Paul Robeson High School has been recognized by Philadelphia School District, city and national officials alike: Recognized for a strong student body, dedicated faculty and a principal who has been called the best in the country.
But there is a separation between the school and its building.
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Robeson, at 41st and Ludlow in West Philadelphia, has no working ventilation other than windows, and some are boarded up or don’t open fully, employees say. The electricity supply is so outdated that the school cannot even accommodate window air conditioners in most rooms and the fuse box often has to be reset.
Parents, staff and students gathered at the district headquarters on Tuesday to urge the school system on a timeline to refurbish Robeson, which was built in 1960 as the Catto School.
Ciani Pagan, a Robeson junior, helped organize 250 students – almost all at the small school – to sign a petition saying they “don’t feel safe at school anymore”. Pagan said she’s fed up with bathrooms that are often broken and classrooms that are so hot she gets nosebleeds.
“Who wants to go to school there?” said Pagan.
Though it’s not among the district’s oldest buildings — some school structures date back to the 19th century — Robeson is in disrepair, said Dan Reyes, a teacher at the school.
“It’s essentially not really been updated” since it was built, Reyes said. “Alumni come in and say, ‘This building doesn’t look any different.’ This comes with serious health risks.”
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Classrooms can reach 90 degrees and above in warmer months, and the legacy heating system makes it difficult to regulate the temperature year-round, Reyes said. One of his students once passed out because of the heat, he said.
“We’re doing incredible things, but it’s a tough learning environment,” said Reyes.
Robeson scored 32 out of 100 on the district’s Facility Condition Assessment scale, a 2017 measure that evaluated the condition of every building in the district. This put it in the middle of the field in terms of building conditions; Schools that scored 60 or more should be replaced, according to school system data.
Staff, parents and teachers have all circulated petitions asking the district to fix the building, but said they had not received any pledges or even had a meeting about their concerns.
Mina Quarles helps lead the prosecution on the parent side; Her daughter, 10th grader Jadyn Quarles, is an excellent student who suffers from asthma and is concerned about the building conditions, particularly the ventilation situation.
“It’s a very dated building,” Quarles said. “It’s just not a good, healthy environment.”
About a dozen Robeson parents, staff and students gathered in the rain on the district’s North Broad Street on Tuesday afternoon and went inside to request a meeting with Chief Operating Officer Reggie McNeil.
Jaylynn Torres Green, a ninth grader from Robeson, loves her school, but “our building kind of sucks,” the ninth grader said, so she came to speak to those in power.
“Coronavirus is everywhere; When does the risk become too great for our students?” asked Sherice Workman, a parent and leader of the Robeson School Advisory Council. “We’ve asked and asked and asked, and all of our calls have gone unanswered.”
Workman said the school community would at least like to have their water tested for lead.
Oz Hill, the district’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, met the group in the lobby and collected the group’s petitions.
“We appreciate your intercession and welcome your petitions,” Hill said.
The group asked Hill to respond to their inquiries by March 4.