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What's next for Germantown High School?

Germantown High School was built in 1914

Alums attend the final day at Germantown High School

After ninety-nine years of serving families throughout north and northwest Philadelphia, Germantown High School (GHS) closed its doors last June. One of 23 schools shuttered by a School Reform Commission vote, GHS and its neighbors have the same questions communities across the city now face as students relocate and buildings sit vacant. What next? 

For some sites, answers are beginning to materialize. In February, news broke that Drexel University will purchase University City High School at 36th and Filbert Streets in partnership with Wexford Science & Technology L.L.C., with plans for a mixed-use commercial, residential and educational space.
And in Yorktown, the William Penn Development Coalition (WPDC) is gaining the financial, political and neighborhood momentum to re-open William Penn High School, which closed in 2010. WPDC wants a neighborhood school with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, meanwhile Temple University is closing in on the property with its own offer to the District.

In Germantown, emotions ran high as decades of graduates convened for the historic school's last days. That pain still echoes among some of the neighborhood's leaders, who complain that there was never adequate transparency from the School District, both in its school-closing selection process and the consideration of proposals for the empty sites. 

Fortunately, those issues haven't stopped concerned residents from looking toward to GHS's next phase. Will this neighborhood nexus see new life as a vocational school? A mixed-used development? A community fitness and art space? And can the new incarnation simultaneously honor the assets of this tight-knit community while addressing some of its deep educational woes?

Over the last year, fifth-year students at Philadelphia University's College of Architecture and the Built Environment have been working in their own studio and teaming up with Germantowners in a series of open charrettes for the "Re-Start Germantown" project. Their "eco-district" architecture and landscaping plans address social, environmental, economic and schooling issues, with ideas for a GHS campus featuring educational gardening centers and artist studios.  

According to Germantown United Community Development Corporation (GUCDC) vice president Julia Stapleton Carroll, many of the students' ideas, though developed independent of GUCDC discussions, were similar to those of the CDC. As a founder of the Germantown-based Principled Schools, a startup nonprofit that helps local schools with effective management and policy, Carroll says it's "a personal interest of mine to see that our community has quality school options." 

She's taken a leadership role in a GUCDC-facilitated GHS "planning group," now working on a formal mission statement. 

"GUCDC is interested in making sure that space is not vacant," she says. "I think the community is very passionate about having an educational option for our kids in Germantown, as opposed to [them] having to go to Roxborough or West Oak Lane." 

Forty-five people make up the GUCDC planning group, which meets every three to four weeks at State Representative Stephen Kinsey's district office on Germantown Avenue. These meetings are open the public (the next one is April 25) and include representatives from Germantown Community Connection, the Germantown Artists Roundtable, the Germantown High School Alumni Association (GHSAA), the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, among others. Carroll says the meetings also have the ear of politicians like 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass.

And, hopefully, the building's owner: "We've informed the School District of every single meeting that we have," adds Carroll.

So far, the GUCDC consortium has considered the GHS site as a possible home for the nearby Hill Freedman Middle School -- it recently received District approval to expand to high school, and needs new space. But Hill Freedman wouldn't fill up the large GHS building.

"That leaves the door open for us to have a high school there focused on career and technical training," suggests Carroll, arguing that a campus share might be a natural fit given the school's two entrances (one on Germantown Avenue and one on High Street). "It's a win-win. We want to have space that would be available to the community as well -- like a gym open to the community on weekends, [or] adult training or technical training in the evening."

Technical training is a major theme for GHS. Several community leaders agree that with the right organization or corporation to adapt the school's curriculum, GHS could become an occupational magnet in a city whose drop-out rate still hovers around 25 percent.

Vera Primus also supports occupational training. She graduated from GHS in 1971 and is the president of GHSAA, which has remained active since the school's closing. 

She touts the value of turning the school into a "vocational resource" as well as an educational one, pointing to a former partnership that brought PNC Bank into the building as part of an occupational business center. 

According to Primus, GHSAA's hopes for the building are simple: They want to preserve its history by keeping its name and it "must serve the children in the community," with no admission tests required. The group also wants the new institution to be "a resource center for businesses to come in to help and support the children."

On this topic, no name comes up more than Comcast, which was founded by GHS graduate Ralph Roberts.

"What if Comcast adopted Germantown High School [and] made it a cable technology trade school?" asks Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors (GPAR) president Allan Domb. Promoting such occupational partnerships for newly empty Philly schools is a major item on GPAR's agenda. The organization is pursuing a meeting with School District superintendent William Hite. 

Domb suggests that companies such as Comcast, Aramark or Urban Outfitters could partner to reopen schools and remake them as vocational centers preparing graduates for good jobs in Philadelphia's top sectors, including cable technology, food services, facilities management, retail, health care and financial services. He emphasizes that this would be an educational partnership, not a financial one -- funding would still be needed to launch and operate the proposed schools.

"At the end of the day, it's not just to educate, it's to provide employment for those who are educated," says Domb. "That's been the missing link in our system." 

He predicts that by increasing the likelihood of a good salary upon graduation, a GHS reborn as a trade-school partnership with Comcast could reduce drop-out rates and draw students from across the region.

"Just think about how it could rejuvenate the whole neighborhood," he adds.

"I've got a call into Ed Rendell right now," says Carroll of pursuing the Comcast connection; Rendell spoke at a GUCDC fundraiser in the past. David Cohen, Rendell's former chief of staff, is now the executive vice president at Comcast. 

Paula Paul, an active Germantown community member who helps lead the Artists Roundtable and attends the GUCDC consortium meetings, offers measured support for the occupational focus. 

"You don't want only a vocational school," she says. "You want a school that prepares kids for college if they want to go."

"The decisions about what kind of occupation, what kind of training, would be pretty important," she continues, emphasizing her preference for a technology-savvy arts curriculum that includes the visual, performing, musical and literary arts. 

She imagines art education programs benefitting students during class and after school, as well as art classes open to "the whole community." Germantown, long home to a powerful community of artists, has "many talented, experienced people who could easily be hired if there were jobs," she says of the opportunity for under-employed locals who work in the creative fields.  
"The hope would be that it's a little unique," she says of a "forward-looking" vocational school that would be different from any other program in the city. 

Or, as Primus puts it, "Basically what we're trying to do is keep the name alive and keep us together, and support our children." 

For more images from Germantown photographer Jill Saull's "The Last Days of Germantown High School" project, visit her website

ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com/. Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.
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