At Germantown High, a final goodbye

Family and friends of the Class of 2013 of Germantown High School take photos of the graduates heading into the Church of the New Covenant, where the ceremony took place.
Family and friends of the Class of 2013 of Germantown High School take photos of the graduates heading into the Church of the New Covenant, where the ceremony took place. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 21, 2013

The final graduating class of Germantown High School said goodbye Wednesday - to each other, to their teachers, to a historic but troubled school that's being closed by a district desperate to save money and improve academics.

"I'm holding back tears," said principal emeritus Margaret Mullen-Bavwidinsi.

Others let them flow.

The 146th commencement brimmed with sadness and joy, anger and hope, the vast, life-altering machinery of the Philadelphia School District made real on a stage in the sanctuary of the Church of the New Covenant, not far from the school. The 120 graduates - women in white gowns, men in green - spoke of what was next. They were going to Temple University, to Pennsylvania State University, to the Air Force and the Army. Teachers spoke of where they would be working next year, and of who might not have a job at all.

A school that had been making plans for its 100th anniversary in 2014 was instead disappearing. (It was the 146th commencement because for decades, Philadelphia high schools commonly graduated two classes a year, in January and June.)

"We shouldn't be the last ones," said new graduate Corey Lane, who plans to attend Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. "My little brother, my little sister - I wanted to keep the legacy going."

Graduation came as the strapped Philadelphia district shutters schools, slashes programs, and lays off thousands of employees in the midst of a $304 million budget shortfall.

Germantown is a school with an impressive past and a difficult present, a place that supporters said was improving and administrators insisted had to go. Commencement marked a final act in a drama that began in December, when the school unexpectedly showed up on a list of 37 targeted for closure or restructuring. Eventually 23 were ordered shut.

"The ones who would have graduated next year, there's not going to be a next year," said Shawnmarie Bryant, at commencement to cheer for her niece, Symphony Blue.

Blue's mother, Stephanie Bryant, said her two sons had looked forward to attending Germantown like their sister. Bryant is so upset she's thinking of moving to the South, to find a new school for her children.

"They never should have closed it," she said.

On Monday night, friends, students, alumni, and former principals held a sort of memorial service at the school. It felt like a funeral. People gathered old sports trophies from cases so they would not be thrown out by whoever eventually claims the building.

On Wednesday, people tried to put aside that sadness and celebrate. Parents clapped as graduates individually walked a short stretch of stage to collect their diplomas from acting principal Alexis Greaves. Many hugged him, then moved on to share a last word with other administrators.

"When you have a moment," Greaves told students, "look back on the 'G.' "

There won't be much left. The people are gone or going. The books, computers, desks, and equipment will begin to be transferred to other schools after the school year ends. The district plans to sell the building, along with those of other closing schools. It's unclear when Germantown High may go on the market or what price it might fetch.

"I am grieving," said the Rev. LeRoi Simmons, a member of the Germantown Clergy Initiative, which fought for years to help the school and then to save it. "I'm really saddened by the brazen lack of concern for the children in central Germantown, and particularly in Germantown High School. There seems to be a disregard for the future of these children."

Most students will go to Martin Luther King High School, some to Roxborough High.

"You get to a hundred years and it's like everyone slams the door in your face," said Vera Peeples-Primus, a 1971 graduate and president of an active Germantown Alumni Association. "It's life, and you have to pick up the pieces and keep moving on. I just feel it's an unfair situation for the students."

Peeples-Primus was angry that state lawmakers could find $400 million to build a new prison, a replacement for Graterford, but little to educate children in Philadelphia.

"I hope when they sleep, they can't sleep," she said.

Alumni and staff had been looking forward to the school's centennial, eager to celebrate graduates who include Comcast cofounder Ralph Roberts, IBF light-heavyweight boxing champ Bernard Hopkins, and jazz great Kevin Eubanks.

But district administrators saw no future for Germantown. They saw an old, leaky building where enrollment has dropped 28 percent in two years to 676. Only one of five students met state standards for reading; in math, one of six. Only half of students graduate.

The rate of violent incidents at Germantown is among the highest in the district, and in 2007 the school made national news when math teacher Frank Burd suffered a broken neck in an attack by a ninth-grade special-education student.

But people who love Germantown say the test scores, while low, were improving. That after a decade of turnover in leadership - nine principals in 10 years - the school gained stability, even getting off the state's "persistently dangerous" list.

Ethnically, the school is 96 percent African American. Almost every student is poor. Physically, the structure at Germantown Avenue and High Street is an edifice from an earlier time, four floors marked by a grand marble entranceway. Parts of the building have been closed off as enrollment fell.

"The building is still standing, but a bomb went off and killed all the content therein," said Simmons. "It's unconscionable. It should be illegal. It's immoral. Absolutely immoral."

A few last days lay ahead. School ends on Friday for students, Monday for teachers.

Packing up books and papers has been difficult, said instrumental-music teacher Elisabeth D'Alassandro, a 10-year veteran who described her students as "energetic, talented, creative."

"I didn't want it to end like this," she said. "When I went to Germantown, I thought I'd retire from Germantown. They retired the building first."


>Inquirer.com

To view a photo gallery of the last Germantown High School graduation, go to www.inquirer.com/germantownhigh


Contact Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8205, jgammage@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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