For George W. Nebinger School, Nov. 2 stood as a significant tick on the school’s timeline.
That day, the School District of Philadelphia announced it would close nine schools in an effort to alleviate a persistent problem: excess seats, which the district estimates to be slightly more than 70,000.
Parents, students and those affected by the schools closings are currently engaged in community engagement sessions with the district, which are scheduled to last until mid-February. If the district’s recommendations are implemented, students will relocate to nearby schools, buildings will be left vacant or reused, and communities will move forward without handfuls of neighbors.
At the beginning of this school year, those connected to Nebinger saw this path as a reality. Nebinger is underutilized – the school’s capacity is 517 students, but last year, enrollment steadied at 250 – and aging. With one elevator, the school is not the easiest structure to navigate. The gym doubles as a cafeteria, where lone lunch lady Cora Ceniza struggles daily to transport all students’ breakfasts and lunches.
In a Facilities Master Plan draft, the district noted Nebinger had a high facilities condition index, which measures the building’s health. The draft recommendation that students be relocated to George Washington or Jackson elementary schools stood as a stark reality to everyone at Nebinger: After 86 years of operation, the school faced closure.
In September, district officials came to Nebinger’s back-to-school night and did a question-and-answer session with parents. Dr. Ralph Burnley, Nebinger’s principal, said he sat down with officials in a separate meeting to discuss his perspective. But even after both discussions, Burnley had one thing to say: “I don’t know other than what you know.”
“If they decide to close the building, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Burnley said.
But on that day in November, those associated with Nebinger knew they hadn’t reached that bridge yet. Instead, Nebinger pushed forward with improving the curriculum it began to make progress on before the shadow of closing loomed. After becoming Nebinger’s principal two years ago, Burnley began to make moves to further integrate his school with its Queen Village and Bella Vista neighborhoods not only to raise the school’s profile, but to fund it in a somewhat thrifty way: community outreach.
Nebinger represents its section of Philadelphia in a precarious way. Located south of South Street, the school straddles the line between Census block groups, which have vastly different populations, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. A block group west of Nebinger’s population is 86 percent white, while a block group east of the school is 64 percent African American.
Though a majority of Nebinger’s ZIP code is white, only 8.1 percent of Nebinger’s student body is, according to district statistics. Slightly less than 60 percent of Nebinger students are African American, and the second most populace ethnicity are Latinos, followed by Asians. Near the heavily Spanish-speaking section of the Italian Market and Little Saigon, Nebinger is a mosaic of South Philadelphia.
With a strong population of English Language Learners – some of Bright Futures teacher Tara Matise’s Spanish-speaking preschoolers barely speak English – and students with disabilities, Nebinger remains eclectic. A majority of Nebinger students are economically disadvantaged, which means 85.3 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. According to dated 2000 Census data, 16.5 percent of families in Nebinger’s neighborhood live below the poverty level.
The dynamics of Nebinger’s surroundings offered Burnley a diversified society to pull from.
Burnley made moves to connect with Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which adopted the school in October. He tasked music teacher Aaron Hoke with the responsibility of connecting with the Fleisher Art Memorial to inject art classes into Nebinger, and oversaw a partnership with Philadelphia’s Community Design Collaborative and the school’s gifted program to create tentative plans for a new playground.
The current playground is hard – literally. A black top, a corner portion of the play space consists of mostly metal climbing contraptions, Matise said she doesn’t allow her preschoolers to go on because the equipment is a safety hazard.
The new playground would soften Nebinger’s backyard with grass and other components, but the school still needs funding. Burnley recently applied for a grant, and the Friends of Nebinger will eventually try to fundraise money to support the project.
Nebinger’s use of community resources is a crucial factor to its advancement. The method offers a solution to a common problem in urban school districts: Part of a cash-strapped entity in the midst of being restructured, money for special projects is hard to come by. Neighbors can, in effect, help keep Nebinger a cut above the rest, which is why Rebeeca Phelan decided to participate in the Friends of Nebinger.
Phelan, who has lived in Queen Village for the past 10 years, saw the school in a different light after attending a school recital Burnley invited area residents to at the end of last school year. In the hallways of Nebinger, she saw information about its Chinese Mandarin language program – which ended because its grant cycle expired – and her eyes opened.
“Everybody thinks it looks like a fortress,” Phelan said. “Somebody has to tell them, ‘Oh you didn’t realize this, but there is a music program there. There is a gifted program.’”
With her neighbors, who mostly have kids who aren’t of school age like Phelan’s children, they decided to band together.
“We don’t want to have to move because the schools aren’t good enough, so we wanted to see what the school was really like, and if we needed to help it improve,” Phelan said.
Phelan’s contention that because there aren’t brochures for public schools fewer people know what Nebinger is really like highlights another hurdle facing the public school: Some parents prefer private schools or research the district’s charter schools in order to find the best education for their child. In essence, Nebinger competes for enrollment, and the only way to attract parents rather than being the default option is to attempt to even the playing field.
As Nebinger improves, South Philadelphia parents could begin to see the school as the “viable option” Phelan said she wanted it to be. Academically, Nebinger continues to improve test scores. Most 2010-11 PSSA test scores were above the school district’s average.
And, just as a Nebinger closing could have affected enrollment at Jackson, Meredith and George Washington, Nebinger could eventually be affected by the closure of E.M. Stanton Elementary School, which is barely a mile away at 17th and Christian streets. One of the nine schools set to close, the district will offer E.M. Stanton students to relocate to Arthur or Childs elementary schools, which are located on the same side of Broad Street.
Although Nebinger’s neighborhood boundaries extend to Christian Street, the line stops at South 10th Street. However, through the district’s Volunteer Transfer Program, parents can apply to transfer their child to other schools across the city.
Not only does Nebinger have the seats for additional students, but next year, even more space will open up. The fourth floor normally reserved for the sixth, seventh and eighth graders is currently under construction to add smart boards to three classrooms and create a science lab. Improvements on the school’s librarian-less library are also being made.
Nebinger’s upgrades would have allowed the school to make a case for itself, Burnley said in September. But since the district will continue to pursue raising utilization levels as it loses students, it’s not out of the question that Nebinger will have to prove itself once again in the future as a school strengthened by its students, the community and faculty leadership.