School District ponders next move in asbestos controversy

Approximately 1,000 students from Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy remain displaced.

Benjamin Franklin High School on Broad Street between Green and Brandywine Streets on Oct. 7, 2019. | COLLEEN CLAGGETT / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The Philadelphia School District considered relocating students from Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy, whose building is temporarily closed due to asbestos concerns, to Temple University but ultimately decided not to, said Superintendent William Hite.

The district dismissed Temple as an option because the university did not have enough space to accommodate the approximately 1,000 students, who would need more than 50 classrooms, Hite said.

Hite spoke to The Temple News after a contentious town hall meeting on Monday morning with students, parents, and staff from Benjamin Franklin and SLA, who voiced their outrage toward the school districts’ response to the discovery of damaged asbestos in the school’s boiler room. 

Temple does not have any information at this time about the school district’s request, said Chris Vito, a spokesperson for the university.

On Friday, Hite promised that the district would find a place where students can go to school by Thursday, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. 

But at Monday’s town hall, Hite said the district would consider delaying classes further until they found a more suitable location for students, adding that the two schools are not expected to return to their original building until January.

The two options that the district proposed — Strawberry Mansion High School and South Philadelphia High School — were both met with opposition from parents who voiced concerns regarding student safety at Strawberry Mansion and overcrowding at both schools. 

Hite told the crowd of hundreds that the other options the district explored, including its own headquarters, other area colleges and universities and local high schools, did not satisfy all the requirements for the two schools, which include providing sufficient space for students and proximity to public transportation.

The district performed construction on Benjamin Franklin’s building for 18 months to help SLA, which was previously housed on 22nd Street near Arch Street, to move into the building this year, though the asbestos was found after construction in the affected area was completed, said Brian Joseph, the district’s environmental director, at the town hall.

Amid calls for further discussion, involving parents, staff and district administrators, Hite pledged to form a task force that will explore alternatives to Strawberry Mansion and South Philadelphia.

Brandy Smith, whose son is a freshman at Benjamin Franklin, said the district responded in a good way by taking the kids out of school but has been taking too long to relocate them.

“I wish they would find a school for these kids to go to,” said Smith, who lives between 20th and Dauphin streets. “They’re losing out on their education.”

Jenell Johnson, whose son is also a freshman at the school, said she wants the district to find an alternate location, maybe in the Temple area. 

“More options than Strawberry Mansion,” said Johnson, who lives on Ridge near Diamond Street.

Morgan Caswell, a junior physics major who graduated from SLA in 2016 and has two siblings who currently attend, said it is frustrating to see people talking about the building’s hazards just now, even though they existed before, she said.

“All of a sudden we’re talking about asbestos, we’re talking about dangerous learning conditions, because a majority white, wealthy school moves in,” Caswell said. 

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