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After Building 21 in West Oak Lane was shut down over exposed asbestos, many parents pushed back against plans to have their children learn at Strawberry Mansion High School. In the end, they were successful in changing the district’s plans.
Three years ago, parents of students at Science Leadership Academy had the same reaction, and result.
A 2019 plan to co-locate the magnet school with Ben Franklin High School was temporarily derailed by concerns over asbestos in active construction ongoing at the North Broad Street building. While workers remediated the issue, the Philadelphia School District originally proposed SLA students learn at Mansion, while Ben Franklin students went to South Philadelphia High School.
“To which both schools’ parents said absolutely not,” recalled Leslie Marant, whose youngest was then a senior at SLA, which all three of her kids attended.
With advocacy from Marant and other involved parents, Science Leadership Academy classes ended up split between two buildings a few blocks from the original building: the school district headquarters and the Rodeph Shalom synagogue.
Ben Franklin students, however, had fewer parents with available time and energy to advocate for them — and instead were moved to the now-closed Khepera Charter School on Sedgley Avenue in Fairhill, some three miles away.
Learning in a ‘construction zone’ for a year
The disparity was apparent from the start of the co-location project.
“[Asbestos danger] was okay when it was just the Ben Franklin kids, but it was not okay once SLA kids came on board,” said Gilberto Gonzalez, a parent of three children, one of whom is a senior at Ben Franklin.
Marant said she realized her child would be learning in a “construction zone” when she first stepped into the proposed joint space during a preview tour at 550 North Broad.
To make SLA’s move to the building possible, the facility had started being renovated during the previous academic year. All that Marant and approximately 10 other parents could see, she said, were exposed pipes, lighting and unfinished walls and floors.
“Ben Franklin students had been sitting in active construction with all kinds of issues the year prior,” Marant said.
Yet the academic year began, and that’s when Marant realized how bad it really was. Her daughter has asthma, she said, and started coming home from school coughing. Months before the pandemic, she began sending her daughter to school wearing masks.
Andrea Mecchi, a commercial photographer who lives in Bella Vista and had a daughter at SLA, recalled the same thing.
“Children, my daughter coming home every day with a sore throat, runny eyes,” Mecchi said. “You know, sick quite often.”
SLA parents sprang into action, furiously advocating for the students to be relocated. In October 2019, the district shut down the facility indefinitely for remediation.
‘I will do the best I can to speak for you’
The two school communities have different demographics. At Ben Franklin, 100% of students’ families are considered economically disadvantaged, while at SLA the rate is 59%.
Parents with more resources have more ability to advocate for their kids, said Gonzalez, who recalled being one of the only Ben Franklin parents to attend meetings with SLA parents at their houses or travel to Harrisburg to petition for better school environments.
Gonzalez held one meeting at his house with Ben Franklin parents, but while they wanted to regularly participate in the meetings, a lot of them worked minimum wage jobs that required them to retain specific hours so they wouldn’t lose money or benefits.
“Most of them could not take the day off to meet when the SLA parents went to meet, they could just not take their days off because many of them worked in daycares and many of them worked in after-school care,” he said.
His job as a recruiter for the Community College of Philadelphia, allowed him more flexibility, Gonzalez said. “So I told parents when they were all in my house, I said, ‘I will do the best I can to speak for you.’”
SLA and Ben Franklin students officially returned to their joint building in February 2020 after the district spent five months and roughly $50 million addressing school delays and environmental issues.
The average school building in Philadelphia is 70 years old. Even high-performing magnets, like Masterman High School, have had six major asbestos removal projects within the past half-decade, three more than Ben Franklin. At Building 21, parent advocacy has resulted in the district approving virtual learning instead of mandating students travel to Mansion.
Parents who are better resourced have been better equipped to advocate for their child’s educational environment, said Marant, whos three daughters attended the magnet.
“SLA parents are a little more connected,” Marant said. “And they have more social capital. So when we made noise, it got heard.”
This story is part of a yearlong reporting project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting on educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.