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Students work to fix aging Overbrook High

Kaisha Smith wants people to know that her classmates at Overbrook High are bright and ambitious. But she also wants the public to know that they attend classes where mice dart across floors and graffiti mar the walls.

Kaisha Smith wants people to know that her classmates at Overbrook High are bright and ambitious. But she also wants the public to know that they attend classes where mice dart across floors and graffiti mar the walls.

She hopes everyone knows that the fountains spout cloudy, bitter water; that the hallways are dark; and that until this week the crumbling bathrooms lacked soap or mirrors.

Visiting the West Philadelphia school on Monday, new schools chief Arlene Ackerman noted the conditions and vowed quick action, and during the last few days, the district has spent thousands fixing bathrooms and exposed wires flagged during her tour.

But Smith and her peers, freshmen in Isaac Pollack's science classes, didn't need a visiting dignitary to tell them about their building's woes. The frustrated students had already channeled their anger into action, searching for scientific solutions to Overbrook's problems.

Graffiti was the topic of Smith's science project - her group tested different graffiti-removal products, calculated how much it would cost to remediate the entire building (about $300, they think) and approached famous alumni and neighborhood businesses for help. They held an after-school event to make their pitch to teachers, parents and community members.

Future plans include bake sales and phone calls soliciting help. On a recent day, Pollack's classes wrote letters to that end - choosing Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and famous Overbrook alumnus Will Smith as the recipients.

"We want to start a movement - get the school together, the city, the state, maybe the whole country," said Smith, 14, a student in Pollack's honors class. "We want to fix our school."

Theo Ramsey worries about rodents, the subject of his project.

After seeing furry creatures scurrying, his group tested different types of traps and pellets. They caught two mice in their class, and one in the lunchroom, he said.

"A lot needs to be done," said Ramsey, 15, of his school. "It looks nice outside, but it's not nice inside."

Overbrook, a grand, five-story Gothic Revival structure dubbed "Castle on the Hill," is a West Philadelphia landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places whose beautiful exterior belies a different reality inside.

Though neat, Pollack's classroom has a badly stained sink, and the desks are all graffiti-covered and missing drawers. On a recent day, Pollack, an easygoing, enthusiastic man, talked to his students about crafting a message to drum up support.

"Some people that we're sending letters to get thousands of letters a day," Pollack told his 25 honors students. "We're not necessarily asking for support, but if Gov. Rendell mentions us in a speech, that draws attention to our cause and we get sponsors."

Pollack, who came to the school through Teach for America, saw the projects as a good opportunity to mix science with social conscience.

"This is our school. This is our community. We need to take care of it," said Pollack.

The 1924 building is one of the district's neediest, used by 1,700 students during the day and community groups at night, interim chief operating officer Fred Farlino said.

Overbrook could use $30 to $40 million in work and may well need to be replaced in the district's next round of capital projects, he said.

"We're doing as good a job as we possibly can," Farlino said. "The building is safe and clean."

Exterminators attend to each school twice a month, Farlino said, and will visit Overbrook more frequently, but there appears to be no particular rodent problem at the school, he said.

Students have also said their water tastes strange and few dare drink it - they suggested placing water filters on all fountains - but Farlino said the water is tested annually and found up to snuff by federal Environmental Protection Agency standards.

In 2000, elevated levels of lead were found in the drinking water at many schools; the district has since fixed problem fountains and now checks every school yearly.

Though about $12 million has been spent sprucing up the school in recent years, teenagers are not easy on it, Farlino said.

A district spokeswoman said that new soap dispensers installed this week have already been ripped off the wall. They will be replaced by tomorrow, she said.

"I wish I had a greater ability to do a better job on preventative maintenance," said Farlino, who oversees the facilities department. "Oftentimes, I don't have as much staff, I don't have as much material money, as I would like."

Alan Butkovitz, the city controller, has blasted the district for the state of its facilities. A recent report claimed widespread safety hazards district-wide, a charge officials said was not true. Butkovitz, a frequent district critic, found poor conditions in a sample of 19 of the 300 buildings system-wide.

Overbrook principal Ethelyn Payne Young is glad Pollack's students took on conditions at the school.

"We do have mice running around," Young said during Ackerman's visit. "We have problems."

At Young's invitation, district facilities officials will speak with Pollack's students about what they are doing to fix the school.

"I want the district to reinvest in our neighborhood schools," Young told Ackerman on Monday. "I'm embarrassed by the lack of attention given this building."

Ackerman said she was not satisfied, either.

"We need to treat our young people with respect," she said after examining a shabby bathroom.

Pollack, for one, is glad some action is being taken, but not optimistic the current spotlight on Overbrook will remain.

"Whenever someone important comes through, everyone jumps to fix things," Pollack said. "But those things will get broken again, and no one will pay attention. No one's creating sustainable solutions."

Smith, the student who hopes to start a movement, said students will take any help they can get.

"I'm mostly passionate about the school looking professional and neat," said Smith. "We have a good school and civilized students. People need to know that."