At Germantown High, people have been planning to commemorate the school's 100th anniversary in 2014. Now they don't know if the school will be around to celebrate.
The historic neighborhood high school - whose alumni list includes luminaries such as Comcast cofounder Ralph Roberts, former world boxing champ Bernard Hopkins, and jazz great Kevin Eubanks - unexpectedly appeared on the list of 37 city schools targeted for closure or restructuring by administrators who say the district must save money and improve academics.
The vast restructuring, announced Thursday, is unprecedented, certain to fundamentally alter the way the district is organized and run, as officials adapt to the reality of a massive budget shortfall and a charter system that's siphoning children from public schools.
The news struck like a spear at Germantown - and at Bok, Whittier, Gompers, Fairhill, University City, and elsewhere. The closing of any single school affects thousands of people, with the potential to eliminate jobs and harm local businesses.
Every school has its cherished traditions and history - none more so than Germantown, where community leaders already are organizing to try to overturn the decision.
"There will be a fight to save Germantown High," vowed Vera Peeples-Primus, a 1971 graduate and president of the vibrant alumni association. "I'm very upset."
A loud and painful process of protest and pushback promises to play out at multiple schools across the city during the next several months.
Outside Germantown High on Friday, sophomores Brejae Scott and Zuri Collins said they were still stunned and struggling to digest the news.
"They shouldn't close Germantown," Scott said. "They should make it better."
In front of the school fly bold green banners that proclaim, "This is Bears country." And on the front door is a big red stop sign that warns against bringing in guns or drugs.
To those who would close it, Germantown is an old, leaky building that houses a shrinking student body - down 28 percent in two years to 676. On an average day, only 540 show up, because of a 20 percent absentee rate.
The school's academic performance is bad but improving. Only one of five students meets state standards for reading, and in math the figure is one out of six. Only half graduate.
Germantown ranks among the most dangerous schools in Philadelphia. In May, a 15-year-old student slipped down a stairwell into an off-limits basement, beckoned to a female student, and violently raped her, according to police. In 2007, the school made national news when math teacher Frank Burd suffered a broken neck in an attack by a ninth-grade special-education student.
People who love Germantown said test scores and crime stats don't tell the whole story. They say that after being rocked by a decade of constant turnover, both in the principal's office and in the district superintendent's seat, the school has gained stability.
Germantown recently got off the state's "persistently dangerous" list. The alumni association is helping lead "The Library Project," which promises not just a face-lift but a reconstruction. And it has students who achieve: Class of 2011 valedictorian Althea Escorce won a coveted Gates Millennium Scholarship, among the $1.3 million in scholarship money she was offered from 40 universities. She now attends the University of Pennsylvania.
"It's a safer school than when I started," said Adam Blyweiss, a graphic-design teacher in his third year.
Math teacher Jeremy Wright, a five-year veteran, said he chose to stay because the school has made real strides. More kids are focused on getting good grades. More are considering college. Test scores have improved in some areas.
That progress is slow - but real and steady, he said.
"It's not the Germantown of even a few years ago," Wright said.
That's why the closing notice is so painful, he said. It's like the district is giving up on Germantown, on its kids, some of whom live in the toughest circumstances - or may even be homeless, he said.
Ethnically, the school is 96 percent African American. Almost every student in the building is poor.
"These kids are hurt," Wright said. "There's all this change and drama and instability in their lives, and now there's going to be more drama and instability in the one place that's been stable."
Germantown's principal, Margaret Mullen-Bavwidinsi, declined to comment on the possible shutdown.
Physically, the building at Germantown Avenue and High Street is a product of another time, four floors defined by stately columns and a grand marble entranceway. One of two giant extensions, a relic from when the halls were crowded with students, has been sealed off. Also closed is the vast auditorium that came complete with a balcony.
"Given a good rainstorm, my room has leaks," Blyweiss said. "We have rooms that are too hot, and we have rooms that are too cold. But we get around it."
It has long been not just a center of the community but of the local economy: Advocates fear shuttering the school could push the fragile Germantown business district over the cliff, crushing restaurants and stores that depend on money from the hundreds of students and staff who flood the neighborhood every day.
The neighborhood and its businesses also would be hit by other closings, including nearby Roosevelt Middle School and Fulton Elementary, if the district plan is adopted.
Students worry about what's next. The district has designated Martin Luther King and Roxborough as the likeliest options for neighborhood students, and King is closest for most. But Germantown and King are rivals, both athletically and on the streets, students say.
That troubles the Rev. LeRoi Simmons, coordinator of the Germantown Clergy Initiative, who has watched Germantown High struggle for years.
"I don't think the school has failed, as much as the system has failed the school," he said.
For years, district officials pushed for smaller schools, saying they would be easier to manage - but now penalize Germantown for shrinking enrollment. The constant turnover in administrators has created ever-changing priorities and left teachers, staff, and students uncertain.
Previous district superintendents promised to invest in Germantown - and did provide some extra resources through the district's Promise Academy model, designed to help struggling schools turnaround. The feds stepped in, too, with sizable U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Education grants.
But each year, staff said, there was less money.
"It seems like the district hasn't been able to provide the kinds of materials you would see in a traditional classroom," Blyweiss said.
For a decade Simmons and other clergy and supporters have worked in and around the school, investing physically and financially, raising money, mentoring children, even gathering carpenters and electricians to perform repairs. Two weeks ago, Simmons said, he helped chaperone a group of students on a visit to Lincoln University, which between renting a bus and buying lunches cost a couple of thousand dollars.
He and others are organizing to stop the closure, and met with Superintendent William Hite hours after the formal closing announcement, Simmons said.
The group plans to present district officials with data and information showing that Germantown High should not be closed.
"This is stupid, and it's not right, and it's insulting," Simmons said. "But hollering and screaming is not going to change that. That's not going to help the 700 students in the school."