William Penn alums want to revive shuttered school

DAILY NEWS FILE PHOTO William Penn High School's alumni association and a group of advocates for the old school in North Philadelphia plan to meet with neighbors tomorrow to discuss its fate.
DAILY NEWS FILE PHOTO William Penn High School's alumni association and a group of advocates for the old school in North Philadelphia plan to meet with neighbors tomorrow to discuss its fate.
Posted: November 14, 2013

THE WILLIAM PENN High School that Inez Henderson-Purnell remembers was "an amazing building," with two swimming pools, a state-of-the-art communications studio and several buildings on a five-acre campus.

It was a new building when the 1977 graduate entered 10th grade. She and other alumni went on a tour of the school a few weeks ago and were devastated at what they found.

"It was heartbreaking," said Henderson-Purnell, vice president of the school's alumni association. "In what used to be the grand hall, there were lockers, mobile carts and buckets. There was scaffolding and tiles and construction material. It looked like a storage area for all the schools that have been closed."

In the basement, they found choir robes and boxes of yearbooks along with a framed portrait of former William Penn principal and school-board member Ruth Wright Hayre. There also was a portrait of former principal Odette Harris, but the frame for her picture was missing.

Now, the alumni group and the William Penn Development Coalition, a group of advocates for the old school, are looking for options on what to do with the building, whether that means trying to buy the school, or partner with Temple University or others.

They plan to meet with the building's neighbors to discuss its future tomorrow at 6 p.m. at the nearby Columbia YMCA at Broad and Master streets.

Last week, a letter surfaced from Temple University to the School District of Philadelphia expressing an interest in buying the school.

"We understand that not just Temple University but other developers are interested in the school," Henderson-Purnell said.

Henderson-Purnell said the alumni members asked to inspect the building because neighbors reported seeing many things being taken out of the high school, which was supposedly only "temporarily" closed in 2009.

"We have a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] program ready to go," Henderson-Purnell said. She also said the laborers union has been talking with Temple officials about running a building-trades training program near the site. The coalition also would like to create a "memory room" with artifacts from the school.

The school district said the property has a market value of $32 million.

Temple spokesman Ray Betzner said the university is interested in the site, but is working on a new campus master plan and has no specific plans yet for the property.

School district spokesman Fernando Gallard conceded that former officials had talked of renovating William Penn and reopening it.

"What has changed is that we are in a financial situation that is extreme, and we had to lay off 4,000 people," Gallard said.

The renovation would be very expensive, he said, citing as an example that the school's heating elements were encased in concrete.

"When the piping started to corrode and needed to be replaced, we'd have had to go into the concrete to be able to pull it out."

The school was built in 1970 when the previous William Penn on 15th Street was deemed too old a building. That building now houses the Franklin Learning Center.

Henderson-Purnell said the community needs a school.

"We need a future. The children in our community need a high school. There's no high school there."


On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN

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