Algernong Allen stopped in front of a placard describing the history of University City High School when walking around the site just two days ago.
“I had to pause because something didn’t seem right about the way the transition happened,” Allen told attendees Wednesday at an AxisPhilly/ NBC 10 forum about the future use of the school building. “In light of respect for the way that transition went I still believe [that] in the future, no matter what happens to that space, some recognition has to be given to how that transition occurred.”
University City High School was built after houses had been cleared during a controversial process known as urban renewal. After a losing battle to keep their houses, a community known as the Black Bottom was pushed out in order to make room for the school, which was completed in 1971. Soon after, another fight took place to allow children of color to attend the school.
It is now slated to be one of 24 city schools that will close at the end of this school year (and one of 23 school buildings that will be shuttered). The future use of these school buildings is the focus of Schoolhouse Watch, a project started by AxisPhilly in collaboration with other organizations. The purpose of the project is to seek community input on future uses for the closing school buildings.
The lack of transparency that transpired before the closings angered many students, community members and even city officials.
“It was one of the major problems that we had with the school district, with the school reform commission and the superintendent was the lack of transparency,” City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said at the forum. “I think we end up with many problems because of the lack of transparency–even for us, and we were on the inside.”
Moving forward, it’s clear that the communities surrounding these schools want transparency, and they doubt that they will get it.
Wednesday’s forum, which took place at Metropolitan Baptist Church near the junction of the Powelton Village and Mantua communities, focused on the future of University City High School. Panelists included Allen, of the Baltimore Avenue Business Association, George Poulin, chair of the Powelton Village Civic Association, DeWayne Drummond of the Mantua Civic Association, Third District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Emily Dowdall of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative, and Allan Domb, president of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors. AxisPhilly’s Solomon Jones moderated the forum.
Philadelphia is not alone in these large-scale school closings. Other school systems in Chicago, Kansas City, Miss., Tulsa, Okla., and Washington D.C., have weathered or are currently weathering these closings.
“This is not new and this is not unique and this is also probably a problem that’s not going away,” Dowdall said. She added that school districts and cities are only just beginning to realize the importance of maintaining a focus on these buildings and what happens to them after they close.
Dowdall pointed to Kansas City as a leader in starting the process early and involving the community.
“One important part of what they’ve done is really share a lot of information, because community input, community engagement isn’t really that meaningful if community members don’t have the same information as the school district has, as developers have,” Dowdall said, citing market studies and technical assessments of the buildings.
The market value of the building that houses University City High is $22.7 million, the highest of all the school buildings that are closing.
Poulin sees it a critical site for connecting Powelton Village to University City. “I see a lot of great opportunity for the site to be developed in such a way that there could be both a kindergarten through 8th grade school and a high school on the site,” he said. “But also an opportunity to introduce mixed-use development such as retail and housing to connect our neighborhood with the rest of University City, so to me it’s more than the school building itself, it’s the whole site.”
Domb has perhaps a more practical and cost effective proposal. He suggests Philadelphia follow the lead of New York City, which he said has opened 656 new schools over the past 11 years. Domb’s idea is to partner schools with existing corporations in the city, like Comcast and PECO, in order to equip students with technical skills that they could apply in those companies.
“The key to these new schools is to combine the high school curriculum with dynamic specialized skills and training that prepares students not just for college but for specific jobs when they graduate from school,” he said. “One of our biggest complaints in the city from employers is that we don’t have trained employees. “
Several University City High students were present at the forum, some of whom work at the school’s community garden. During a question and answer session, two students asked about the future of the garden and when they were going to be asked about their say in the matter of the closings.
Others pointed to the lack of community input in the school closings process, and even now they wondered if they would have a say in any future use of the building.
One gentleman in the audience commented that he knew someone who said they had seen a set of proposed development plans for the school, but he could now say exactly whose plans they were. None of the panelists responded to his comments, and didn’t seem to know anything about the plans that he was describing. AxisPhilly has previously reported on the rumors surrounding the sale of the buildings—rumors connected to the lack of information and transparency.
Several members of the audience indicated that they wanted the school building to serve as an educational platform for students interested in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
But no matter the outcome, one attendee who said he was a University City High alumnus noted, “We still need to come together with all these different ethnic groups and we need to live together in this community and help one another on an equal level have equal opportunities and equal education.”
As simplified by Drummond in his closing remarks, “I think about the word community. And you can take off that c-o-m-m and you have unity. That’s what I see today in this room.”