For nearly 11 years, Rebecca Phelan could see a fortress from her home on Kimball Street in Queen Village.
Phelan’s home neighbors George W. Nebinger School, located at Built in 1925, the school doesn’t lend itself to the softer aesthetics of the neighborhood: The structure consists of thick, grayish cinder blocks, and the playground is only asphalt.
Until last year, Phelan knew little about what went on inside the walls of Nebinger.
“We knew the test scores weren’t that good when you went on the school district website, but no one knew,” Phelan said. “There’s no brochure for public schools like there are for private schools.”
But last summer, a neighbor informed Phelan the School District of Philadelphia began a search for a new principal for Nebinger, and as a community, they should have a say in who it would be.
Phelan agreed and wrote a letter to former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman expressing her concern. Not long after, Phelan found out the principal had already been selected.
Formerly the school district’s interim superintendent for the south region, Dr. Ralph Burnley joined Nebinger with an aim to boost test scores and foster community development.
“[Dr. Burnley] wanted us to be involved with the school and the decision-making process,” Phelan said. “We didn’t actually get to have our vote, but once I met him, I felt very inspired so I wanted the other moms in the neighborhood to meet him.”
Most of the parents Phelan knows from her block don’t have children who are of school age. In fact, Phelan’s own daughter Nora is just three years old, and Phelan’s son still rests in her womb. But in case they do go to Nebinger and for future South Philly families, Phelan said she wants Nebinger to be a viable public school option.
So this past summer, Phelan and fellow community members created the Friends of Nebinger.
“Most of us who have kids don’t want to have to move for any specific reason,” Phelan said. “We don’t want to have to move because the schools aren’t good enough so we wanted to find out what the school was really like and if we needed to help it improve.”
The small coalition of parents has lofty goals: The largest one is to raise $100,000 to build Nebinger a new playground to replace the asphalt it currently has. The playground’s design began as a collaborative effort between the Community Design Cooperative, Bella Vista and Queen Village residents and the gifted students at Nebinger.
“Any school that is successful, parents and the community bring resources whether it’s a school in the suburbs or it’s a school in the city,” Burnley said of the neighborhood’s partnership with Nebinger.
“There are going to be things and programs we want and like but can’t afford,” he added. “Right now the economy, public education and education period is having a difficult time trying to come up with the funding for what we think is good education.”
Phelan said arts and culture programs remain top priorities for her and other parents of young children, but the programs are often first cut when funding gets tight.
Though Nebinger established partnerships with Fleisher Art Memorial and Settlement Music School to help the arts flourish at Nebinger, it doesn’t mean Phelan’s – or any of her friend’s children – will attend Nebinger.
Some families might move, and there is also the possibility they could go to neighboring schools, charter or private schools. Nebinger is also on the school district’s list of possible closing schools. The school’s capacity is 517 students, but last year enrollment stood at 250.
“There’s still a chapter to be told about whether the school will close or not, but we’ll see,” Burnley said. “The outside organizations are what makes the school go.”
Until the school district makes a final decision, the Friends of Nebinger will continue their pursuit to bring additional resources to the school. It’s a cause Phelan said she feels strongly about.
“I just don’t want to be forced out [of the neighborhood] for any one reason,” Phelan said. “Everybody always says in Philadelphia, as soon as you have kids you’re going to move out to the suburbs, and I just feel that’s not right.”