As a freshman going to Science Leadership Academy (SLA) Center City during the 2021-2022 school year, I never quite understood how two schools could “share” a building. As I walked through the halls, I realized that there was a metaphorical and physical glass divide between the schools occupying the building. One giant glass wall in the lunchroom separates the students on either side, and a glass divide on every floor, in every hallway.
Benjamin Franklin High School (BFHS) has been a public neighborhood school for sections of Center City and North Philadelphia since 1939. SLA, on the other hand, opened in 2006 as a special admissions school with students attending from every part of the city.
SLA used to be located on Arch Street, but in 2017, when rent became too expensive, officials wanted the school into an underused space as soon as possible. SLA and BFHS soon started sharing a building until asbestos was found in the boiler room at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year.
Students couldn’t attend school in person anymore, and COVID-19 made itself present shortly after.
As a consequence of that, the 2021-2022 school year was the first year these two schools spent sharing a building, and it was quickly apparent that there was hostility.
The only shared locations are a stairwell that both schools can use, the gym, which also usually has a divider up, and the auditorium. On the occasion of having to get to the gym or school store, BFHS students are allowed to pass through SLA hallways.
During the initial move, parents and staff from both schools raised concerns about BFHS students having to remain in the building through an entire year of construction.
Their concerns were well-founded, as students frequently had asthma attacks due to the dust and debris, and at one point, two staff members fell ill and had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Nevertheless, construction went on for the school year.
Due to these complications, BFHS students already felt as though their needs were neglected, and the move was off to a bad start. While this already set off prejudice from one sister school to the other, direct conflict started in the first quarter of their first school year together.
After a robbery of a BFHS student in a SEPTA subway station, an investigation of the case led to a suspect in the BFHS building and concern that the suspect had brought a weapon into the school. This left both schools in lockdown, leaving students from both schools locked in their classrooms for over three hours.
This almost instantly colored the perspectives of students at SLA, grouping all students at Ben Franklin into one group based on the actions of a few. As a result, the relationship between the schools became increasingly segregated.
In an effort to take action, an anonymous survey was sent out by SLA Media, SLA’s official media website, to gauge how students at SLA felt about their connection with BFHS. The vast majority of respondents said they have heard negative comments about BFHS; whether rumors, gossip, or jokes. One anonymous student wrote, “[The relationship is] racist, classist, and overall segregated.”
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This opinion, of racial and social inequality impacting the relationship between the schools was not singular and is aided by the fact that they have very different student body demographics. While SLA consists of a 64.9% minority population with an almost equal split of Black and White students, BFHS is made up of a 98% minority population, 75% being Black students and 15% Hispanic students.
In other responses to the survey and general observations of conversations held between students, race and socioeconomic status are frequently brought up. Students are even regularly told not to use the shared stairwell to avoid negative interactions with students from BFHS.
Another perspective an SLA student gave was, “I think it’s full of gossip and some fear because of the stigma that everyone there fights and gets arrested. I think it’s a very single story and that only the crazy incidents are ones we hear about, so it really colors our perspective of the school.”
This division makes it hard for both student bodies to understand each other, let alone interact with each other. While sports teams at both schools are cooperative teams, no intentional effort is dedicated to bringing the two schools closer together. They share a building, but they should share some form of community as well, and it should be a necessity to explore strategies to make that happen.