Deadly Fairmount Fire

New mutual aid fund at the school near the Fairmount fire aims to help families — and combat student inequity

Bache-Martin Elementary is located in a well-off neighborhood, but the district considers 90% of its enrollment economically disadvantaged.

A memorial across the street from Bache-Martin school to people killed in the rowhome fire on Jan. 5,

A memorial across the street from Bache-Martin school to people killed in the rowhome fire on Jan. 5,

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

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The rowhome fire that took 12 lives in Fairmount last week inspired the friends group at the nearby school to formalize its outreach efforts with a new mutual aid fund.

Created by Friends of Bache-Martin, a nonprofit associated with the public K-8 school, the new Bache-Martin Mutual Aid program will help not only with this tragedy, but also assist students with everyday necessities.

Five of the nine children killed in the deadly blaze had connections with Bache-Martin Elementary — three were graduates and two were current students. An outpouring of support brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars and other materials for survivors and affected families. As the school community tried to help coordinate, the grim event became an occasion to address long-held concerns about inequity in the student body and neighborhood.

“We don’t want our school to turn into sort of a one-sided entity that’s reflective only of this economically advantaged neighborhood,” Tara Desmond, a board member of both the friends group and the home and school association, told Billy Penn.

Spread across two buildings at 812 N. 22nd St, Bache-Martin was created by the merging of two different schools, one named after surveyor Alexander Bache and the other for Progressive Era power couple Willis and Elizabeth Martin, a jurist and philanthropist.

Today, the school serves more than 450 students primarily from the Fairmount, Francisville, and Spring Garden neighborhoods. According to district enrollment data, students of color make up nearly 70% of the school’s enrollees, and 9 out of 10 students are considered economically disadvantaged, even though Fairmount is one of the city’s more prosperous neighborhoods.

Desmond, mother to two current Bache-Martin students and one alum, described recent conversations about the city’s history of economic segregation, and how Philadelphia Housing Authority’s scatter site housing — which includes the site of the fire — is supposed to act as a buffer against gentrification. In her view, the burned rowhome “should remain a PHA house, it should remain a scatter site house” once more details emerge about rebuilding efforts.

The PHA-owned rowhome that burned, leaving 12 dead, including nine children

The PHA-owned rowhome that burned, leaving 12 dead, including nine children

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The new mutual aid fund is a formalization of longstanding ways Bache-Martin staff has helped provide for students’ needs, whether out of their own pockets or through reaching out to parents willing to pitch in for essentials like coats, extra uniforms, and more, said Jerilyn Dressler, president of Friends of Bache-Martin and mother to a current 5th-grader.

“We’ve always looked to our school administration and teachers to help communicate those needs,” Dressler said, even before the establishment of the friends group in 2015.

Going forward, the plan is to apply funds collected to areas of concern pointed out directly by Bache-Martin staff members. Parents, students, and neighbors will also be able to provide input through the HSA and the nonprofit, Dressler said, as well as a newly formed student council.

“I think a lot more types of mutual aid funds have sprouted during the pandemic,” Dressler observed, “because people just wanted an easy way to help people.”

Across the country, unceasing waves of COVID-19 have led to concurrent waves of new community assistance projects. In Philly, that impulse has blossomed through community laundry programs, fridges, grocery giveaways, and many more initiatives. Philly We Rise — a site curated by Movement Alliance Project — created a directory of mutual aid efforts and resources that, while not comprehensive, demonstrates the many ways neighbors have been helping neighbors.

The Martin School, now the latter half of Bache-Martin, has a history of providing critical aid to Philadelphians.

Formerly known as the Martin Orthopedic School, it was Philly’s first school designed for teaching physically handicapped students. Prior to its establishment in the mid-1930s, Dressler said, “if you had disabilities, you just didn’t go to school.”

Today, about a third of children at Bache-Martin are students with special needs, and the purposeful accessibility of the one-story Martin Building draws pupils from around the city. It has self-contained classrooms for American Sign Language, and learning supports for students across the spectrum of physical and intellectual abilities.

The Alexander Dallas Bache School, built in 1905, bore the name of Ben Franklin’s great-grandson, a physicist and surveyor who taught at Penn, mapped the East Coast as head of the U.S. Coast Survey, and was the first president of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bache-Martin parents and staff, while still grieving, feel armed with renewed intent and focus on providing for each other. To Desmond, the board member and mother of three, this is one of the better aspects of our nature as people in communities faced with hardship.

“This is what humans do in tragedies,” Desmond said. “They show up.”

Want some more? Explore other Deadly Fairmount Fire stories.

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