After months of advocacy, this Philly school is finally getting air-conditioning. But their fight isn’t over

PHILADELPHIA -- For months, parents, students and staff at Paul Robeson High School organized to call for better conditions inside their school building.

Their advocacy paid off — staff got confirmation this month that Robeson, at 41st and Ludlow Streets in West Philadelphia, will be getting its electrical system upgraded and air-conditioning installed over the summer, hopefully banishing sweltering conditions that led to some students passing out and others getting nosebleeds.

Dozens of students, parents and staff gathered in the Robeson gym recently to celebrate their victory — and to emphasize that they weren’t done fighting. Sure, air-conditioning is on its way, but what about the school’s ventilation problems? (The school lacks functional ventilation besides windows, and some of them don’t open.) What about its subpar bathrooms, and other issues?

“You shouldn’t have to ask to have a building that allows you to learn with dignity,” City Councilperson Jamie Gauthier said at the Robeson rally, held in the gym after school on Friday. “You deserve the same things as the white students on the Main Line.”

Facilities problems have long plagued the school system, which has 216 schools and about $5 billion in deferred maintenance costs. A school district official said last week that the system has a backlog of about 11,000 unfilled work orders. Most schools lack air-conditioning and many don’t even have the electrical capacity to support cooling units.

School district spokesperson Monica Lewis confirmed that projects to be completed this summer at Robeson include electrical upgrades for air-conditioning, lighting, and window repairs.

“As we look to improve our joint building walk-throughs with our facility representatives and learning leaders, we are hopeful that more work that will happen at Robeson will be done across the School District of Philadelphia,” Lewis said in a statement.

The school system recently began a long-term planning process to understand and prioritize its capital needs — Robeson has a 56 out of 100 on the district’s combined facilities and educational suitability score, or “unsatisfactory,” and was deemed “unsuitable to support the educational program” — but recommendations aren’t expected until next spring, and the Robeson community says it can’t wait that long.

Robeson has a history of advocacy: The community banded together a decade ago when the school was set to be closed in 2012, when the district closed dozens of buildings. Students’ and teachers’ activism spared Robeson, which went on to earn citywide attention for its academic excellence and even a national spotlight when Principal Richard Gordon IV was named the country’s best school leader.

Students and staff said they’re frustrated that their accolades haven’t translated to a school building they can be proud of. So they spent the fall and winter writing letters to district officials, making phone calls to every parent in the school and to public officials, gathering signatures from students and staff for a petition. In February, they even converged on district headquarters, demanding an audience with district officials about their concerns.

“Words are words, but when the air-conditioners start coming in, other things start coming in,” Robeson teacher Elana Evans said. “Right now, they’re starting to paint. Did you notice that? Why? Because we keep making noise, and we’re going to continue to keep making noise.”

City Councilperson Helen Gym told the students Friday that the district’s agreeing to place air-conditioners inside Robeson wasn’t about money. The system always had the funds, Gym said.

“They saw you, and you made them see you. You made them see your face, you made them hear your voice. You made them value you,” Gym said.

As her classmates waved signs, clapped and chanted — (P-Robe! P-Robe!) — senior Morgan Eason was feeling proud of her and her classmates’ work.

“We deserve a beautiful building, more space, air, better bathrooms,” said Eason, National Honor Society president. “We’ve got to continue to stick together. This is being effective. This is a really great outcome. We’ve got to keep making noise, screaming, making posters, get our families out, get the school district to see.”

Eason’s classmate Alyssa Perren said Robeson — which was built in 1960 as the Catto School, an elementary — has poor lighting, and hardly any ventilation. It’s cramped and uncomfortable.

“This may well be a building containing some of tomorrow’s leaders,” said Perren, an 11th grader. “How can we create a better tomorrow if we do not support it today? We deserve so much more than what the school district is giving us.”


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This story was originally published May 12, 2022 1:00 AM.

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