Germantown High School, RIP 2013

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The building itself is glorious, with a huge stone-cut mural over the front entrance. A seated female angel lovingly rests her arms over the shoulders of two industrious children working on crafting or writing.  A cast of other statues helps each other over to the angel-mother, holding hands as they carry scrolls and lyres and palettes of paint.  A cherub beams down over the entrance in this mix of male and female adult statues chatting and carrying art supplies while children diligently study. The sculpture is the idyllic educational setting- one not replicated in the flesh.

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Germantown High School is situated along Germantown avenue.  I am reminded of Elijah Anderson’s “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City”  story about the change you can witness as you drive from the wealthy corridor of Germantown Avenue to the poor.  Germantown High is decidedly in the poor section, surrounded by glorious, historic buildings.  The high school is not only surrounded, but embedded with historic buildings.  The school has an odd shape on its block, and nuzzled into its base are several historic churches.

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A church (on the right) nuzzled up next to the entrance of Germantown High.

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Another church nestled into the side of Germantown High.  “God Stuff” is on the menu for worship.  I wonder how involved all these churches and historic cultural centers are with Germantown and Fulton?  I noticed that one church advertised an after-school care program.  What about the others?  These seem like incredible resources for the schools- and I wonder if they are being used as such? Similarly, the schools offer resources to the churches if they can figure out after-school programming and outreach.  All the parts are there- but are they working?

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Extra parking with a trash-filled lot.  This could be a little pocket park space with a garden.  At the very least, it could be cleaned up and have some yard work done to make it a pretty-to-look-at if not functional space.

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An expired parking meter in front of the expired Germantown High School.  Not subtle, I know.

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Another glorious historic building with a large sign ‘for rent, lease, or sale’ plastered on it.  This building is across the street from Germantown High.  What a shame that these beautiful buildings have been priced out of use by a dysfunctional market that cannot appreciate the cost of renovation or the cost of blight.  Its moments like this that I wish our city had a more functional tax delinquency system- where property that is not maintained according to city code or whose owners do not pay taxes- is put on sheriff’s sale in a timely and transparent manner that allows investors to pay the debt to the city and get a below-market value investment that can be sold or maintained at a reasonable price considering the condition of the surrounding neighborhood.  This is the exact crisis of the Buery Building the giant bank that graced the bifurcation of historic Germantown Avenue into downtown Philadelphia Broad Street. The cobblestone trolley tracks from Germantown end at the Buery, which has “Boner 4EVER” scrawled down her side.  Like her Broad Street compatriots, the Divine Lorraine and the abandoned Philadelphia Opera House, the Buery sits at this commercial axis like a despondent and fallen queen- with a price tag on her worth more than her true market value.  She is too expensive to repair to her former glory and no longer worth her market value.  That such dilapidated landmark buildings hold such a central place in our city and the hearts of many Philadelphians is only tribute to the dysfunctional bureaucracy that holds Philadelphia back. The Broad Street 10 miler race showcases the city’s potential, bright spots, and patches of dysfunction to over 40,000 runner and many more participants cheer along the sidelines.  I often wonder if all that goodwill generated during the run could be channeled to something to revive the empty hulks and monuments along the path to the re-purposed and re-invented Navy Yard?

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Back to Germantown High.

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One of many ‘no trespassing’ signs that make our public schools so friendly.  Do trespassers heed these warnings?

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The parking lot is surrounding by an overhang of barbed wire fencing.  The overhang leans toward the school- answering my question of whether the fencing is meant to keep people in or keep people out.

With a background in zoo design, I’ve studied a variety of cages designed to display highly dangerous animals: lions, bears, chimpanzees.  Sometimes plexiglass is enough.  Sometimes a moat will do the trick.  Sometimes you want a fence- and as a precautionary measure, you want a fence with a barbed wire overhang.  The enclosure-side overhang is designed to deter the animals from crawling out (otherwise, you would have the overhang on the visitor’s side of the zoo exhibit to prevent visitors from crawling into the exhibit).  I also have to say that most zoo design firms worth their muster will do everything in their power to hide barriers like this.  Next time you are the Philadelphia Zoo, check out Great Cat Falls.  It has bars, mesh fences, plexiglass.  Compare that to the safety measures at your neighborhood school.

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The fencing surrounding Germantown High was designed to keep the students inside.  Ironically, the school is forcing them out.  A police officer ducked into the front entrance before I could get a picture of him.  The school is guarded and most likely has metal detectors on the inside.  And how much of this protection is reactionary and how much is causal?  Would I want my son to go to school in a situation like this?  Or will we move to Narberth like everyone else?

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The parking lot of Germantown overlooking a dilapidated baseball diamond near Fulton Elementary.  Trash and leaves line the sidewalk near the crumbling brick barrier.  A mother and her younger children cross the parking lot on their way home.  The crossing guard leans against the fencing post.  It is so easy to see how this brick wall could be repaired.  The leaf litter and plastic bottles could be swept up.  The baseball diamond could be spiffed up with a new fence.  There is so much space for so many low-cost repairs that the community could ban together to make happen if the school district will not.  If only the school district facilities would allow these community efforts at repair instead of trying to stymie them with disability insurance waivers, fees for volunteers, and union labor rights that amount to costly repairs cannot be done by the community but must be carried out by school district employees.  There is very little room for community involvement if the principal follows School District code.

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Ivy creeping back up a wall towards a graffiti tag that reads ‘sad.’

M. Hall Stanton, RIP 2013

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Leif loved the T-rex mural on the front of Stanton.  The city skyline is visible down the street.

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Stanton was not originally one of the schools that BCG recommended for closure- nor one that the SRC nominated.  In a dramatic turn of events, the SRC voted to keep Meade (below) open- and to close Stanton just a few weeks ago- giving the Stanton community very little time to organize against the decision. To read more: http://thenotebook.org/blog/135863/closure-hearing-src-chair-seeks-clarity-districts-puzzling-answer

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The school is holding a rally April 26, 5pm in their auditorium to rally community support to keep the school open.  Attend!

Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, RIP 2013

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It is so very easy to see the potential at Roosevelt.  The front entrance is framed by budding trees, and the school is perched on a hill surrounded by eclectic stone mansions.Image

The parking lot is shaded under tall pine trees. 

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There are numerous stone stairways up to the school. Moss and fern sprout out through the rock, which has mica or quartz flakes that catch the sunlight and dazzle.  The retaining wall around the school is reminiscent of a fortress, with various holes for water to flow out.  These holes and nooks remind me of cannon ports on old fortress walls.  They are cubbies for trash, but I cannot help but peep into each one expecting to find something unusual, a treasure.  Oh Roosevelt, if there ever were a time to batten the hatches and powder the proverbial keg- now would be it.  Put up your defenses!ImageImageImageImage

A new bike rack has been installed at the entrance, where a sign shows he age of the building: 1922.  I wonder why we do not stamp building with their birth date anymore?  Do we not expect them to last very long?  Many of the schools that I have visited have proudly displayed their foundation date, even the youthful 1949 Lamberton.  The builders of these schools expected them to be here for a long time.  How disappointing.Image

Paint cracks off the base under padlocked metal-barred windows.

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The grounds are large enough for an expansive blacktop, which I could easily see remade into an orchard, field, play yard and basket court.  There is currently no rim on the basketball backboard.  I have been waging war with facilities at the school district to put a rim on one of the backboards at Lea Elementary.  They have told me that I cannot do it myself or I would have to fill out two forms, get the principal’s approval, and pay $60 an hour for liability insurance.  And it has been 6 months, and they have yet to put up a rim.  I feel for Roosevelt and its rimless basketball backboards which taunt the neighborhood with possibility that cannot be actualized.

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A ghost mural fades at the edge of the playground. ‘Stop the violence’ one sign reads.  I assume it was painted by children.  My favorite reads, “relative distance of the planets.” I wonder what it means.  Are we relatively close to the planets- when one considers how vast the universe is and how close NASA and Elon Musk are to actualizing space travel and extraplanetary colonization?  Are we relatively far from these other planets- when one considers the state of our poor planet earth and the plight of our youth and education system?

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The Roosevelt Rough Riders welcoming mat which is larger than the anti-tresspassing signage to the left of the door.  I felt welcome.  I also felt safe.  The school doubles as a fallout shelter.  What will happen when the school is sold?  Will the neighborhood have a fallout shelter?

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Kinsey John L School, RIP 2013

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The building itself is beautiful. The school was built in 1915.  The brickwork and stonework are intricate.

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I could not find the name on the school. Land-locked by blighted housing, Kinsey sits dejected. Many front doors facing the school sport “Beware of Dog!” warnings posted in florescent text.

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The giving tree.  The stump of an old oak juts out from its concrete cut-out bed.  Hair barrettes, broken glass, a black plastic bag from a liquor store filled with dog poop, and snack wrappers are caught in its roots.

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A School bus waits to take children home.  Supposedly, the school district will require even more busses in order to transport children to more distance schools as their local neighborhood school closes.  Parents raised concerns over this at the SRC public meetings, saying that children get out of school around 3 pm and must make their way home through dangerous neighborhoods.  This perilous journey is going to become more common as the district indicated that they will only provide bus option for those over 1.5 miles away. 

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Bronze plaques embedded at the entrance of Kinsey pay tribute to police officers that died in the line of duty.

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A hair brush lies at the base of a fenced off colorful mural depicted spring with trees in bloom.  The brush most likely would have been retrieved if it weren’t for the five-foot rusted fence that cordons off the sidewalk.  Is the fence protecting the beautiful vision from being vandalized?  Do we need a metal fence between us and a vision of re-birth and spring?

 

Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds, Saved?

Lamberton School, RIP 2013

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Lamberton, built in 1949, like Beeber is on the edge of Lower Merion.  To get to it from Beeber, I dip through the posh neighborhood immediately on the outside of the Philadelphia city lines.  There is nothing natural to distinguish these two neighborhoods- no treeline, river, or mountain.  A purely political boundary results in vacant, dilapidated housing surrounded by Popeye’s chainfood and dollarstores while the other side of the dividing line has similarly old mansions, interspersed with new Frank Lloyd-esque homes and the sprawling campus of a Jewish Day School, where an annual $19,000 tuition fetches a grand campus surrounded by sports fields.  Lamberton, itself, is sandwiched between two expansive parks- in what should be as desirable a setting as that found in Lower Merion.

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Lamberton appears to be undergoing major renovations.

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A blue tarp dangles in the breeze.  In the distance, I can see the crossing guard standing at the foot of a Baptist church.

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A crane idles in the school’s back lot as men repair the tar on the roof.  The school district must be investing in the property, getting it ready for sale????  And the concept seems to bizarre when I consider all the public schools that are to remain open.  Those with cracked blacktops, missing basketball hoops, buckets in the middle of hallways that catch rain water, broken windows, lack of janitorial staff to properly clean the facilities… the decision to repair this school that is going to be sold instead of spending funding on schools that are to remain open- I just cannot wrap my mind around it.

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Will they paint over the mural on the side of the school?  This mural shows a blonde child kneeling next to a black child.  They are tending a garden together.  A grandfather, father, and son tend a bush together.

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When one-in-three, 30 percent, of all black males go to prison: this vision seems increasingly rare.  That the Philadelphia school budget was cut by the exact amount as the increase in state prison spending seems even more ominous.

This mural is a vision- one worth working towards.

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And at its base, caution tape and the workman’s elevator obscure the phrase, “Never doubt that a … thoughtful, committed citizens ….”

[Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has]

Is it true?  Where are the thoughtful, committed citizens of Lamberton?  Did they put up a fight?  If they did, who did they fight against?  Why could they not win?

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Construction at the entrance of the upper school.  Boards lean against the barred windows.  An open dumpster brims with construction material.

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Throwing caution (tape) to the wind.  Much of the school is taped up like a crime scene.

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Trophies seen through the bars of a classroom window.

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A  no-fun sign which may have been there as long as the school.  “No ball playing,” it reads, sandwiched between two grated windows which could not conceivably be harmed even if Babe Ruth launched a baseball right at them.  Maybe these windows were not always barred?  When did the bars come up? The 70s? The 80s? The 90s?

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The trash in the ditch: a clearly labeled indicator of human activity. In this case, children drink sugary, fortified, commercialized as healthy beverages from a plastic bottle.  Adults smoke.  Children smoke? Adults drink sugary, fortified health beverages from plastic bottles?  Either way, the problems that plague our education system are woven together with so many other problems: health, diet, environment, land use, housing stock, economy, commercialization, globalization …Image

Unlike many of the conjoined elementary-middle-high schools slated for closure (Drew-Shaw-University City, Fulton-Germantown High) Lamberton’s lower school is to remain open.  I ask a teacher as she ushers a class into Lamberton if school is going on while all the construction racket is happening on the roof.  School is in progress.

“It doesn’t make sense.  It’s all political,” she says about the closing.

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Dimner Beeber Middle School, SAVED!! Science Leadership Academy is expanding to this location

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I arrive at Beeber and a neighbor leans off her backporch and calls out to me. “What kind of dog is that?”  I have Belle, my ‘west philly special’ with me as I walk and photograph.  Belle is a story unto herself.  A neighbor with four small children found Belle near the Dock Street Brewery six years ago.  Belle had just given birth to puppies, her teats were hanging down by her knees and she was so skinny that her spine jutted out of her back by an inch.  Terrified of people, she tried to run away, but this the daughters of family, the Marvelous family of Marvelous Records, eventually coaxed the dog into their car with some piece of hotdog.  They dislodged the phone cord around Belle’s neck and the barbed wire from her back- and only then did the father of the family think, “wait a sec.  I have four little kids- what are we doing taking in a stray dog.”

Enter Katie, veterinary student, ‘sucker’ clearly printed on my forehead.  The Marvelous family did the right thing- they found a home for Belle.  I took in this 25 pound momma dog and set about fattening her up and teaching her to sit, stay, roll over.  It took her two weeks to become potty trained- and training her to do anything else was easy because she so badly wanted to be a good dog for me.  As she put on weight and regained covering on the pads of her paws, which had been completely worn out, she started to resemble something more than a miniature emaciated greyhound.  Because her spine stuck out so far from her boney ribs, people often asked me if she was a Rhodesian Ridgeback.  When she finally filled out, it dawned on me exactly what I had: a pitbull, an American Staffordshire Terrier.  A breed banned in many states and cities.  A breed vilified for dog fighting.  Belle was most likely kept in a closet somewhere and used to breed puppies that would become fighters.

But good golly.  If you did not know anything about pitbulls, which I didn’t, you’d think she was made for loving.  Belle is like my shadow. It took three years for her to be comfortable with me being in a different room.  So obedient and loving, I got her certified as a therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International.  I took Belle to the Ronald McDonald’s house to do tricks and get belly rubs and cheer up sick kids and their siblings.  Pets heal people.

And so, this lady on her back porch with a maltese running between her legs yells, “what kind of dog is that?” to me as I lead Belle around Beeber- and I hesitate every time I get that question.

“She’s a pitbull,” I yell back.  She is.  She is also a therapy dog.  Sometimes I pass her off as a boxer to avoid discrimination.

“A girl?” the woman yells.  And I wonder- sometimes people see Belle, think she is pretty, and then want to breed their dog with her.

“Yes- she’s fixed.” I call back.

“Looks just like mine,” the woman calls down to me.  “Get over here,” she calls to her dog, ushering a female dog that looks just like Belle out.  Her dogs, the maltese and the pitbull, look down at us as I wave, “she’s a looker too!”  I think the woman is just happy coaborrating what breed her mutt is.  We pitbull/amstaff/pebble/mutt-that-looks-like-a-boxer owners share an inside secret.

This business of dog ‘race’ is just as loaded as people ‘race,’ says the ‘white’ woman who always checks the ‘other’ box on surveys that want me to identify myself.

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After that exchange, I turn my attention to Beeber, an elementary school on a hill surrounded by quaint stone houses in good repair.  The surrounding neighborhood has large corporations like the Peirce Phelps company in the valleys.  I cannot help but think of flooded basements when I drove past and wonder how sustainable those corporate locations are, despite them having been there for nearly 100 years.

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The school itself was built in 1931  and is a few short blocks from Montgomery County, Lower Marion, the wealthy suburbs with the best public schools in the state/nation.

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Near the school entrance, a tattered black trash bag flaps in a naked tree, like the grim reaper closing in.

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A rusty iron fence surrounds a blacktop that wraps around the school.  Cars are parked on the blacktop and an exposed Dempsey Dumpster, with its lid open and trash flying out, takes center stage.  There are no basketball posts.

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From a neighbor’s front lawn, behind a veil of cherry blossoms, one can see signs forbidding littering, dog droppings and trespassing on nearly every post.  These unwelcoming signs seem to be on every school that I have visited.  They don’t blare “trespassers WILL BE SHOT,” but list a variety of other punishments and fines.  I wonder if I am violating the rules just by standing on the edge of the schoolyard.

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Schools should be public amenities where neighbors are encouraged to use the hoops during after hours.  Or tend school gardens.  Or host community meetings.  These schools, with their barred windows, rusty barbed wire topped fences, and curmudgeonly signage broadcast the opposite of community.  I do not feel welcome.

And I wonder how much of the signage is reactionary and how much is proactive.  I am partially a product of public school.  I’ve been in a knife fight as a sixth grader.  A boy brought a gun to a school dance when I was in eighth grade.

If there had been a sign, would it have prevented those incidences?  How much do these prison-like environments provoke prison-like behavior?

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Graffiti over ivy creeping up over the brickwork. Violence over nature over man’s good intention.