Building 21, the West Oak Lane high school shuttered Wednesday because of damaged asbestos, will remain closed indefinitely, and students and staff will relocate to Strawberry Mansion High School on Monday.
Officials had originally hoped Building 21, which educated students virtually Thursday and Friday, would reopen for in-person learning Monday, but informed staff and families Friday afternoon that the school required more extensive work.
“Sections of the walls in the auditorium balcony, stairwells, and projector room require repairs due to the asbestos-containing plaster being damaged and flaking. There also is visible damage to the auditorium ceiling, and crews will be working to build scaffolding to access the area, assess the condition, and conduct any appropriate repairs,” Philadelphia School District Deputy Superintendent ShaVon Savage wrote in a letter to families and staff.
Building 21′s 390 students will occupy their own corridor on the fourth floor of Mansion, which is about six miles away from Building 21, on Ridge Avenue. The relocation was necessary “given the scope of the work, in an abundance of caution and to provide some certainty to school students, staff, and families,” Savage wrote.
Building 21 will have access to 19 classrooms and seven smaller rooms, the district letter said.
The news had staff “reeling,” some said, worried about students’ new commutes, their safety, and how they might interact with young people in a new neighborhood.
There’s some history there: Building 21 opened in 2014, and was initially colocated with the U School, another district high school, at Seventh and Norris. It moved to the former Kinsey School, at 65th Street and Limekiln Pike, in 2017, and that transition was difficult: That first year in West Oak Lane, a number of Building 21 students were attacked by students from nearby Martin Luther King.
One of teacher Sara Grieb’s students had his jaw broken that year; others had to be driven by authorities to undisclosed subway stops to prevent attacks, Grieb said.
“The district advocates being trauma-informed, and it’s the last thing they’re being with us,” said Grieb. “This is a population of students who has typically been marginalized and has little say in anything, and they have no say at all in this. They’re just moved like chess pieces.”
Staff asked for more time to prepare students and families, to assess the new space, and to help make plans for the transition. They were denied, they said.
“There’s not really any time to make a solid plan for ways to get those groups together in a way that’s harmonious,” said Derrick Houck, a music and math teacher, who said there’s been little communication from the district throughout the closure.
Jill Thomas, a Building 21 special education teacher, says the school is a tight-knit community that prides itself on strong communications with its families who feel safe in their building with their teachers.
“To put on them that they now need to travel to another location when they don’t even feel safe in their own neighborhood, it’s unconscionable,” said Thomas. “We don’t feel that our families are being respected. Nobody said, ‘We’re not doing this. All we are asking for is more time.’ ”
The asbestos was discovered in Building 21 during a federally required routine inspection earlier this week. Undamaged, asbestos is not considered unsafe, but damaged asbestos can be toxic.
Like many large urban districts, Philadelphia has a stock of aging buildings; it has had significant environmental issues over the past years.
In the 2019-20 school year, damaged asbestos closed 12 schools.
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