Closings prompt big adjustments at receiving schools
South Philadelphia High, Lea Elementary, and many others raced to prepare for a major influx of students from 24 shuttered schools.
by Dan Hardy
As South Philadelphia High School opens its doors this fall for the new school year, it is a dramatically different place than it was in June.
More than half the estimated 1,400 students enrolled by late August to begin classes in the building on Sept. 9 would have been enrolled at the nearby Bok Technical High School, if Bok had remained open.
Instead, Bok and 23 other schools were ordered shut down by the School Reform Commission this spring, as a cost-saving measure.
As a result, thousands of children are heading for new schools this fall, creating new opportunities for some and the danger of chaos and disruption for others, as administrators already overtaxed by the District’s recent draconian cutbacks work to cope with the transfers.
The five-story South Philly High building had space to house the influx; the school, known as Southern, finished last school year with about 600 students.
The school and District administration raced to refit the building by the first day of school, with few staffers on hand during the summer to help out. Even if the physical preparations are completed, “because so much will be new ... it would still be a heavy load to carry, to bring in so many students at one time,” principal Otis Hackney said in an August interview.
The school is coping by using a variety of measures to ease the transition. This summer, students from Bok and Southern came together to build trust and friendship. Hackney developed a plan to preserve the Bok school name in Southern’s vo-tech programs, and asked athletes to help unite the school.
He said he is optimistic. “We want to hold on to the best of what both schools had to offer, in starting a new tradition. ... This can be better than both schools, separately, ever were.”
There is some potential for friction between former Bok and South Philly High students because the schools were athletic rivals, but Bok drew its students from all over the city, so there is not much problem with neighborhood conflicts carrying over, Hackney and others said.
Lea School also grows
The K-8th grade Henry Lea School in West Philadelphia also faces new challenges. Lea is increasing from 400 students last school year to 635, with the extra 235 children coming from the now-closed Alexander Wilson School.
The closing of Wilson, located in Southwest Philadelphia about a mile away from Lea, presents some parents of younger children with transportation problems, because rides are only provided for students who live more than a mile and a half from a school. And there are neighborhood rivalries to contend with as well.
Still, said Sterling Baltimore, the director of the Lea Community School, an afterschool partnership between the West Philadelphia community, the University of Pennsylvania and the School District, “I think the overall attitude will be how to make Lea even better. ... It will all come down to good leadership, and Dr. Harrison has a strong record.” Sonya Harrison, the new principal this fall at Lea, is the former head of Wilson, and is respected for her work there, Baltimore said.
Harrison said in an interview that the merger is going well. This spring, the two schools launched a pen pal program, with students exchanging letters.
In May, many students and some parents and staff walked from Wilson to Lea – to address concerns about the extra traveling distance, Harrison said – and the pen pals met each other. “There was a lot of excitement,” Harrison said.
Before school started, parents and children from the two schools were invited to a Lea “mix-and-mingle” event, Harrison said.
Eight teachers from Wilson are moving to Lea this fall, as is much of the art work from Wilson. “We are doing everything we can to make the students and parents feel comfortable,” she said.
A summer program held by the Lea Community School drew a mix of Lea and Wilson students who formed bonds that should help this fall’s transition, said director Baltimore. Neighborhood rivalries are not as big a factor at K-8 schools as they are with older students, he added.
The big challenge, he said, is simply “a matter of kids learning to make new friends. And we’re building on a good atmosphere that’s already there” at Lea.
Baltimore noted one disappointment: Hoped-for funding that would have allowed the Lea afterschool program to expand from 100 to 200 did not materialize. Still, students from both Lea and Wilson will be included in the Community School going forward, he said.
Getting ready for Bok’s migration
At Southern, it was also a busy summer of preparation for the migration.
Hackney said that one effort to preserve the Bok heritage that has drawn praise is the decision to name Southern’s career and technical education program the “Bok Technical Institute at South Philadelphia High School,” and to have graduating seniors from the program wear a special sash with the blue and white Bok school colors.