SURE, the Ada H. Lewis Middle School has seen better days.
It was built in 1971 on a sprawling, leafy campus in East Germantown. Its then-ultramodern, spacious architecture had room for 1,650 students.
"It was a suburban school in the inner city; it was state-of-the-art," recalled Eric T. Willis Sr., who was the lead non-teaching assistant at the school when it opened in 1973, and is today a mortgage broker. "There was music, art, cooking, machine shop, wood shop, photography, sewing and business."
But the shop classrooms and orchestral and choral rooms are empty and unused. Now, there are just 200 students in the seventh and eighth grades.
Due to a declining enrollment and a $38 million estimate to repair Ada Lewis, district officials have recommended closing the school after this school year, moving its seventh-graders to nearby Roosevelt Middle School in the fall.
The School Reform Commission is set to vote on the closing June 20.
But parents and community leaders are fighting the proposed closing "tooth and nail," said parent Arenda Bethel, who has a seventh-grade son at Ada Lewis.
Parents have contacted a lawyer and sought their own repair estimate from an independent group, including a structural engineer and building contractors. They dispute the $38 million figure "as a farce," as Willis put it.
"There's no way it could take $38 million," said Hillard Fontaine, one of the contractors who toured the school May 22.
"There's such a thing as fair market value for work and services, but this is just greed," Fontaine said.
Ada Lewis is the victim of two trends reshaping the Philadelphia School District.
In recent years, the district began to shift away from middle schools and toward more kindergarten-to-eighth-grade schools.
Ada Lewis, which once housed as many as 2,000 fifth- through eighth-graders, this year has only seventh- and eighth-grade classes. Meanwhile, all three of the "feeder" elementary schools that once sent pupils to Ada Lewis - A.B. Day, Kinsey and Pastorius - will be K-8 next year.
As Ada Lewis eighth-graders move up to high school next year, only 75 or so students would be left for next year's eighth-grade class, said Felecia Ward, a district spokeswoman.
At the same time, the district is struggling with declining enrollments in some parts of the city; as a result, it is considering closing as many as 22 schools by 2011. One district official who works in the Office of School Management said that schools are overcrowded in the river wards and parts of the lower Northeast, but that in North Philadelphia and Northwest Philadelphia the population is dropping.
Ward said that the district understands that it can be painful to a community when schools are reorganized or shuttered.
"It's always an emotional issue when a school is being closed," she said.
Particularly so at Ada Lewis, which is an unusual school. Of all the neighborhood schools in Philadelphia, Ada H. Lewis could be the greenest.
Located on Ardleigh Street, near Washington Lane, Ada Lewis is directly across from the Awbury Arboretum and Park, and is next door to Awbury Recreation Center.
Rather than the usual big-city clamor of SEPTA buses and traffic, a chorus of singing birds greets school visitors.
However, evidence of years of neglect can be seen in the chipped masonry around the front windows and the cracks in some outside walls.
CEO Paul Vallas has said the school has serious structural damage with cracks in the foundation, among other problems - which led to the 2006 estimate by the school district that it would cost $38 million to repair and modernize the school.
That's a huge amount in a district that struggles to do basic maintenance.
"We haven't maintained our schools in a manner in which they should be," said Anton Hackett Sr., director of external and community affairs for the school district's capital-projects program. "And by letting them fall into such deplorable conditions, it's more expensive to renovate."
Hackett said that the school district and the SRC would have to look at the benefits of putting $38 million - or even $20 million - into an older school that doesn't have the electrical wiring to support today's computer age.
"To me, $38 million would buy a new school," Hackett said. "To spend $38 million in an old building to restore it, that's not a good use of money."
But some parents aren't buying the district's figures.
They've brought in their own experts to prepare an estimate - and they say the real cost of repairing the building could be a third of what the district believes.
"There's no question there's damage to the building," said engineer Bart Kligerman, the engineer brought in by the parents. "But whether it's $8 million or $10 million, I'm not sure until I see the mechanical and electrical systems."
He said the structural damage did not appear to be serious but cracks in the basement wall and some outside walls "need to be patched."
Said contractor Fontaine: "It's frightening. No wonder the [school-district] budget is always running over, if this is an example of what's going on with renovations at the schools.
"That's like the Pentagon paying $500 for a hammer," he said.
The parents' experts say the foundation is not seriously damaged. They also pointed out that the $38 million assessment budget-summary also says: "Site was not visited by estimator."
The district stands by its estimate. For one thing, Hackett pointed out, "every school of our schools, except the brand new ones," has asbestos and lead paint that must be removed. The district uses only union labor for construction and related work, which "blows up the costs even more," he said.
Asked about the notation that the estimator had not visited Ada Lewis, Hackett said the district hires private contractors, architects and engineers to assess problems in a building.
Those reports are given to school-district officials, who come up with repair estimates.
The parents have formed a new organization called Concerned Parents for Ada Lewis Middle School. They've gone to every SRC meeting since they were notified of the school's looming closure at a March 6 community meeting.
That meeting is also something parents are angry about, said Roslind Sanders, who has a seventh-grade son.
Parents said most of them didn't see a small Feb. 26 newspaper classified notice about the March 6 meeting, and had little time to mount a response or plan for the next school year.
"That was not adequate time," Sanders said. "The charter schools close their slots in October or November for the following school year."
"My son doesn't want to go to Roosevelt," she said.
Community leaders cited a long history of neighborhood "turf" problems between students from Roosevelt and Ada Lewis as potential for trouble.
Plus, the parents said, Roosevelt is a much older school, built in 1922, that doesn't have the green surroundings found at Ada Lewis. It is set on an urban hill in a congested neighborhood cheek by jowl with rowhouses.
Hasan Lloyd, a real-estate investor who visited the school recently, said he coudn't believe it was being targeted for closing.
"As soon as I saw this complex, the first thing I said was, 'They've got to be kidding!' There's no comparison between Ada Lewis and Roosevelt."
Lloyd noted that because Ada Lewis is located close to Martin Luther King High, the A.B. Day Elementary School and the private Ivy Leaf School, the district could create an "education compound" serving Germantown, Mount Airy and West Oak Lane that's worth investing $100 million into.
"You've got a high school, an elementary school, a middle school, a rec center and the arboretum all right there," Lloyd said.
"There's all this potential for a state-of-the art educational center," he said.
Bethel said parents would like to see Ada Lewis converted to a ninth-grade academy, which might bring in ninth graders from nearby Martin Luther King High.
At the same time, Bethel said, parents want to see the music, art, home-economics, machine-shop and photography classes restored.
But all of those grand plans hang on money - and the school district's plans for the future.
Right now, both Ada Lewis and Martin Luther King high schools are operated by Foundations Inc., one of the outside Educational Management Organizations (EMO) to which the district gave contracts to operate its worst-performing schools.
Ada Lewis met testing standards under the No Child Left Behind Act last year and is making progress, Bethel said.
But its status as an Education Management Organization school clouds its future slightly. Sherrine Wilkins, executive director of school services at Foundations, said she couldn't comment on the plan to close the school, because the SRC hasn't decided on how many EMO contracts it will renew.
"It's really a holding pattern for all involved," Wilkins said.
Meanwhile, time is running out. Louis T. Schwartz, a lawyer representing the parents, said their concerns need to be heard before the SRC votes June 20.
He said that even though parents have spoken out at every SRC meeting since March, "they've received no input and no feedback" from the SRC members.
"It's a very unique building," Schwartz said. "I think it would be a great loss to the city's schoolchildren to be denied an opportunity to take advantage of what the property has to offer." *