At 8:30 a.m., one week before Christmas, nearly 660 students excitedly hurried up the steps to Alexander McClure Elementary School.
The next day, they would have needed a hazmat suit to enter.
On Dec. 19, Alexander McClure Elementary, the Philadelphia public school I’ve worked in for the last three years, was temporarily shut down because McClure staff and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ environmental science director identified 10 areas of damaged asbestos.
The quality of our public schools is an equity issue. The night and day difference between a public school and a private school should make everyone scream with frustration. No child — no, not even your child — deserves a better education than anybody else.
Asbestos is associated with a wide range of adverse health effects: reduced immune system function, kidney failure, chest cavity abnormalities, and mesothelioma, which is an aggressive form of lung cancer that a longtime Philadelphia teacher was recently diagnosed with.
No number of paint jobs or colorful bulletin boards can mask the fact that we send the most marginalized students in the city to our most dilapidated schools.
Anyone who has been in a Philadelphia public school built in the early 1900s knows that even without asbestos, many of our schools are unwelcoming. From dreary basements to mice infestations, our schools often feel uninhabitable. In the summer, the lack of air-conditioning means sweat-drenched teachers and exhausted students. In the winter, if the boiler is turned on too late, the whole school is an icebox until 1 p.m.
To be clear, I love McClure Elementary. I love the school because of the friendly faces of staff, students, and families that greet me every day, the administration’s persistent focus on shared leadership, and everyone’s unwavering commitment to student success. McClure is a stellar community fixture with dozens of partnerships and a recent designation as a Community School, meaning it has a designated person who collects input on community concerns.
Staff have already created a petition to the School District of Philadelphia demanding immediate action, transparency, and community involvement.
But McClure Elementary and the District can’t make our schools safe without state funding and citizen support.
Imagine the outrage if asbestos had been found in the fancy private Friends school I recently visited, with its modernized wood floors, central air, and exposed brick. Hundreds of perfectly manicured parents sat in the airy, skylighted gymnasium as the principal thanked everyone for fund-raising over $1 million this year. $1 million. And that, mind you, is on top of the tens of thousands of dollars per pupil for tuition.
Where is the collective action right now, when the lives of hundreds of children are already endangered and likely have been for years?
We are constantly trying to come up with creative ways to improve curriculum and better train teachers and principals, but we’re not willing to invest in the infrastructure changes that would immediately transform students’ learning experience.
A Band-Aid will not close this gap. We are playing whack-a-mole with a life-threatening issue when we need a complete overhaul. This is not a time for slow, gradual change — it’s a time for immediate, massive action.
The School District of Philadelphia needs billions of dollars to address outstanding repairs, but does not have the money to pay for them. Meanwhile, families and corporations make tax-deductible donations to private schools and the state government fails to properly invest in the neediest schools.
Governor Tom Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania program aims to invest $4.5 billion into infrastructure, including remediating unsafe school buildings. We must move forward with this plan and then significantly increase our financial commitment to saving our schools — before Philadelphia has a Flint water crisis-scale disaster.
We cannot have equitable education for our children without equitable spaces. Everyone is responsible for demanding that all schools are safe, welcoming environments so that our children only worry about what’s most important: learning.
Andrew Knips is a teacher leadership coach in Philadelphia with over a decade of serving Philadelphia students and school leaders.