|By Dinah Soloway, Sean Hogan, & Harper Leary|
Like thousands of students across Philadelphia, students of Science Leadership Academy are back to in-person school after a year online. Unlike the rest of the city, the building they are learning in is still practically brand new to them.
Previously located at 55 N 22nd St, the school moved due to asbestos concerns; SLA is now located at Broad and Spring Garden. The building has two high schools in it, which makes the situation unique.
The block-long, six-story tall building was initially home to Ben Franklin High School, but was renovated to house both schools. That renovation focused more on the separate needs of the school: Each school has its own entrance, classrooms, and ‘side’ of the school. The only shared part of the building is a stairwell, auditorium, and a hallway where the school stores are located.
How have the two schools adapted to life in one building?
Ben Franklin opened in 1939 as a neighborhood public school for sections of Center City and North Philadelphia. Opened in 2006, SLA is a special admissions school with students attending from every zip code of the city.
These differences make for different student body demographics.
According to the School District Website, the student body at SLA is comprised of 35% of white students, 31% Black students, 16% Hispanic students, 10% Asian students, and 7% multi-racial students. 51% of which are female and 49% are male.
According to the Philadelphia School District website, Ben Franklin High School has 535 students. Their students are comprised of 75% Black students and 16% Hispanic students. The other 7% is made up of multi-racial, Asian, and white students. More than ⅔ of the student body is male.
Daily Realities on Campus
Safety is a big concern for both schools. Security officers with handcuffs operate metal detectors that the students go through to get into the building.
Tara Ryans, a current SLA staff member, and a past SLA parent, helps coordinate the relationships between Ben Franklin and Science Leadership Academy. “One way we communicate is through the walkie-talkie system.” Ms. Ryans explained, “Certain people have these walkie-talkies with them; safety officers, principals, the main office, the nurse, and there is always a walkie-talkie in Ms. Lehman’s office.”
This system of walkie-talkies is always active. School safety officer Cynthia Byrd maintains communication with fellow staff members in the early morning and during both schools’ lunch periods.
Chris Lehmann is always in close contact with the administration team at Ben Franklin High School. One of BFHS’ staff members, Dr. Canada, talks closely with Mr. Lehmann and other faculty to develop possible plans to get more students to interact with each other.
Ms. Ryans is in charge of overlooking the school cafeteria. “It’s hard not to meld into both schools. I have had a relationship with them for years.” Working during lunchtime and sharing the space there gives a lot more chances to get to know the BFHS and what the student body looks like during non-class hours.“
The cafeteria is split in half with doors and glass separating the schools. On some occasions, Ben Franklin students need to pass through the hallway to access their side of the gym or the school store.
Earlier this school year SLA had participated in two school lockdowns. A quote from an earlier article about the lockdown on Dec 2nd, “the SLA and BFHS campus went into lockdown. The lockdown lasted nearly 3 hours, finally being lifted at 11:45 am.” This lockdown was caused by a Ben Franklin student that was suspected of bringing something harmful into school property.
SLAMedia sent an anonymous survey to gauge how connected SLA students felt with their sister school.
Out of the students who replied, 70% said they have no friends who attend BFHS, though more than half said they could see themselves being friends with someone from BFHS.
The vast majority of respondents said they have heard some negative comments about BFHS, whether rumors, gossip, or jokes. However, more than 75% believe that the schools should try to strengthen the relationship. Many of those who said this suggested connected clubs, shared spaces, and going to one another’s sports games.
The words used to describe the relationship all had similar descriptions. One anonymous student simply wrote, “[The relationship is] racist, classist and overall segregated.”
This opinion — that racial and social inequality impacts the relationship between the schools — is not uncommon. Other responses to the survey and conversations held in classrooms and friend groups bring up how race and socioeconomic standings have a part in the relationship. These differences all show the vast disparities within the public school education system in Philadelphia.
On December 2, 2021, there was a robbery of a BFHS student in a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority subway station. An investigation of the case lead to a suspect in the BFHS building and concern that the suspect had brought a weapon into the school. . The building went into lock-in mode while the police conducted a search. Students were stuck in their classrooms for more than two hours.
This was not the first nor the last lockdown or lock-in at the school, and survey responses suggested that some SLA students have negative prejudice towards BFHS students as a result.
“I don’t think it’s the best relationship,” one respondent wrote. “I think lots of SLA kids don’t like BFHS because they have caused multiple lockdowns. We’ve also been told to not walk down the middle stairwell to avoid negative interactions with them.’
The lockdowns have been equally frustrating on the Ben Franklin side, as both incidents were caused by students who had only recently been enrolled at the school and were not integrated members of the community.
While the Ben Franklin perspective largely goes unheard on the SLA side, some SLA students recognized their limited knowledge.
“I think it’s full of gossip and some fear because of the stigma that everyone there fights and gets arrested,” one SLA student wrote. “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.”
Feelings According to SLA Student Body
There have been stories of interactions between the two schools’ students.
One such interaction comes from senior Eric Casalena “It was during lunch, and I was walking about to go to the bathroom. When I was walking, … 2 Ben Franklin kids were around the water fountain next to SLA.” He recalled they were saying what color hoodie he was wearing like they were pointing it out.
“His friend walked up to me, got in my face, and tried to get big. So what I did was straighten my posture, look down at the guy, and said ‘ahoy’ or something. They then both ran away saying, “Man, never mind man, he too big.'”
Sophomore Wiktoria Walska also got perspective from a conversation with a Ben Franklin student.
“At the blood drive [held at Ben Franklin], we were in line waiting to get our blood taken. One of the Ben Franklin kids came up to us and started talking about how we came to their school and took it over from them,” Walska stated. She then went on to talk about how the student said it like a joke, but it came off as he still meant what he was saying.
Before the schools attempted to co-locate in Fall 2019, there was a coordinated plan to bring the students of the schools together. Before that school year began, Ben Franklin and Science Leadership Academy participated in an ‘Outward Bound’ program, where according to Mrs. Siswick the point of the program was “to bring communities together in a positive space. It felt very collaborative and community building when we did it.” She also noted that the program has been used since.
One disrupted year due to asbestos, and another spent virtual due to Covid-19, postponed any such efforts. The only shared activities in the 2021-2022 school year are now limited to all sports besides boys basketball.
Mrs. Siswick, the athletic director and school counselor at SLA, gave us an insight into the shared teams. “All sports teams except boy’s basketball are cooperative teams, which means a student from SLA or a student from BFHS can join and play with students from the other school,” she explained.
“Some of them have just SLA students and a few BFHS students. Or the other way around. Or some teams have just SLA Students, and some have just BFHS students.”
“[Shared teams] have been quite successful. It’s been a nice way to have a collaborative relationship with sports and build friendships with students across the communities.”
Junior Joshua Hernandez plays soccer on the team for both schools and echoed Ms. Siswick’s comments.
“We only have one kid [who goes to BFHS] play for us, and he’s pretty friendly, so we became good friends.”
When asked about issues regarding having kids from both schools, he told us, “Usually the Ben Franklin’s that come play with us we all get along because we all have one goal, and it’s to win the championship.”
Other students have also pledged to help grow the relationship. SLA’s Black Student Union originally was started by a student at Science Leadership Academy and since then, Ben Franklin students have joined.
Pia Martin, the health teacher at Science Leadership Academy, is one of the mentors in the BSU. It is not a joint club between the schools, she says her motto is ‘building bridges’.