Education: Germantown Pride Persists a Decade After School Closures Wounded the Community

The former Germantown High School as seen in 2023.
The former Germantown High School, ten years after closing.

Text and images by Elizabeth DeOrnellas.

Andre D. Carroll remembers the annual football games between rivals Germantown High School and Martin Luther King High holding the same charged energy as an Eagles versus Cowboys bout. 

“It was a game that we looked forward to every single year,” said Carroll, Germantown High class of 2009. 

That Thanksgiving day tradition ended 10 years ago, when Germantown High was closed by the School District of Philadelphia.

For the fall 2013 season, it fell on coach Ed Dunn to merge the two schools’ football teams under the King High colors. Dunn said many Germantown alumni weren’t ready to give up their green and black. 

“A lot of them had apprehension,” he said. “Like, alright, well, am I going to, you know, put on purple and gold and go to Thanksgiving now?”

Carroll and Dunn both noted that traveling the more than 1.5 mile stretch between Germantown High and King means crossing the boundaries of several communities within neighborhoods. 

“There were a lot of concerns about safety and whether those conflicts that were happening outside of school would spill into school,” Dunn said. 

Germantown High’s football players started practicing at King the spring before the schools merged, and administrators and coaches relied on the players to be ambassadors of what a unified student body could achieve. 

“A lot of times, athletes are looked at by their peers” Dunn said. “It’s like role models and trendsetters.”

The 2013 King football team succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations. King hadn’t won any games in the prior two seasons, and Germantown had a similarly dismal record. But the merged team went on a run that season that culminated in King’s first-ever public league championship. 

 “We caught lightning in a bottle,” Dunn said. 

The documentary “We Could Be King” chronicles the team’s championship run. Director Judd Ehrlich said the team’s wins helped break down seemingly intractable divisions. 

“That was just exciting and infectious for people and absolutely contributed to a newfound sense of school pride,” Ehrlich said. 

Dunn said the King football team continues to produce positive role models, maintaining a high graduation rate and partnering with community groups on violence prevention efforts. 

Meanwhile, the former Germantown High building remains vacant. 

“It’s just, you know, a reminder every single time you pass it, of something that we lost,” Carroll said. 

Dunn sees unfulfilled promise in the boarded-up high school. 

“That’s a beautiful building with a lot of history and emotional connection to it,” Dunn said. “It’s legitimately a beautiful building. That is a centerpiece in that neighborhood.”

There is evidence of construction on the grounds of the former Germantown High School, but neighbors say work is progressing slowly.

Closure announced amid staunch opposition

The day the School Reform Commission, which was overseeing the School District of Philadelphia at that time, voted to close Germantown High School, students were among the hundreds of community members locked outside

Deborah Grill was there that day. As the vote on Germantown’s closure approached, she realized no students had made it into the packed auditorium. 

“They’re out in the cold,” Grill recalled. “It’s freezing cold.”

Grill called a friend inside the packed auditorium and made sure at least 10 Germantown students were let in to witness the vote. 

“It was awful,” Grill said. “Oh, God, it was so bad.”

Grill worked as a literacy coach at Germantown High for four years, ending in 2009. She said underinvestment fueled staff turnover and contributed to a lack of resources, especially for the special education department. 

“I always thought of it as one of the District’s stepchildren,” Grill said. “It had been neglected for years.” 

Other Germantown staff members reported similar feelings of abandonment.

“It feels like the building wasn’t given a fair shake,” said Adam Blyweiss, who taught graphic design at Germantown High in the last three years before the school’s 2013 closure. 

Blyweiss described his Germantown colleagues as people you would want in a foxhole and said they created a friendly, tight knit community. 

When rumors of a possible closure began, Blyweiss said a sense of dread sunk in and a bad outcome seemed inevitable. 

During the closure process, the District focused on particular metrics that made it difficult for a school like Germantown to escape closure. 

“They used academic progress and enrollment as an excuse to close schools,” Grill said. “You know, they’d set it up so that it would be that way, not giving them the resources they need and setting up all these charter schools. So, they basically did it on purpose.”

District records show Germantown High enrolled 819 students in the 2011-12 school year. The records date back to 2009-10, when the school enrolled 1036 students. 

District data also reveals the extent of academic struggles at the high school. In 2011-12, the four-year graduation rate sat at 18 percent. 

“I think it was incredibly traumatic for the students,” Grill said. “It was not only, you know, taking away something that had been part of the community for years, but it was telling them, basically, that you’re failures.”

“It was a very abrupt announcement and gave no time for schools to make a case for themselves or the community to rise up and act,” said Julie Stapleton Carroll, board president emeritus of the Germantown United Community Development Corp

In response to Philadelphia Neighborhood inquiries, William Hite, the superintendent at the time of the 2013 closures, issued a written statement that called the process “arduous and painful” but also stated that decisions were made “with the best of intentions and strategic foresight.”

“The schools were closed using best practices, a great deal of community collaboration and empathy—lots of empathy,” wrote Hite, who now serves as the CEO and president of the education advocacy group KnowledgeWorks. “Plenty was learned about the complex reality of school closures. It was not a decision that was taken lightly.”

The most recent data for King shows a 2021-22 four-year graduation rate of 45 percent. 

Ten years after closing, the former Germantown High School remains vacant.

Merger proves complicated

Freshman and sophomores who attended the after-school program Grill taught in, located across from the Germantown building, reported apprehension about traveling to King. 

“They were afraid they were going to be beaten up,” Grill said. “They just thought that they were not going to be accepted there.”

Although fights did occur, Blyweiss reported that the merger worked out better than people expected. He continued to work at King High for four years. 

Dunn, who worked at King as a math teacher until 2019 and continues to volunteer with the football team, said it took a lot of community conversations to maintain a safe school environment.  

“I think that the concern was valid,” Dunn said. “But because the concern was valid, people did what we needed to do to make sure that kids were safe.”

Blyweiss remembers outcry from alumni, who watched their school close on year 99 of its operation.

“Some of them just wanted to hit the century mark,” he said, “and they couldn’t even do that.” 

The school closure prevented future generations of school children from experiencing the neighborhood cohesion that their family members spoke nostalgically about. 

“It was an anchor in the neighborhood,” Grill said. “It was a place that basically kept the kids together.”

Carroll, who’s now a homeowner in Germantown, said alumni have worked to maintain ties, including scheduling a Sneaker Ball this summer to celebrate the classes of 2006 through 2009. 

“It was a part of us,” Carroll said “and everybody that, you know, that lives in this community has had a loved one go to that school.”

The walls of the former Germantown High School are covered in graffiti.

Germantown properties remain vacant as school resale efforts fail to produce results

Current redevelopment plans for the Germantown High site center on new apartments, which strikes Blyweiss as a very gentrified use of the space. He fears that new housing will be unaffordable for community members, and he’s unimpressed by the potential multi-use plans for the building. 

Germantown High and Fulton Elementary were initially part of a package deal that the district sold for $6.8 million

As that package was broken apart and parceled off to other developers, the Germantown properties suffered a steep drop in value. 

In 2017, the Germantown High property sold for $100,000. According to the Office of Property Assessment, its market value had dropped to $10,000. Back in 2015, the property had a valuation of $1.5 million.  

In the same 2017 sale, Robert Fulton Elementary sold for $500,000. At the time, the Office of Property Assessment valued it at $300,000. Back in 2015, the property had a valuation of nearly $5.2 million.  

“It’s a crime to the community that they would sell it for so cheap,” said Julie Stapleton Carroll, board president emeritus for the Germantown United Community Development Corp

Jill Saull, a Germantown resident for 35 years, lives within a block of the former Germantown High School site. She said the continued vandalism of the building has been distressing. 

“People have been living in there,” Saull said. “There have been some fires in there. There have been people that have stolen all the copper piping and all the porcelain in there.”

The development team led by Jack Azran and Eli Alon held community meetings in 2019, but the process of negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement eventually stalled. Residents report Azran has been increasingly impossible to reach. 

Construction permits posted on the property included permits issued as recently as February 2023, and neighbors anticipate plans to build new apartments will eventually come to fruition. 

Emaleigh Doley, executive director of Germantown United Community Development Corp., said that the former high school site is now an active construction site but that its long vacancy removed customers from local establishments already affected by the school closure. 

“It’s had an enormous impact on the business corridor,” Doley said. 

Meanwhile, community advocates continue to push to preserve access to the site through shared use of spaces, like the auditorium and gym. At-Large Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said the issue has come up when he’s knocked on doors in the neighborhood. 

“They deserve it to be a resource, not an asset to a company or an individual,” Thomas said. 

Saull said there have been disagreements between residents and Councilmember Cindy Bass regarding the best plan for the closed school properties in her district. 

“While we were supportive of the plans announced more than four years ago, the developer has made very little apparent progress since that time and has done a poor job of providing updates to my office or the community,” Bass said in a written statement. “As I have done repeatedly, I am again calling on the developer to let the community know what progress he has made to date with his plans. He owns the buildings and has all the city approvals necessary to complete the work. We understand the pandemic slowed things down but there is no excuse for the continued delays. “

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