Construction came to an abrupt halt this week on a $37 million project to co-locate two Philadelphia high schools after students and staff reported health problems and conditions some say are hazardous for learning and working.
“That building is not safe for kids,” said Daniel Symonds, who teaches history at Science Leadership Academy. SLA, as the magnet school is known, moved this month into a building that already housed Benjamin Franklin High School, a neighborhood school at Broad and Spring Garden Streets.
After delays twice pushed back students’ start date, Philadelphia School District officials said the building would continue to be an active construction site through the end of the year, but safe for students to attend.
But the first few weeks of school were marked by loud noises, bad smells, dust, and other nuisances that made learning tough, staff, parents, and students said. Some students got sick, and one was hospitalized.
Children and staff had asthma flares, and some have come to school with safety masks to limit the airborne effects of the construction. A strong smell of tar from a roofing project permeated the schools one day last week, building occupants said. And because a significant portion of the building is not ready, multiple classes crowd together, and equipment necessary for learning remains inaccessible — for instance, some students have no chemistry class because the chemicals are locked away and the labs incomplete.
“Every day, I teach with dust in my mouth,” said Pia Martin, Science Leadership Academy’s health and physical education teacher. “I come home with dust on my clothes. I have to take multiple showers a day."
Everyone was prepared to deal with some bother from the construction project, staff said.
“But this building is beyond what’s reasonable, and is certainly not anything that anyone in any non-School District workplace would consider acceptable,” Symonds said.
The problem is “much worse than a construction project that missed its timeline,” said Jerry Jordan, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president. "It’s a failure to make the needs of Philly’s schoolchildren a top priority.”
Megan Lello, a district spokesperson, said no official could answer questions about the project. But she confirmed that it was halted because of staff and student health and safety concerns. She also said the district would use the time to address issues with contractors.
“We share their concerns, and will ensure they adhere to contract requirements while performing construction in an occupied building,” Lello said in a statement. “There’s expected to be a meeting at the end of the week to review and discuss the recovery plan so that work can commence.”
The project was announced two years ago, and construction began at Ben Franklin last year. The schools are separated by a wall, and have separate entrances.
Keith Pretlow, a Ben Franklin culinary teacher, said conditions were worse for Ben Franklin students and staff during construction last year.
“There has been dust, and gaping holes in walls — it’s not a perfect school environment, but we did the best with what we had,” he said. “Not once has a teacher stopped teaching or a kid stopped coming to school because of this.”
What has been heartening is the way the two very different schools have come together, staff said.
Pretlow spoke Tuesday afternoon from football practice, where SLA students were cheering Ben Franklin students on, he said.
“We’re working well together; the kids want to be together, and they love each other,” said Pretlow.
Underpinning the construction headaches is concern that the district only stopped construction when Science Leadership Academy, whose students are whiter, wealthier, and routinely score higher on standardized tests than Ben Franklin’s, began to occupy the building.
“SLA parents have more pull, and more influence,” said Pretlow. “Where there’s more influence, there’s more privilege.”
“Because of inequality and a lack of justice in our city, the Franklin staff is not listened to the way the SLA staff is,” he said.
Parents and teachers said the district seems to be implying that because Ben Franklin dealt with construction for so long, SLA is out of line for complaining. “It’s inappropriate and cruel to weaponize what the district did to Ben Franklin,” Martin said. “No school should accept that.”
One SLA parent said she and others have been frustrated by what they say has been a lack of accurate information about the project, and that the timeline has been off from the start. Some have raised the idea of renting space in the synagogue across the street from the campus, or even moving students into the district’s headquarters, a few blocks down North Broad Street.
“This has been a disaster three years in the making,” said the parent, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.
Teachers gave their students credit for still being hardy and excited to be at school, even through the construction problems.
“We’re not the only school in the district making due with an unreasonably low budget and unsafe facilities,” said Symonds, the SLA teacher. “Our building as a banner project of this school district represents the district’s deeper issues — a systemic toxicity and a real indifference to how that impacts teaching and learning needs.”