Gtown citizens seek new uses for iconic high school building set to close in JuneBy Theodore Z. Bordelon
What’s next for Germantown High School? That was the question posed to a panel of local community leaders and experts on April 19 at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG).
As part of budget-saving measures for the cash-strapped city school system, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission has voted to close Germantown High School and 23 other city schools at the end of this academic year.
Opened in 1914, the high school occupies a full city block at the corner of Germantown and High Street. It is an iconic institution in the neighborhood, and community leaders want to make sure the building doesn’t become another source of blight after it is shuttered.
“Finding uses for these school buildings can be daunting and can affect the tone of the neighborhood,” panelist Emily Dowdall, a senior associate at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told an overflow crowd of more than 50 people. The longer the building’s fate remains in question, she added, the more likely it will fall into disrepair or become a magnet for illicit activity.
Cosponsored by NBC10 and AxisPhilly, a non-profit news organization, the public forum drew a spirited crowd of anxious Germantown residents, many of whom expressed interest in keeping the building an educational facility.
According to Bill Ewing, a FUMCOG trustee and lawyer who has worked with the Philadelphia Zoning Board, this option might be the most viable.
“The easiest thing would be to maintain it as an educational institution,” Ewing said, noting that it is currently zoned for that use. “Perhaps the (Philadelphia) Community College could have a campus here.”
The church, which is located across the street from the high school, runs an after-school program that has provided enrichment activities for Germantown High students for more than a decade.
State Representative Stephen Kinsey, who represents Germantown in Harrisburg, said that his office has received a slew of phone calls about keeping the high school open, or changing it to a K-12 school.
An alumnus of Germantown High, Kinsey called the school’s closing an “emotional drain,” and bemoaned the reform commission’s poor communication about the closing with local residents.
Another option discussed by the panel included turning the building into a retirement community or residential building. However, Allan Domb of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors, said that the numbers simply didn’t add up for such a solution.
“There’s no hope of making this residential,” Domb said.
For City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who represents the Eighth District in which Germantown is located, finding a purpose for the building come June will be a top priority.
“It’s very troubling for us,” Bass said. “The questions we really need to ask are ‘is there a way to save this institution’ and, if not, ‘how will it be reused?”
During a question-and-answer session, residents seemed resolutely in favor of keeping the high school open. Several argued that the public forum itself was based on the fact that the school’s closing was a foregone conclusion.
While many residents in attendance remained irate at the meeting’s end, Betty Turner, president of the Germantown Community Connection urged unity.
“Germantown has survived its share of hard times,” Turner said. “Out of this frustration we can find hope and new initiatives.”
(Theordore Z. Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)