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June 22, 2023

Teachers and parents' worries mount over crumbling Philly school buildings, asbestos, gun violence and more

Those affected by issues in public education speak with Pennsylvania Capital-Star about their experiences

Education Government
Philadelphia School District Struggles Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The School District of Philadelphia is dealing with a litany of issues, including temporary closures, old buildings, a lack of staff and gun violence.

Crumbling facilities, a lack of support staff, and little to no extracurriculars are three glaring examples of how far Philadelphia has fallen behind due to inequitable funding systems supported by the state – parents and educators told the Capital-Star.

This year alone there have been six reported temporary closures of school buildings in Philadelphia due to structural issues, with one slated not to reopen in the fall.  

For many Philadelphians, a Commonwealth Court ruling earlier this year declaring the state’s school funding system unconstitutional was just a reminder of what they have lived through for the past several decades.

MORE: How Pa. taxpayers fund charter schools should be fixed, public education advocates say

Parents, teachers, administrators, and organizations alike have expressed that one of the biggest issues for Philadelphia schools is the longevity of its school buildings. 

“I’m supposed to teach them how to read even though their lives are wrecked by gun violence, poverty, crumbling schools, and dangerous water and paint. It’s infuriating,” Edward T. Steel Elementary special education teacher Nicole Wyglendowski told the Capital-Star.

According to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, the average Philadelphia school building is 76 years old. 

This can lead to a host of issues including but not limited to asbestos, lead in the water pipes, and no air conditioning.

Building 21, a Lab School part of the Building 21 Network in the Philadelphia School District located in West Oak Lane offers students internships and many other opportunities during their four years there. 

However, it is also a prime example of a school in Philadelphia with large structural issues. The building was completed in 1915, making it more than 100 years old. 

Earlier this year, it abruptly shut down due to asbestos, was quickly remediated, then shut down again without a proposed plan this time due to water damage This angered and frustrated many parents, including Sheila E. Johnson, whose daughter is an 11th grader at Building 21.

Johnson explained that parents’ voices were not heard during the meetings that were held to discuss the issues, and on top of that, they were never given a seat at the table.

“They told us – they didn’t ask us – that our children would be attending Strawberry Mansion High. It was traumatizing for me and my daughter,” Johnson told the Capital-Star.

Johnson, advocates for improved education in Philadelphia. She attributes her daughter’s anxiety and depression to issues at Building 21.

Johnson said her daughter faced daily trauma at the unstable school building. That included symptoms of anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, and not being able to get out of bed in the morning. 

With COVID-19 affecting many students’ ability to learn, going online again for some students during the asbestos closure was detrimental to the progress they have made since returning to in-person schooling, Johnson said. 

Johnson said she is continuing the fight for more transparency, accountability, and responsibility from the District by campaigning for more support for youth education, and putting together petitions to bring to the City, and eventually the state. 

She said she wants more updated information because as parents they deserve to know what is going on with their children’s education. 

“Just because summer is here and school is over doesn’t mean that I’m done fighting. Clearly, we want, and deserve more and consistent transparency,” Johnson told the Capital-Star. 

Decaying facilities are not the only issue

Some teachers are speaking out and advocating for urgency toward a more adequate funding system for all students across the Commonwealth. 

“I already knew that this was not constitutional, that this is not fair, [or] adequate,” Wyglendowski said. “Having grown up in the public schools in New Jersey, which are excellent and very well funded. And then working over here. It’s a whole new world. I felt like beforehand, I was being gaslighted into thinking that this is enough. So I am happy that they made the ruling. But now what? There needs to be more urgency.”

Schools in the state’s largest school district lack librarians, school nurses, and even arts education. 

Currently, Philadelphia has four certified librarians for 113,000 students in the entire district, Jordan, the union leader, told the Capital-Star. 

Pennsylvania does not fare well on the librarian spectrum, according to the School Library Journal, the state ranks sixth in a list of states that have lost the most librarians since 2010. 

“There are so many limitations to the extracurricular activities that our children are able to participate in,” Jordan said. “Music is important for so many reasons, [but] we don’t have art and music in every school. And we do not have [more than] one high school marching band in Philadelphia.” 

Some advocates in the education sphere believe that the laws are old and unhelpful to today’s society, and are not beneficial to students’ growth. After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP), a non-profit organization that advocates for more supervised out-of-school time activities underscores the importance of equal opportunities for all students across the Commonwealth. 

“They need to revisit some of the laws around what is permissible around ratios of nurses and librarians to students,” ASAP Executive Directro Justin Ennis said. “There are some of these things that are kind of out of date, or out of touch. A basic need should be a safe environment where they can go to school.”

Teachers have reported seeing their students participate less in their education, especially since the pandemic. Some believe that it could be because they don’t feel supported by the structures that are meant to help them learn, said Wyglendowski.

Wyglendowski said she regularly sees mice and cockroaches at her school. But the problems seem to be larger than things that crawl, she said. 

“What’s really frustrating to me is that there is not a plan to make sure that these buildings that kids are federally mandated to go to are safe,” Wyglendowski said. “And they’re not even conducive to learning. This is beyond inhumane. And I think that it’s really silly that we’re sitting around talking about a new curriculum when our students are in unsafe buildings.”

Wyglendowski referred to the new five-year strategic plan proposed by Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington Sr., which suggests spending $70 million on a new curriculum when the district recently purchased a new one. 

“This is the future of our country, and whether or not our kids [or] coworkers can read and write. And whether or not we will have competent workers in a new digital age. This is life or death in the sense that these school buildings are killing people. And I don’t think people are seeing how urgent this is,” Wyglendowski said. 

Some members of the City Council in Philadelphia see the urgency in this matter and urge for change. 

Councilmember Kendra Brooks said that the days of patchwork fixes are gone, and there needs to be a real investment in our future generation’s education.

“We need to inspect all schools, and come up with a clear process on how we’re going to do asbestos and mold remediation,” Brooks said. “We have $13 billion available in funding. There’s no reason why we can’t use that money to provide immediate relief that we need for the school districts. If we want to see long-term sustainable changes in our education system, we can’t continue to kind of kick the can down the road.”

Recently Pennsylvania Capital-Star is publishing a series of articles about how state policymakers have been challenged to fix Pennsylvania's broken school funding system. From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, school districts have been trying to make the best of it. Now they're looking to a future where all 500 of the commonwealth's school districts have what they need to ensure a quality education for every student.

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