City officials joined SLA Beeber students, staff, and families as they rallied to demand the District address unsafe building conditions
PHILADELPHIA — Today, just before dozens of community members, educators, and young people gathered on the steps of Science Leadership Academy at Beeber to protest deplorable building conditions, the School District of Philadelphia announced that students and teachers would pivot to virtual learning for the beginning of the school year, and then transition to interim learning sites until building construction has been completed. The plan is a departure from the District’s original announcement that all students and staff would be expected to return in-person to the building on Malvern Ave in West Philadelphia, where in-progress asbestos remediation efforts have produced toxic dust and unfinished bathroom construction would have required students to use portable outdoor toilets.
The announcement is a direct response to the tireless organizing of students, staff, parents, and stakeholders, who spent the weekend amplifying their demands that students only return to classrooms once conditions were safe. The Philadelphia Home and School Council, Philadelphia Student Union, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and others stood together with SLA Beeber families to celebrate their victory at the rally, while also questioning the lack of communication between the School District and SLA Beeber families that had prompted the rally.
“I wouldn’t necessarily be thanking the District because we should not have to be here,” said Charita Hall, a parent of a student at SLA Beeber. “We should not have to send out emails, texts, and social media posts, tagging everyone we could over the weekend to keep our kids safe. We should have been informed of the situation upfront, not found out at the last minute. We should have known about the asbestos that could penetrate our teachers and students’ lungs. This did not need to happen. We must make sure that when students return, safety is guaranteed.”
SLA Beeber is one of many public school buildings across the District where asbestos has not been successfully remediated in a timely manner, and where unmet capital renovations pose severe hazards to school communities. Ongoing efforts by families and staff at Julia R. Masterman School have challenged the District’s decision to send students back to a building with exposed asbestos. Recently, similar concerns around building safety and asbestos exposure have been raised by parent advocates and school leaders at Lewis C. Cassidy School in the Overbrook Neighborhood of Philadelphia and T.M. Pierce Elementary in North Philadelphia. Many of these buildings have had known asbestos problems for years, yet District efforts to ensure safe, healthy learning environments have fallen short.
While asbestos is common in old building stock and can be a harmless presence iif covered correctly and left undisturbed, active construction raises serious issues for staff and student safety alike, due to potential exposure to the toxic particles that are released during the process of remediation. Speakers during the rally questioned why the School District of Philadelphia had not done a better job of using the past year and a half, during which school buildings were empty, to complete the remediation efforts. In West Philadelphia, where SLA Beeber is located, nearly one in seven children are born with asthma, leaving them at especially high-risk to asbestos exposure in addition to COVID-19.
“This is not about just one school, but fighting together for safe, dignified, school conditions in every neighborhood in Philadelphia,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks (At-Large), whose daughter attends SLA Beeber, and whose background is in education activism. “It’s time that our city showed real vision and leadership by using American Rescue Plan Act dollars to invest in green, state-of-the-art facilities across Philadelphia, and ensuring every building has adequate heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. The parallel crises of climate disaster and toxic building conditions impact working class and poor communities of color like mine the most. We’re tired of having to organize for basic dignity at every turn. Tired of being poisoned, sick, inconvenienced, and asked to be resilient again and again. Our work won’t stop here.”
At the rally, educators and students joined together to envision a future where racial justice and education equity would be a guarantee, not a battle.
“Quality education shouldn’t require resistance,” said Zion Brooks, a senior at SLA Beeber. “Offering port-a-potties in place of bathrooms was a lazy and irresponsible decision made by the District, and this sadly has become the norm. So much so, that I had to convince my peers that the conditions we were learning in were less than adequate, and that we had to do something to change things. I want to thank the parents, teachers, and community members rallying around us. My fellow students and I deserve so much better, and we won’t stop fighting.”
“Parents are our power. Never forget that. We should be proud today of what we did” said Bonnee Benton, a building representative for SLA Beeber and member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “Things have been moving in a business as usual manner, but no longer. My colleagues and I love what we do through and through. We will do anything to do our jobs and help build the legacies of our next generation. We don’t take these decisions lightly.”
Additional City Councilmembers joined SLA Beeber school community members to call attention to the severity of environmental hazards in schools across the city and call for increased accountability and transparency from the District.
“The current state of affairs at SLA Beeber is dangerous and dehumanizing,” said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier (3rd District). “Students and staff alike need a safe, calm, and productive learning environment in order to thrive – and we can’t settle for any less. I stand with the SLA Beeber community as they advocate for the equitable school facilities that every child deserves.”
“It is absolutely appalling to think that as we prepare to ‘Ring the Bell’ tomorrow for a brand new school year, we’re also ringing the alarm in light of such deplorable conditions at SLA Beeber School,” said Councilmember Derek Green (At-Large). “It is inconceivable to me that we still have to fight for more transparency with the School District when it comes to the safety of the buildings in which our children and their teachers will spend the majority of their time. As a School District parent and son of a retired School District teacher, I commend my colleague, Councilmember Brooks, for her advocacy and assertion of concern about these disturbing issues at Beeber. We will continue to ring this alarm and make as much noise as possible until we know with confidence that our kids are safe in the learning environments in which they’re expected to thrive.”
“The District has a responsibility to Staff, Students, Parents and all residents of the city to make sure schools are safe,” said Councilmember Mark Squilla (1st District). “It is imperative that timely reports be given with 3rd party verification to build trust among all stakeholders.”
Photo: School District of Philadelphia