Despite their school's crumbling building, academic woes, and dwindling enrollment, a coalition of supporters say William Penn High must be kept open.
Philadelphia's School Reform Commission last month announced plans to shutter the massive North Broad Street structure, which was built in 1971 for 3,000 students but today houses fewer than 600. If the proposal goes forward, William Penn will close in 2010.
Led by State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.), about a dozen members of the Coalition to Save William Penn High School said yesterday that they felt blindsided by the commission's decision, and offered suggestions for keeping the school open.
The district could create a school for kindergarten through 12th grade on the site, establish a communications magnet school, or build a smaller building in North Philadelphia, the group said.
"The coalition fully realizes that academic performance and student attendance at William Penn can be improved," Thomas said, "but it is time to invest, not destroy, not abandon."
He said it was illogical to close one of the district's newer high school buildings to send students to older Benjamin Franklin and Simon Gratz Highs.
The district would also lose the school's athletic facilities, including sprawling fields and an Olympic-size pool, which is closed.
But district spokeswoman Felecia Ward said the decision had been based primarily on a concern for safety.
The school's pipes are badly corroded, she said, and its heating system needs $5 million in repairs. Just two of the five buildings are in use, a move made last year to try to spare the heating system.
Last year, William Penn cost the district more than $1 million in utility bills, Ward said - one of the highest figures in the city. Plus, she said, the campus is 557,000 square feet, and enrollment has shrunk from 2,099 in the 1999-2000 school year.
"We're talking about the size of a mall with 588 students," Ward said.
The rise in charter schools is one reason for the decline, she said. But several housing projects in the neighborhood also closed in that time.
William Penn has also failed to meet state academic standards for several years running.
Still, the decision won't be final until after a series of community meetings, Ward said. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is also scheduled to meet with Thomas today.
But parents and alumni say they won't go down without a fight. The school was once a bright spot in the city, with a state-of-the-art communications program that attracted students from around Philadelphia, and with some attention it could rise again, they said.
Still, they're frustrated by what William Penn has become, physically and academically.
"I wouldn't send my kids to this school, either," said Inez Henderson-Purnell, a 1977 graduate and a member of the coalition, "but we can make this building a place of high excellence again."
Barbara Carroll, an alumna and mother of a current William Penn student, said the district was turning its back on the community.
"If our houses are in disrepair, we find the money to fix them," Carroll said. "Why won't the School Reform Commission find the money? You're telling us on the east side of Broad Street that our children aren't worth the investment."
The first community meeting on the proposed closing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the school, Broad and Thompson Streets.