Martin Luther King High opened in 1972 as part of an unusual experiment. To make sure the new school in West Oak Lane enrolled a mix of poor and middle-class students, the Philadelphia School District decided that every student from the city's Northwest would attend King for 9th and 10th grades, then move on to nearby Germantown High for 11th and 12th grades.
It was called the "paired school" model.
"I think the experiment was to try to bring us together to bridge the gap of the cliques, the gangs that were out there," said Elisha Morris, a student in King's inaugural 9th-grade class.
"It seemed to have worked — for a minute."
Today, District officials are pursuing a massive school-closings plan that has some parallels with their predecessors' experiment of 40 years ago.
Germantown is one of 37 city schools targeted to be closed. If the School Reform Commission approves the plan, hundreds of students from across the Northwest would be thrust together inside King.
Germantown's 99-year-old facility is now two-thirds empty, but many students, parents, and community leaders are worried that merging the two schools will spark violence between youth from rival neighborhoods.
Morris, now 55, shares those concerns.
"I think it's going to be ugly," he said.
A brand-new school
King opened its doors on Feb. 8, 1972.
A photo in the old Philadelphia Bulletin shows about a dozen teens lined up in the snow outside the building. The young man closest to the camera has a notebook under his arm and a pencil tucked between his ear and his Afro. His friends are smiling.
"We were happy as all get out," remembers Morris. "We're like, 'Wow, we got a brand-new school to go into.'"
As a middle schooler, Morris served as a student representative on a committee that planned the "paired school" experiment. But he quickly turned against the idea.
"As soon as you started feeling at home, they started saying you're going to Germantown for 11th and 12th grade," he remembered.
Morris started organizing his classmates to fight the District's plan.
They took their protests all the way to the school board.
Al Banks was one of the students who caught the "four years, not two" fever.
"We were going to take over," said Banks.
The King students wanted their own mascot and school colors. They wanted a single school's name on their diploma. They wanted to stay with their teachers.
Being uprooted after 10th grade, Banks said, "just didn't feel right."
District officials held firm, but the idea of sending every kid in Northwest Philly to both King and Germantown was losing support.
"The adults still wanted the experiment," Morris said. "The students were like, 'Heck, no. Enough of this crap.'"
Before long, the "bring kids together across neighborhood lines" part of the District's plan fell apart, too.
Deborah Cunningham Alexander knows as well as anyone about Northwest Philly's longstanding neighborhood rivalries.
"I was from Dogtown. My boyfriend was from Haines Street. And we were right there on the cusp of Somerville," said Cunningham Alexander, ticking off the names of three of the biggest — and most notorious — neighborhoods in the area.
The fourth is known as the Brickyard.
"Brickyard, you just didn't want to be in," she said. "They were crazy."
Most kids just tried to avoid trouble.
"If you saw a whole crew out there fighting, you went around it. You stayed on the bus and got off at the next corner," said Cunningham Alexander.
But for many students, the neighborhood wars seeped into every part of high school life.
Kenny Greene, for example, had a crush on a girl in his 10th-grade social-science class.
"She was, like, super-smart," he remembered.
But Cheryl Downing lived in the heart of Brickyard. If Greene wanted to go out with her, he had to prove himself to her brothers and the Brickyard crew.
It started with the one-on-one fistfights known as "fair ones," Greene said.
"Then it progressed on to, 'OK, we're going down to Haines Street, or we're going down to Somerville and roll on somebody,'" he remembered. "Which meant we were going to beat somebody down."
Greene himself never got in serious trouble.
But on Dec. 5, 1972, King High made the news again. The headline in the Daily News read "3 stabbed in school gang clash."
The mayhem started in the school cafeteria, when 15 students from four different gangs started brawling. Two additional students were beaten with metal pipes.
Michael Davis, one of the victims, told a reporter at the time that "gang warring will never stop."
Asked by the reporter whether he wanted it to stop, Davis gave a telling answer: "I'm not sure."
A matter of expectations?
The "paired school" model at King and Germantown lingered for a couple of years, but it never really recovered.
Now, concern about possible conflicts between those same neighborhoods is one big reason many in Northwest Philadelphia oppose the district's plan to close Germantown and send hundreds of students to King.
Mayor Michael Nutter said that he thinks it's time for Philadelphia to get over its parochial rivalries and face the future.
"I'm not willing to throw my hands up and say, 'This is the way it's been, so this is the way it always has to be,'" Nutter said. "That is having low expectations."
The history between school communities like those at Germantown and King runs deep, however.
It wasn't just neighborhood violence and students' desire for a stable four-year high school experience that doomed the "paired school" experiment. Many faculty members at the schools resented the system, which limited some of their professional opportunities.
And many parents in the middle-class Northwest Philly neighborhoods around King, such as West Oak Lane and East Mount Airy, began fighting almost immediately to separate from Germantown, which was surrounded by poorer neighborhoods.
"It looks like the more affluent blacks are beginning to develop some of the hang-ups that the other ethnic groups have had all along," Walter Scriven, Germantown's principal at the time, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1974.
Memories and lessons
Despite it all, many members of the schools' Class of '75 thrived.
Al Banks is now an audio engineer at WHYY-FM in Philadelphia.
Debbie Cunningham Alexander just retired from Citibank. She still lives in Germantown. She sings in three different choirs — a passion that was cultivated in high school.
And Kenneth Greene Sr. is now a lieutenant in the Philadelphia Fire Department.
Although he remembers the gang wars, Greene lights up talking about the football team. And Mr. Scriven. And being blown away while reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And, of course, Cheryl Downing from Brickyard.
The pair ended up marrying and having three children.
"The school was the transitioning point for my life," said Greene.
As for Elisha Morris, he's now the student internship coordinator at Cheyney University. He also runs a youth ministry at the Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, less than a mile from King High.
"By the time we graduated, I think we saw the world as a place we needed to give to, not take from," he said.
Like Greene and Cunningham Alexander, Morris is involved in the current effort to save Germantown from closing.
He looks back with mixed feelings on the School District's experiment at Germantown and King 40 years ago.
The reality, says Morris, is that no one — not students, not school staff, not parents — was fully on board back then with the reasons behind the experiment. Because of that weak foundation, he said, the "paired school" model couldn't withstand the trouble that arose.
That's a lesson Morris hopes the school sytem will consider before trying to merge Germantown and King again.
"I think what we tried to do was noble," he said. "We just didn't do enough of the groundwork."
This story was produced as part of a partnership in covering the Philadelphia schools between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.
Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa contributed reporting to this article. Lois Zinn contributed transcription services to this project. Special thanks to the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries.
Photo credit: On Feb, 8, 1972, students arrived for the first day of classes at the new Martin Luther King High School.
Credit: Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA. Ligato (Philadelphia Bulletin.)