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Philadelphia’s Filthy Schools Continue

Philadelphia public schools have a long history of neglected hazards and deferred maintenance.  For many years Philadelphia’s school children have had to exist and try to learn in conditions where the air is contaminated with mold spores, water fountains are lead contaminated, schools are unable to control the internal temperatures, asbestos exposures and rodent infestation issues. Two weeks ago we saw how another district, Monroe County, NJ answered the calls of concerns of parents and staff by closing Holly Glen Elementary for mold remediation in response to high mold results on October 4th. Three days later, and simply as a precaution!  all Monroe Township schools were closed for mold inspection and remediation.  They remain closed 2 weeks later to allow for a comprehensive assessment to be completed.

In addition, on October 11th, John B. Kelly Elementary school was closed to an emergent mold issue spanning 10 classrooms – for 600 square feet of mold growth. The scope of the mold contamination rapidly expanded to include some 3 dozen areas, and about 1000 feet of mold and impacts on asbestos materials and major ventilation concerns. Only the advocacy and push from educational staff and the teacher’s union prompted district officials to close the Germantown school for immediate remediation. Parents and staff recall the issues with mold at Kelly to be present between 1-2 years.  Parents report their children suffer sicknesses, asthma attacks, and upper respiratory infections similar to those reported by parents in Monroe twp.

711368104482106532-kelly-leaky-roof.fullAffected room as seen last Spring. The trash cans have been collecting what is leaking from the above pipes. Photo Credit: Greg Windle

There have been similar conditions at many other Philadelphia public schools. So, we have some questions for Philadelphia School District officials. This past summer, Munoz-Marin, Steel, Clemente, and Hunter had extensive mold remediation projects. What about the conditions at Kelly were not deemed bad enough to fix over the Summer, but necessary to close during the school year?  How many more schools are in the same condition as Kelly, but have not risen to the level of action by the district? If the conditions at those four schools were also a long standing issue, then why weren’t those schools closed for immediate remediation when the issues were first acknowledged?  In addition to mold, our students, teachers, and school staff are exposed to lead in paint and drinking water, asbestos, rodent and pest infestations, and lack of proper climate control within our school buildings.

One thing that parents in Monroe twp have to help them understand the issues at their schools is the actual Indoor Air Quality report for Holly Glen Elementary, which identifies the classrooms, the contamination, and problem analysis. The report includes pictures of the affected areas and damage.  In contrast, it is not currently possible for a parent to obtain the Indoor Air Quality test results or report of their child’s school in Philadelphia public. Unfortunately there is an enormous amount of data that is unavailable to an informed public with regard to Philadelphia public schools. The lack of information only leads to more questions:

  • How do we know how significant the damage was/is in the district’s schools? We don’t?
  • Is the damage here worse than in Monroe Twp schools? We don’t know?
  • Are our children at any greater risk by having them continue in school buildings with these conditions? We don’t know.
  • What is the district’s plan to avoid the situation in the future? We don’t know.
  • Are there any other schools that have similar conditions? We don’t know.
  • What were the specific conditions that highlighted the 4 schools for mold remediation and the 5 for asbestos abatement this past Summer? We don’t know.
  • Was the work done this Summer done correctly to ensure our children’ health and safety? We don’t know.
  • Was the money used to remediate mold and asbestos spent responsibly? We don’t know.

A high level of transparency is essential in getting our children the clean, warm, nurturing classrooms and schools that they deserve. To date, we have not had the level of assistance or transparency from the district that would allow parents to feel that our children are well taken care of in their school buildings.  

Sometimes things don’t change is because no one is willing to learn from the problem to make different choices.  

We are trying to make a change in the way the school district maintains and improves its school buildings. The Philly Healthy Schools Initiative is working towards: improving the amount of information and data transparency from the district, establishing an adequate building conditions and best practices to ensure a healthy learning environment, identifying and addressing the most critical health and safety priorities, and establishing a stakeholder advisory committee.   Our goal is to work with the district to achieve the clean, safe, warm, nurturing environment that the district states as its standard.  

We Can & We Must Do Better.

How you can help:

  • Parents and teachers collaborate to identify and report facility conditions that are unhealthy and unsafe. Teacher reports to the principal need to be carried up to the union.
  • Go into your child’s school. Visit their classrooms, and yes, the bathrooms. Look at the ceiling tiles, walls, flooring. Notice odors, pests and their waste. If there is anything that concerns you, tell the principal. Parents should also make a note of their concerns to make follow up easier. 
  • Read the Facility Condition Assessment for your child’s school. It can be found on the district website. All schools were assessed in 2015. It gives a snapshot of the school’s condition and a priority list of issues.
  • Contact us at
  • Contact Philly Healthy Schools Initiative for more information. David Masur:


One thought on “Philadelphia’s Filthy Schools Continue

  1. Unacceptable – Philly Schools

    Up in the air, squeezed in an economy seat, I pull the slick and shiny national airline magazine from the seat pocket in front of me. Flipping through the pages was a colorful four- page piece on Philly’s hip Fishtown. I have always felt proud of seeing my city showcased in a national publication. It was a feature article about the “all-cool” new Philly neighborhood. But this time, while thumbing through the article, I felt irritated and agitated by it. The irritation was triggered by my not too long ago experience in a North Philadelphia public school.

    It was late August. Maybe five days before the school doors open to receive Philadelphia’s children. I volunteered to help a young friend set up her classroom in a North Philly neighborhood school. I have been in North Philly before; in fact, I am familiar with many of Philadelphia’s most neglected, impoverished and resource poor neighborhoods — years ago I worked in Philadelphia’s public health clinics located in these neighborhoods across the city. I remember then I thought “few people knew – or had any perspective of this Philly: vacant and abandoned buildings, neglected parks, trash on the streets, homes in disrepair, disinvestment.” A hard, harsh urban landscape where families and children live.

    That August day, and during that week, teachers across the city were preparing their classrooms for a new group of students. I arranged to join my friend, a ‘seasoned’ teacher, to set up her room; she said, “Bring cleaning supplies and rags.” The night before I was mentally preparing to enter this school building. I had been to this middle school and neighborhood years ago. There is something very disturbing about this school and many similar to this across the city. The unwelcoming stark, foreboding appearance of the menacing architecture, the bars on the windows, surrounded by concrete, roads, parking lots, and trash. It’s obvious that once the children enter the school building, into their often crowded and under-resourced classrooms, this is where they will remain until the big doors open in the afternoon for “let-out”. There is no outdoor play space or green space provided, and no fresh air or outdoors for these school children. I dare not share with my daughter the feelings of repugnance that choked my airways as she and her colleagues need all the encouragement they can gather — she is the hero along with all the other teachers in these schools.

    That August day, with my bucket of cleaning rags and sprays in hand, my friend and I entered the building and climbed the four levels of steps to the 4th floor where her classroom is located. The stairwell was dirty, stinky, and gloomy. I remember browns and grays and lots of scratches along the walls, dust and dirt. My friend said, “This is how my students greet the school day, they travel through these stairwells. Prisoners have better conditions than this.”

    We entered the small classroom which she had been assigned. Rusty exposed pipes, stained ceiling tiles, soiled and stained floors, paint peeling, rusty file cabinets, desks that should have been tossed out years ago; rusty all marked up, missing parts, -the site of this was deeply distressing. This image is etched in my mind. The first thing we did was sweep up the hundreds of mouse droppings all over the floor. We worked hard to improve the horrid conditions of this classroom. Our efforts amounted to tiny, tiny band-aids. In my mind these work conditions are unsuitable for humans. This school environment, like many across the city, must be nothing more than demoralizing and uninspiring both teachers and children. But yet teachers walk into these buildings and classrooms Monday through Friday – and perform one of the most difficult and challenging jobs; they teach children, many who come into the classroom with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges – often correlated with exposure to conditions poverty.

    Our teachers are expected teach in conditions that probably couldn’t pass typical building, health and safety code inspections and would fail to obtain a certificate of compliance by our own Department of Licenses and Inspections. I can’t make peace with the thought that children come to this building to learn and teachers come into this building to teach these children. How could this be? And why why aren’t parents protesting the conditions of these schools? Why the silence?

    This is also an image of our city and a window into our public school system – shame, shame, shame. I am aware that we have a handful of public schools that are well cared for, endowed with supplies, clean & painted, and probably meet all the L & I codes. But why is it that schools located in certain zip codes are inviting, safe and clean, and an inspiring place to learn? Where is the equity of the school environment for ALL our children and ALL our teachers? All Philadelphia public schools should have equal access to resources that provide for and maintain safe, clean, and welcoming building environments for learning and safe outdoor spaces for children to move and be outside.

    Why aren’t teachers protesting these unhealthy work environments and why aren’t parents demanding safer school conditions for their children. Why are our teachers sweeping up mouse droppings, cleaning classrooms, and painting rusty pipes? Something is very wrong with this picture. What happened that makes this acceptable? I challenge all our city council members and upper school management if they would readily drop off their children at the door step of these schools and remain silent. I challenge any of us to spend a day in these school and observe the conditions in which teachers work and children learn.

    These schools in these neighborhoods should be the bright spots in these communities. There are so so many opportunities and resources across the city to tap to ensure safe, clean, and inviting school buildings for ALL teachers and ALL children. Our city has a wealth of volunteer organizations, community service programs, a strong private sector, a generous and an innovative philanthropic community. It takes creativity, leadership, innovation, and a commitment to our children and our teachers.

    It is easy to filter out this disturbing image of Philadelphia – and to identify with and feel proud about our hip Fishtown showcased in a slick magazine. I can’t.

    Our selfless teachers and all our children deserve better; basic environmental standards for a welcoming, safe and healthy school environment. I invite an undercover news photojournalist to go into these schools and publish a slick article called “Inside Philadelphia’s Schools”

    “Wake up Philadelphia — this is you TOO. Would you send your children here?
    Would you work here?”

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