Frustrations, fears voiced at Bartram meeting

Dawn Hawkins, parent of a Bartram High School student, applauds another speaker during a meeting to discuss recent violence at the Southwest Phila. school.
Dawn Hawkins, parent of a Bartram High School student, applauds another speaker during a meeting to discuss recent violence at the Southwest Phila. school. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 12, 2014

SOUTHWEST PHILA. Hundreds gathered in a cavernous room Thursday night with one goal in mind: fixing Bartram High, the Southwest Philadelphia school inflamed by violence and dysfunction.

Parent Tracey Harper summed it up.

"We don't have time to be playing games," said the frustrated mother of a Bartram sophomore and senior.

From Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to Ozzie Wright, the retired principal brought in last week to calm the school, Philadelphia School District officials said they understood the gravity of the situation and were doing all they could to fix it.

Bartram, which gained students but lost staff and a veteran principal this year, has been plagued by fights, hall-walking, and open drug use. Some teachers say they have felt unsafe in the hallways and have kept their doors locked to keep unruly teens out.

After a "conflict resolution specialist" was knocked unconscious by a student last month, and the media swooped in, resources followed: Wright was added as coprincipal, more police were sent in, and teams from the city and the district were deployed to address behavioral needs, scrutinize safety plans, scrub and paint the school, even install smoke detectors in bathrooms.

Security cameras that had been nonoperational were fixed, too, Wright said.

Bartram was once a strong school, a place that felt safe and where learning happened, said Wright, who grew up nearby.

"We have to get that back," said Wright, who stayed long after the meeting ended, shaking hands, answering questions, and asking parents to remain involved.

Kimberly Collins, who was installed as Bartram's principal in September - two weeks after another leader, who had been brought in from out of state, was quickly removed - addressed the crowd briefly.

"We may have some challenges, but the future only looks bright," she said.

Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Carl Holmes, who heads the district's school police force, said the four new officers sent to Bartram would help.

"But this cannot be the new normal," said Holmes. "Uniforms will never mandate civility. The people mandate civility."

Many in the audience, who lined up dozens deep to address the assembled officials, said the district was too quick to gloss over the school's problems.

T. Milton Street Sr., the former state senator and hot dog vendor who is the brother of former Mayor John F. Street, said he was angry.

"I haven't heard anything here that deals with the seriousness of this problem," Street said. He said the images of staffer Alphonso Stevenson lying unconscious on the school floor were disturbing, and harmed Philadelphia's chances of getting more money from Harrisburg.

Parent Dawn Hawkins was like many who stepped to the microphone: She laid Bartram's problems at the feet of mothers and fathers who have little involvement in their children's educations.

"We can't blame the school," Hawkins said. "We need to blame the parents."

Some looked around at the crowd, which was made up of a hefty contingent of politicians and people who had no children at the school.

"If there are 1,000 children here, there should be 800 parents in this auditorium," one said.

But Darien Thomas, a pastor in the neighborhood, said the district needed to take more seriously the situations that Bartram's students are coming from.

"These kids are coming out of environments that are war zones," Thomas said.

Others who addressed the crowd reminded the district that the problems at the school did not develop overnight, that they were allowed to fester before exploding.

Dozens of Bartram teachers attended the meeting, too. Some said that things have improved since Wright and the extra resources arrived, but that they worried.

"What happens," one teacher said, "when the attention goes away?"

kgraham@phillynews.com215-854-5146 @newskag

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