williampennphoto The young Ruth Wright Hayre. (Photo: Philadelphia Bulletin, published in Hayre's autobiography, "Tell Them We Are Rising")

The one thing that kept going through my head Wednesday as I sat at the hearing on the proposed closing next year of William Penn High School was that Ruth Wright Hayre was certainly spinning in her grave.

When Hayre, the venerable long-time city educator and Board of Education president, was appointed to teach English at William Penn in 1946, it was an all-girls school located at 15th and Green in what is now the Franklin Learning Center. She was the first full-time African American high school teacher in the District’s history. Ten years later she was named principal, the first African American to lead a city public high school.

She went on to be the equivalent of a regional superintendent and then the first female president of the school board.  

Her story, which she relished telling, was both an inspiration and a shocking reminder of the overt racism and discrimination that pervaded the Philadelphia School District for most of its existence, the legacy of which is still with us – and painfully evident at the public hearing.   

The plea being made by the residents and activists from the William Penn community in North Philadelphia to the School Reform Commission had a familiar ring. They said, in effect: You are shutting down yet another facility that was state of the art when built, but never used to its fullest capacity, never maintained properly, and now is in disrepair, both physically and educationally. And instead of dreaming big – why not a training center for careers in the burgeoning field of green technology? – you are proposing to shut the school down and scatter the students to other schools that are equally bad. And, oh, the building just happens to sit on prime real estate on North Broad Street.

William Penn is one of several schools conceived in the 1960s by the reformer Superintendent Mark Shedd, but not built until the 1970s when he was long gone, driven from Philadelphia by Mayor Frank Rizzo for daring to support the needs and demands of the city’s Black students. All these schools were touted for their innovation and then never used as intended. Martin Luther King High School was constructed as four separate wings to be four distinct learning communities, way ahead of its time. University City was designed for independent learning and had classrooms with movable walls and wide open spaces. Inga Saffron, the Inquirer’s architecture critic, gives a wonderful history of William Penn here, as well as a magnificent description of the architectural wonders and educational potential behind the prison-like facade.

The powers-that-be had no trouble deciding to build these schools – plenty of lucrative contracts for construction companies, work for the trade unions and bond fees for lawyers – but hemmed and hawed when it came to supporting the full educational experience they were designed for. There was never the will or the resources to develop the programs, train the teachers, include parents and students in planning – in other words, do the hard work of re-shaping education for a mostly impoverished African American neighborhood. I remember being in University City nearly 20 years after it opened when a staff member told me of a basement room where equipment still sat in boxes, never touched.

Now, both University City and William Penn are in disrepair. And even though Penn and Drexel are champing at the bit to create two small specialty schools on the University City campus, the District is dithering over – among other things – whether the poorly maintained building is worth saving.

William Mackey of the City Wide Youth Leadership Agency was the one who proposed turning William Penn into a center for green entrepreneurship training. If not that, he said, a program to train home-grown teachers or a health care academy. Or all three, since the campus is certainly big enough. What about the stimulus money, he asked – Philadelphia is likely to receive more than $100 million in federal aid for one-time expenditures including building repair and modernization.

SRC members had no good answers. The campus, with its swimming pool, underground garage, five separate buildings, and poorly maintained heating and cooling system, would cost multi-millions to repair and retrofit. The student population is dwindling. Test scores are in the tank. All but one of the five buildings are already in mothballs.

When Ruth Hayre got to William Penn in 1946, African American students had begun to replace the Jewish and Italian young women that the school had been educating since 1910. She immediately saw the erosion of educational standards, the substitution of something called “common learnings” for academic subjects. As soon as she could, Hayre restored a full academic curriculum as well as more practical courses like typing and steno that led to then-plentiful secretarial positions.   

She would certainly be sad to know that her determined path-breaking had come to this. Rep Curtis Thomas put it this way: “Think not about the building. Think about what happens to these young people in Philadelphia as we go forward. Some of them have been struggling for years. Let’s use this opportunity to address their needs rather than abandon them.”  

Next year, William Penn will be 100 years old. There are no easy answers now. But perhaps SRC members should at least think about Ruth Hayre and what she stood for before they make a final decision about her beloved school.

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