the closing schools.
There was also discrimination involving school construction. In Strawberry Mansion, for example, neighbors waged pitched battles against the School District and labor unions to get people of color employed on the construction site of the Leslie P. Hill School. For those who were there to see that happen, it is bitterly ironic to see the school listed among the 23 district school buildings slated to close. School closures in other poor and minority communities are similarly galling for those who remember the ’60s-era student demonstrations that prompted then-Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo to show up and utter the words, “Get their black asses!”
The list of indignities goes on: De facto school segregation that kept poor and minority students separated from white and affluent students. Busing battles in the 1970s that saw buses filled with black children being pelted with rocks thrown by angry white adults.
When viewing current events through the lens of that history, it is easier to understand the suspicion. Add to that the fact that many of the schools are slated to be shuttered despite documented community opposition, and the mistrust makes even more sense. Layer the history and perceptions with numbers, and the theories are hard to ignore. On average, 96 percent of the students in each closing school are economically disadvantaged, 90 percent of them are African American or Latino, and 54 percent of the closing schools are in zip codes with median household incomes below $30,000.
All this makes it difficult to convince angry community members that the schools that are slated to close are not part of a grand scheme to revamp the makeup of their communities. But Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who is tasked with heading the coalition of city agencies that will handle the sale or repurposing of the closing schools, says there is no conspiracy.
“No deals made for any buildings as far as we know,” Greenberger said. “I haven’t engaged in any discussions about deals and I don’t believe there are any deals.
“We’re certainly familiar with anxieties that sometimes translate into rumors, but the School District certainly wants to move this along as quickly as reasonable, but they also understand that this has got to be a thoughtful process.”
As of now, official information on the future of the buildings is scarce. With students still occupying the schools and classes still in session, the communities in which the closing schools are located are still coming to grips with the SRC’s decision to shutter the buildings. The city has not yet decided on a plan for selling or repurposing the buildings, either. With a lack of information available, rumors have filled the vacuum.
In the meantime, the City of Philadelphia and the School District have work to do.
Greenberger said no decisions have been made about what city agencies are going to sell which buildings. “Is the RDA, is the PIDC, is the School District going to sell them? We don’t know,” he said. “The decisions will be made based on what’s the most efficient way to handle that.”
“We’ve got to get some clarity in the summer and into the fall,” Greenberger said. “There’s some urgency around this stuff. Not just the School District, but communities don’t want to feel like these things [are just lingering].”
Unfortunately, time is short, communities are justifiably suspicious, and rumors run rampant because there is a decades-long history of slights and offenses where schools are concerned.
Greenberger assured me in an interview that the community will be heard, and I believe him. But the School District and the City of Philadelphia owe the residents of these communities much more than that. They owe the residents a coherent plan. And since the Adaptive Sale and Reuse Plan that was put forth by the School District is going to be revised, the community needs to know what that revision will look like, and they need to know before next month, when the schools are slated to close.
The clock is ticking on the closure of the schools, and given the history, the residents must be involved in the decisions being made around the future of the schools.
That is the truth, and only truth can defeat rumors. We’ll see if that truth comes to pass.
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