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Willard School project: a false start

By Paul Socolar on Mar 26, 2009 06:04 PM

An exit door from the Willard School building as seen in a Notebook file photo from 2007.

A celebratory groundbreaking ceremony for the long-awaited replacement of Willard School in Kensington took place in December, after years of promises and many frustrating delays. As recently as last month, District officials were saying its target date for opening the new school was Fall 2009.

But now that date has been pushed back.

Despite the ceremonial digging of a trench in December, the real work on the $40 million project never started.

This week, the Notebook obtained the following statement from a School District spokesperson about the latest apparent stumble in this long saga:

"The School District of Philadelphia is awaiting approval from the Orphans' Court of Philadelphia County to proceed with the excavation phase of construction of this new school. As many in that neighborhood know, the new Willard School will be built on the foundation of the former Franklin Recreation Center, which was built on the site of the former Franklin Cemetery. The School District purchased the site from the City of Philadelphia last year. The expected completion date of the new school is Fall 2010."

The District offered the following additional explanation: “Pennsylvania law on Burial Grounds requires Court approval because this is the site of a former cemetery."

A spokesperson said the timeline for action by the court was unknown.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project and its member groups in the Willard community have been advocating for a replacement of the aging facility and its annexes since the 1990s. EPOP Director Allen Stevens said today that the Willard project's proponents had all thought the issues involving the cemetery were taken care of. “I'm surprised personally that the District hadn't planned for this - it shows poor organization on their part,” he said. “It appears that they keep running into situations like this only because of poor planning.”

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Comments (4)

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on March 26, 2009 8:46 pm

My childen went to the Willard School twenty years ago. I also taught there briefly. The school was overcrowded and some classes met in the hallways.
There was no gym so physical education was conducted in a space in the basement next to the toilets. There was no lunchroom and the library was housed in a classroom. The archaic heating system made most classrooms into ovens.
Willlard at that point served a poor, white working class community with little political power.

Today conditions are even worse with the school being housed at 3 different facilities, all of which lack the amenities we associate with schools. The community, now predominantly Latino, organized and fought for a new school. If student needs and correcting a history of neglect had anything to do with the School District's priorities then Willard would be at the head of the line. But apparently the feelings of the long dead and buried take precedence.

Submitted by David Sambolin (not verified) on April 5, 2009 4:01 pm

What follows are comments to the "SRC" last year March 2008. At that time I said "In the 1990's, the TV show 20/20 visited Philadelphia to report upon the old Roberto Clemente School, and compared it to a Third World school. There is no need to repeat that embarrassment to the City." I was wrong. It is time to repeat that embarrassment to Philadelphia. Willard Elementary (The Rat School) must be dismantled.

Request of David Sambolín directed
to the School Reform Commission
of the City of Philadelphia,
March 19, 2008

One hundred years ago Philadelphia schools were built like many Third World schools. There were no cafeterias built into Philadelphia schools, because the children were expected to go home for lunch. There were no bathrooms, because the children were expected to use the bathroom at home when they went home for lunch. Gymnasiums did not exist in the Philadelphia schools built 100 years ago. The schools did not meet modern standards. That is why I am here today. There are schools in Philadelphia that are 100 or more years old. The problem is made worse by population growth, which is over 4% in North Philadelphia and other parts of the city. Four per cent means the population will double every 18 years.

The lack of modern standards is shown, for example, at the 100 year old Willard Elementary School. It has no cafeteria. The children eat their breakfast and lunch at their desks. The bathrooms are retrofitted. There is one boy’s and one girl’s bathroom in the basement. Every child must be escorted to the bathroom, and sometimes the lines are long. There is still no gymnasium. There is a basement room retrofitted as an Art Room. The student population is 781, which means the school is overcrowded. Kindergarten and First Grade are housed offsite, and amount to 368 students. Of the 368, 147 are housed in an annex. The annex is a school building that was long ago sold off and abandoned by the School District. It may be one of the 100 year old schools. Please remember that the overcrowding problem is getting worse because of population projections and the deteriorating infrastructure of the buildings themselves. Other examples of 100 year old schools still in use are the Amy School, in West Philadelphia, and Sheppard Elementary, which is 3 miles from Willard. And there are many others, including buildings that were converted into schools, such as the old Roberto Clemente School at Fifth and Luzerne. This last school was replaced and is now being used as a warehouse. However, from time to time there is talk of reopening the building as a school. Please do not do what your predecessors have done and reopen the talks. There is Bache-Martin Elementary, which is a younger school, but there is a rumor that there is lead piping, and that the water is shut off before L & I inspects the building.

In the 1990's, the TV show 20/20 visited Philadelphia to report upon the old Roberto Clemente School, and compared it to a Third World school. There is no need to repeat that embarrassment to the City.

This presentation is an invitation to the SRC to appoint a 100 Year Old School and Lead Pipe Committee, dedicated to bringing our schools up to a modern standard.

David Sambolín, 3214 Hamilton St., Philadelphia, PA 19104, (215) 222-5068,

Submitted by Helen Gym on March 26, 2009 9:28 pm

Good work Paul in publicizing this. This is a surprising turn of events given the publicity this project received. This should receive full attention from the SRC, media and city leaders.

Submitted by David Sambolin (not verified) on April 5, 2009 4:29 pm

Based upon past experience, 20/20 is very cooperative.

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