Miriam H. Evans, the former president of the William Penn Development Coalition and the school’s alumni association, said William Penn High School was the “life support system” of North Philadelphia. It kept alive a sense of community in Yorktown, and it staked African-American heritage firmly along the Avenue of the Arts.
In 2009, that life support system was unplugged.
In what was called a temporary move by the Philadelphia School District, the closure of William Penn High School on Broad Street near Master wasn’t supposed to last long. In a few years, then-Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman said, the school would reopen, perhaps with a new vocational focus and a math program.
According to a November 2013 report from philly.com, “district officials are saying they simply cannot afford to reopen the school.” In 2014, Temple bought the property for $15 million.
“We thought it was something to be saved,” Evans said. “It was an architectural masterpiece. The design of this school, the five different buildings, was unheard of for a high school campus.”
Evans said the school was equipped with courses in agriculture, a health care unit that teamed up with Hahnemann University Hospital and an Olympic-sized swimming pool inside the school.
Jim Creedon, senior vice president for construction, facilities and operations, told The Temple News in March of last year the building was decaying and “looked like it closed in 1970.”
But Evans said the building had several attributes worth saving.
“The whole idea of the school being gone means there’s a lot of dreams that are lost,” Evans added.
Temple is actively demolishing the east side of the school, which should be complete by February 2016. This site will be the location for new athletic fields, a small locker room facility and bleachers.
The west side of the site is set to be demolished by summer 2016. Temple plans to partner with the Laborers District Council Education and Training Apprenticeship Fund to develop the west side of the property, training its members in “the principles of construction, equipment knowledge and operation, materials, site preparation, maintenance and safety,” according to the LDC’s website.
The demolition is taking its toll on North Philadelphia residents.
“You can see [the demolition] straight through Girard,” said Inez Henderson-Purnell, president of the William Penn Development Coalition. “It’s so heartbreaking. It’s terrible for the alumni, and it’s terrible for the community.”
It’s admirable that Temple decided to partner with the community and build a job training facility at the site of closed William Penn High School. Of course, residents of Yorktown will benefit from receiving job training from the university on site, but it seems Temple has not considered the emotional loss a community experiences when a school is closed.
“They’re tearing our history apart,” Evans said. “It’s just hurtful to try to erase.”
Evans said she’s worried that certain items like a time capsule and photographs have been displaced.
In August 2015 The Temple News reported some of these historical objects have been “stored,” but it’s problematic that Evans hasn’t been notified about the whereabouts of these items.
“We want to be able to sustain our own heritage,” Evans said. “That’s what it’s about.”
If the university wants to show respect to the community, helping grieve the loss of a valued school would be a good start. If Temple takes away something important to the community, it should offer support in return.
Communication between the university and residents of North Philadelphia has yielded positive results before. Led by artist Pepón Osorio, students at the Tyler School of Art teamed up with students and teachers from the closed Fairhill Elementary last year to create a memorial for the school. This collaboration helped students and teachers mourn.
Housed in the basement of Tyler, reForm is a safe haven for students who lost their school and a sign of Temple’s remorse for the School District of Philadelphia.
“This feels like Fairhill,” said Chelsey Velez, a Fairhill alumni. “When I used to go to Fairhill, I had some friends, and they made it feel like home, like family. When I come here, it feels like home, like family. I’m myself in this room.”
The demolition of William Penn cries out for similar communication and collaboration. Though it’s great that Temple wants to build a job training facility, it might not comfort the community the same as Fairhill’s intimate exhibit did.
Henderson-Purnell said she hopes an education facility can be built on site for the people most impacted by William Penn’s closure: students. She envisions a facility where 200-300 eighth grade students can receive a comprehensive STEM education.
“The only way our children are going to be able to compete globally is to have a STEM education,” she said. “That’s fine that they want to have a training facility at Broad and Master to make plumbers and electricians, but we want to train physicians and rocket scientists and Internet developers or programmers. … We need a better representation in the scientific field, and we want STEM at [William] Penn.”
Evans said she has ideas for collaboration with Temple, too. Before the closure and demolition of William Penn, the Olympic-sized swimming pool inside was open to residents of the community. Perhaps to compensate for that loss, she said, Temple could open the pools in Pearson and McGonigle halls to the public. Evans would also love to see an Alumni Office built on-site to help preserve the African-American heritage once held by William Penn.
“We have a right to continue the legacies that have already been started, and some of which date back to the beginning of the school in 1909 and 15th and Wallace,” she said. “We want to do what’s right, and we want the community to be involved with Temple.”
“Temple is not the enemy,” Henderson-Purnell said. “We have to work with Temple. That will be better for everybody.”
Right now, the university has a unique opportunity for collaboration with Yorktown residents. Although a job training facility could benefit the community, it won’t lessen the pain of losing a school, and it won’t educate the students displaced by the William Penn’s closure.
If Temple really wants to power the city, it’s got to plug back in North Philadelphia’s life support.
Michaela Winberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.