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How race, class, and privilege shape the asbestos crisis at two Philly high schools

How the issue has unfolded at Ben Franklin/SLA reinforces what some parents and educators say is an uncomfortable reality in Philadelphia schools: There are haves and have nots, with divisions often created by race, socio-economic status, and by how organized and vocal parents are.

Mecca Taylor, a senior at Benjamin Franklin High, is shown outside her school building, which is closed until construction and asbestos abatement is completed.
Mecca Taylor, a senior at Benjamin Franklin High, is shown outside her school building, which is closed until construction and asbestos abatement is completed.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

During her junior year, Mecca Taylor coped with near-constant construction noise in her high school, tools lying in the hallways, and dust everywhere. Her allergies acted up in a way they never had, and her friend’s asthma was awful.

“You could see your footprints [along dust-covered floors] when you walked,” said Taylor, 17, now a senior at Benjamin Franklin High School. “We took the SATs in the basement because that was the only place where it was quiet enough."

When classes resumed this September, the school in the city’s Spring Garden section was still an active construction site, but things seemed “10 times better," Taylor said.

Still, work was shut down once and then again, indefinitely, when asbestos contamination was discovered and a cry went up from teachers, staff, and students. Classes were canceled for 11 school days.

So why was the construction OK last year and suddenly deemed a danger this year?

“Nobody cared until our kids got there,” said Ulise Monroe, the parent of a child at Science Leadership Academy, the magnet school that this year relocated to share the site with Ben Franklin, a move that prompted the $37 million construction project.

Philadelphia School District leaders now acknowledge the classrooms won’t be safe to occupy for at least a few months, and this week unveiled plans to teach the nearly 1,000 SLA and Ben Franklin students at separate sites in the city.

How the issue has unfolded in the past days and weeks reinforces what some parents and educators say is an uncomfortable reality in Philadelphia and in many public school districts: There are haves and have-nots, with divisions often created by race, socio-economic status, and by how organized and vocal parents are.

The damaged asbestos at the schools was not discovered until late September, well after SLA students and staff moved in. But those who have been there since the project’s inception say there had been problems and warning signs all along. They said they notified authorities but the district didn’t take action until recent weeks, when SLA parents, in conjunction with both schools’ staffs, lobbied for change.

» READ MORE: In Ben Franklin/SLA asbestos crisis, the whole system is guilty | Editorial

“When it was us, the district didn’t feel like they needed to have any immediacy,” said Keith Pretlow, a culinary-arts teacher at Ben Franklin. “We don’t have the resources that SLA has, and their parents jumped on it right away. Where there’s money and influence, there’s more privilege.”

School District officials did not reply when asked by The Inquirer if SLA’s arrival or advocacy played a role in their response to the construction woes.

There is no doubt there are significant demographic differences between the two schools.

As a magnet school, Science Leadership Academy draws students from all over the city in a competitive admissions process. In the 2018-19 school year, 38% of its students were white, 49% lived above the poverty line, and 98% graduated from high school in four years. The school also has an active parents’ group.

Ben Franklin is a traditional neighborhood public school; its only admissions requirement is that students reside within its attendance zone. Ninety-seven percent of its students are children of color, 100% qualify as poor, 59% graduate in four years, and it has no formal parent-teacher association.

Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who has publicly emphasized equity during his administration, said the district received only some noise complaints during the work at Benjamin Franklin last school year, and worked with the contractor to address the problems. “We had to go in with the contractors and stop those things,” Hite said.

Taylor, the Ben Franklin senior, and others say they complained about construction problems last year to no avail.

The construction project has been an exercise in the way the world works, said Taylor, who said she loves Ben Franklin, which has given her rich experiences, smart classmates, and talented teachers. She was excited to see upgrades in her school — she had arrived at Franklin in the middle of her sophomore year to discover a dilapidated building with broken hallway lights and textbooks with pages missing — but angry that it was other students’ presence that seemed to make them happen.

“They put money into the building when they announced SLA was coming,” said Taylor. “The new stuff, it’s not really for us.”

Much was made of the possible culture clash that could occur with both schools housed in a single building, but that never became a problem, students and staff said. Just a few weeks into the school year, Pretlow said, his students baked chocolate chip cookies for the SLA kids, who reciprocated with candy for their Ben Franklin building mates. They bonded over shared sports opportunities and other encounters.

Meshing well with SLA doesn’t mean that Franklin teachers and staff are happy with the way things have gone down.

Disparities remained. During their long stretch of days off because of the construction problems, SLA students were able to continue their learning remotely with school-issued laptops and even had some class time organized at district headquarters. Ben Franklin students have no laptops — some lack computers or internet access at home — so there was no virtual learning.

“At this point, the students just want to be in school, and the teachers just want to teach," Pretlow said. "If I had to set up a classroom on my front lawn, I would do so.”

Speaking at a town-hall meeting Monday, SLA senior Sara Frunzi talked about the seemingly raw deal for Ben Franklin students.

“I have been in a poorly ventilated space for a month,” Frunzi said. “They have been in it for 18 months. There are so many great kids at Benjamin Franklin. So what if they don’t have as many opportunities as us? They should have as many opportunities as us.”

Even the scheduling of community meetings this week on the relocation of the two schools seemed skewed to SLA’s advantage, said Gilberto Gonzalez, whose son is a freshman at Ben Franklin. The town hall for Ben Franklin parents to meet with district officials was scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, a time when most working parents are scrambling to get to their jobs. SLA’s was at 5:30 p.m.

“Some people can have voices, can take off work, and sit at these meetings, but a lot of parents from Franklin can’t do that,” said Gonzalez. “I have three boys, I struggle from check to check and I can’t make those meetings.”

Gonzalez is active in his children’s education, he said, and so far happy with Ben Franklin, which has a range of career and technical education programs, opportunities for students to take college courses, and teachers prepared for students’ diverse learning styles. But his eyes are open to the differences between Franklin and SLA.

“I feel like if SLA wasn’t in the building, things would be different right now; Franklin wouldn’t be getting the attention it’s getting,” said Gonzalez. “I do think race plays a part in it.”

Monroe, the SLA mom whose son is a sophomore, agrees that the attention the schools are receiving now is because of the magnet school, and that rattles her.

“I have realized that I am privileged, my child is privileged, and it felt like privilege while stepping on the neck of someone else," said Monroe. “It hurt me to my core, and it was a hard realization as a black woman in America.”

Monroe has navigated the maze of school choice in Philadelphia to her three kids’ best advantage, with her oldest now at SLA and her younger two at E.M. Stanton, a diverse South Philadelphia neighborhood school rich with arts education and community partnerships.

Of course, Monroe did not want her son in a building that could make him sick. But, she said, “Ben Franklin kids are just as important as our kids, just as valuable to the community. What’s been done — it’s despicable.”