With their asbestos-tainted Philadelphia school building closed indefinitely, where will 1,000 students learn?
At first, district officials announced a plan to redirect the nearly 1,000 students to two other district high schools: South Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion, but seemed to quickly change course after those options were roundly rejected by parents.
Classes will not resume Thursday for 1,000 Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy students displaced by construction woes and damaged asbestos found inside their North Broad Street building, superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced Monday.
Instead, school could start up again Oct. 14 — or possibly even later — depending on the relocation plan chosen by the Philadelphia School District.
The news came at two crowded, contentious, marathon town hall meetings, where hundreds gathered to hear the district’s plan for the two schools and to fume at leaders for the way they have handled the $37 million construction project, two years in the making.
For the first time, officials acknowledged that the Ben Franklin-SLA building, in the Spring Garden section of the city, will not reopen for students until January at the earliest.
At first, they announced a plan to redirect, for now, the nearly 1,000 students to two other district high schools: South Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion, but then seemed to quickly change course after those options were roundly rebuffed by parents, who vowed not to send their children to those two comprehensive high schools.
A task force of district staff, parents, teachers, and students formed after the morning town hall worked throughout the day and came up with a list of possible alternative sites, including former charter school buildings — Delaware Valley Charter, Eastern University Charter, and Charter High for Architecture and Design — and the district headquarters. Ben Franklin students will stay together in one location, but SLA students could break up into multiple buildings within walking distance of one another.
Hite refused to remove Strawberry Mansion and South Philadelphia from consideration, saying that more research needed to be done about the viability of the alternative sites.
Monday was the eighth day that students have been out of school because of construction delays and asbestos issues.
“So we were trying to make it that the students would go back on Thursday,” the superintendent said, “but obviously, after this conversation, we’ll need to rethink that.”
The superintendent took a drubbing at both meetings, being accused of failed leadership around what was to be a marquee project for the district — locating a top city magnet school and a neighborhood high school in one building.
Hite, typically calm under even intense pressure, seemed rattled at times. He took responsibility for what happened, but when one parent called for his resignation, the superintendent was emphatic.
“Well, I’ve got news. I’m not resigning,” he said. “I’m going to fix this problem. We understand, and you’re right. There’s information we need to give out more regularly. I’m ultimately accountable for all of this.”
At both morning and evening meetings, students and parents stepped to a microphone to berate Hite and other district officials.
Elena Vasilatos, a veteran Ben Franklin Spanish teacher, said that she can teach without sophisticated technology, but that staff and students cannot compromise on health and safety and should not disturb another school’s learning process.
» READ ‘HIDDEN PERIL’: The Inquirer investigation of asbestos perils in Philly schools
Vasilatos accused Hite of “a lack of respect,” and said he has shown the Ben Franklin community that he feels “that we are uneducated human beings, and that we do not know the system as well as you do.”
Health concerns were cited by numerous parents, staffers, and students.
What happened at Ben Franklin and SLA “is unacceptable in any school anywhere on the planet,” Ben Franklin junior Jeramie Miller said.
“What’s going to happen to my son 40 years from now if he breathed in asbestos?” one Ben Franklin parent said, then asked Hite if the superintendent knew whether his child had breathed in asbestos fibers.
“I don’t know,” Hite said. “I’m giving you an honest answer.”
Later, Hite said the district had been in contact with the city Public Health Department to learn about signs and symptoms of possible conditions it should be on the lookout for among those who had been in the building.
The crowd was incensed. “How could you not know?” someone shouted.
Damaged asbestos was found in the schools’ boiler room and in SLA’s first-floor commons. The superintendent reiterated that air tests of the commons came back below the health department’s threshold for remediation.
Gil Gonzalez said he has had to seek medical attention for his son, a Ben Franklin student who has asthma that began flaring the first week of school. He said parents needed answers about health concerns “yesterday.” And he expressed anger that parents were at first cut out of discussions about relocation options.
“Now you are giving us two options that are for me not acceptable because, frankly, there are neighborhood cultures that you guys aren’t thinking about that you need to think about,” Gonzalez said.
SLA teacher Anna Walker-Roberts, a member of the task force considering relocation options, emphasized that going forward, the school communities need more and better information than they’ve been getting.
Like many in the audience, Walker-Roberts said she was encouraged by the group that came together quickly to find answers, but frustrated that it took so long for their voices to be heard.
“In five hours, it seems like we made more progress than was made in two years,” said Walker-Roberts.
Sara Frunzi, an SLA senior, said the district has “blatantly disrespected” both schools.
“Our education is not a game of poker,” Frunzi said. “You are not allowed to gamble it away.”
Diana Moro, an SLA parent, said the school communities’ trust in the district is gone. Briefed about the district’s plans two years ago, she said, she told Hite then that the project would never come together in such a short time span. She said she repeatedly asked for a backup plan, and the district never delivered one.
The district “has breached our trust and out-and-out lied to us” for two years, Moro said. “What are you going to do to give students their education back, because you’ve stolen it?”
Hite acknowledged that Moro did express skepticism of the plan two years ago.
“No one wants to be in this position, including me,” the superintendent said. “But we’re here, and we’re trying to look forward.”
Mayor Jim Kenney is out of the country and could not be reached for comment, but in a statement, Otis Hackney, Kenney’s chief education officer, said the administration “shares the disappointment expressed by the SLA and Ben Franklin communities with how the campus renovation has been managed, and how families were communicated with over the last several weeks.”
But, Hackney said, the district has overall made “notable progress” under Hite’s leadership, and it will ultimately produce a “high-quality, modern learning environment” for Ben Franklin and SLA in 2020.