District shows off asbestos-free building before Ben Franklin, SLA students return

Mike DeNardo
February 17, 2020 - 2:20 pm
The refurbished Ben Franklin cafeteria, nicknamed "Ben's Den."

Mike DeNardo/KYW Newsradio

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UPDATED: 8:10 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — After being displaced for five months of asbestos clean-up and construction work, students at two Philadelphia high schools will return to the building they'll both call home on Tuesday. School District of Philadelphia leaders gave reporters a tour of the refurbished building on Monday for Ben Franklin High and Science Leadership Academy.

District construction manager Jessica Binda-Rischow led the way through the rebuilt sections of the facility that the two schools will now share.

The building at Broad and Spring Garden streets has separate entrances for the two high schools, but students will share a gym. 

Superintendent William Hite and district construction manager Jessica Binda-Rischow lead reporters on a tour of the building.
Mike DeNardo/KYW Newsradio

Construction on the project to move SLA into the Ben Franklin building was running behind at the start of the school year, and it halted altogether in late September after asbestos was discovered in the boiler room and the first-floor commons area. 

Jim Creedon, interim district facilities chief, said extensive air testing has shown the building is now safe for students and staff.

"We did 120 different samples throughout the building about two weeks ago, now. Everything cleared, and there were no problems," Creedon said.

Interim district facilities chief Jim Creedon, left, talks with Superintendent Hite before a media tour of the building
Mike DeNardo/KYW Newsradio

About 1,000 students between the two schools have been displaced during the work. Franklin students went to the former Khepera Charter School in North Philadelphia, and SLA students went to classes at district headquarters. 

"Two high schools are now having a brand new building and a modernized facility, and taking advantage of the use of this facility still becomes a model for how we can think about this moving forward," Superintendent William Hite said.

Preparing for a second first day of school

The day before the school was to reopen, teachers and volunteer parents helped set up classrooms.

Steve Cohen, whose daughter is a junior at SLA, spent Presidents Day unpacking supplies in a storeroom, hoping for a smooth return for students.

“The idea was both to help the faculty be ready, but also so the kids could come into a building that was really ready for them and feel like it was their home,” he said. "This should feel like school, as opposed to a moving-in project."

Cohen is confident the asbestos has been fully removed.

“I'm good right now. I've got a lot of trust in the work that people have done, and the fact that not only the district but the teachers union and a parent group have been involved in this work so far.”

SLA engineering teacher John Kamal said his students and fellow faculty made the best of the situation, and he echoed the same confidence that the asbestos is gone.

"I have no concerns right now at all about the health of the building. I'm glad that all of the interventions were taken to be able to make it as healthy as it could be for the kids," Kamal said.

Seating area in the refurbished Ben Franklin cafeteria
Mike DeNardo/KYW Newsradio

SLA parent Alice Ryan says her son, a freshman, seems to have endured he disruption well.

"I think the school has done an excellent job supporting him through it, and his teachers have been really amazing," she said.

Hite said the original price tag to retrofit the Franklin building was $37 million, before the asbestos abatement.

"We think the project will land probably in the $45- to $50 million range when all is said and done."

Hite said asbestos and lead are symptoms of a district where 80% of its buildings are more than 70 years old.

Ben Franklin and SLA are two of nine schools that have had to temporarily close this school year for asbestos abatement.

Related: A bill headed to Harrisburg aims to clear asbestos, lead and mold from Philly schools