By Dale Mezzacappa, Chalkbeat Philadelphia
It was, Kendra Brooks said, a long fight.
She and other activists had advocated for years for a new school in their North Philadelphia neighborhood to replace the old T.M. Peirce Elementary building, which was built in 1909. But their pleas went unheeded — until a building engineer discovered flaking asbestos, causing community outcry.
Similar conditions at other schools have led to prolonged building shutdowns recently. In T.M. Peirce’s case, the district determined that the old building was so full of hazards like lead and mold that it had to be demolished. The Board of Education voted in September 2021 to replace it.
And on Wednesday, officials including outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney, Board of Education members, and Superintendent Tony Watlington celebrated the opening of a modern, $44 million school in one of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods, where about a third of residents live below the poverty line.
Peirce teachers and students will start using the new building in January, right after the holiday break. They have been located so far this school year in the nearby Pratt Elementary School, which closed in 2013 but has been retrofitted to serve as “swing space” while other schools undergo renovation or construction.
In fact, the new T.M. Peirce Elementary is the first new school built in North Philadelphia in 70 years, Watlington pointed out. (As of last year, the average public school building in the city was over 70 years old.)
“This school building says something about what we value for our students,” he said Wednesday.
The building at 22nd and West Cambria Street can accommodate 625 students in grades K-6, and features furniture and rooms designed for collaborative work, as well as an auditorium and cafeteria with all the most modern amenities.
The message to the students, Kenney and other officials said, was that they matter as much as those in affluent areas “like Lower Merion and Radnor.”
City Councilmember Cindy Bass grew up in the neighborhood, and described as a student moving from school to school as one after another closed. Now, she said, this state-of-the-art school “is the standard” for education. T.M. Peirce Principal Anthony Gordon called it “a historical moment in North Philadelphia.”
Kenney used the ceremony to tout the $1.5 billion increase in city funding for schools during his tenure. Board of Education President Reginald Streater called the new school a “down payment” that would help future generations.
And State Sen. Sharif Street called the investment a matter of educational equity, citing the recent Commonwealth Court ruling that the school funding system in Pennsylvania is unconstitutional and inequitable for low-income areas like the community around Peirce. .
“Our young people are worth it. They deserve this building,” said.
Meanwhile, architect Kevin Blackney, whose firm designed the building, said that the school was designed by the community. “You don’t know how rewarding that is,” he said.
Members of the Dobbins High School marching band serenaded the crowd at the festive ceremony.
Among those in attendance was Joan Monahan, 88, who graduated sixth grade from Peirce in 1946 after serving as the leader of the student body, she said. Her daughter designed the child-friendly furniture at the new school.
Brooks worked with Sylvia Simms, Quibila Divine, and Shakeda Gaines as part of a formidable contingent of North Philadelphia women to get the new T.M. Peirce built. Their fight rippled across the city’s politics and civic life.
In 2017, Brooks rode the campaign, as well as other battles on behalf of children in the neighborhood, to a seat on the City Council, where she still serves.
Simms’ advocacy got her an appointment to the School Reform Commission, which ran the district when it was under state control until 2017, where she continued to fight for a new school. Divine now works to help homeless citizens through the Urban Affairs Coalition, and Gaines is a deputy chief of staff in Brooks’ council office.
Speakers at Wednesday’s ceremony acknowledged their presence and their role. “We never gave up,” said Simms after the ceremony.
Students filled up the first two rows of seats in the auditorium after the ceremonial ribbon cutting in their spiffy navy blue uniforms with a logo on the chest that read: “T.M. Peirce, 21st Century Learning.”
“This is a first class, state-of-the-art facility just for you,” Brooks told them. “Take advantage of it.”
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. Contact Dale at email@example.com.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.