There's nothing quite as ugly as neighborhood politics, particularly when it involves education. And when you mix that with the painful history of bad blood between Penn and the surrounding neighborhood, you're left with an explosion just waiting to happen. Nearly three years ago, Judith Rodin announced a remarkable partnership with the troubled Philadelphia school system. Penn would donate the land for a state-of-the-art, 700-student school in West Philadelphia. It would also make a commitment to provide both financial and curricular support to the new school. The Penn-assisted school was to be the crowning accomplishment of Rodin's West Philadelphia Initiative, a project dear to the heart of a woman who grew up in the neighborhood, and one that her administration saw as central to the long-term future of the University. And then the sky came caving in. Here's a summary of the basic dispute -- Penn offers to build a school and give a world-class education to 700 neighborhood kids. The community gasps in utter horror at what they call an unwanted and arrogant intrusion into their lives. Since that sunny, hopeful day in June 1998, Penn has seen its gift horse looked squarely in the mouth; its attempt at neighborhood reconciliation instead become the epicenter of a reawakened animosity between Penn administrators and the surrounding community. There have been charges that in deciding who gets to attend the school, Penn was purposely trying to pit neighbor against neighbor. Then there were calls that for Penn to give money to just this one school is unfair -- it must give funding to all local schools (which it has for years). And now we have the displaced University City New School, forced to close down because evil landlord Penn needs to use their building for a school that will educate seven times the number of students as the New School. The result of all this was a full year of delays. The groundbreaking that was to have occurred a year ago finally happened just last week. It means that a cloud of controversy will likely always cover the building to be erected at 42nd and Locust streets. Administrators really are trying to do the right thing here. Penn could have made the school private, open only to children of faculty and staff who choose to live here. That, after all, would have accomplished the overriding goal of convincing faculty and staff to live in the same neighborhood as they work. It's the route most other urban universities have taken. But they didn't -- they promised an ethnically and economically diverse student body, and they've followed through on that promise. A year ago, parents at other local schools ignited a firestorm by criticizing Penn for not giving them money, too. One area resident actually said last February that it was "unfair for Penn to offer land to the Board of Education to build a public school." Absurd as that argument was, the University went ahead and acquiesced to what was basically extortion (it may have been for a laudable cause, but it was still extortion). And with the New School, Penn did everything it possibly could to keep the school open. Penn offered to try to integrate it into the new public school. Penn helped them find a new home and offered grants and loans to cover relocation expenses. But the small school chose to shut down and now the University is attacked for not doing even more. The whole sordid spectacle has been utterly baffling; the vitriol it has sparked, unimaginable. Isn't something better than nothing? Isn't 700 students getting a world-class education at least a positive first step? I'd be the last to say that the University is uniformly fair in its dealings with community leaders. Far from it. But this school is one of those instances where the best interests of the University coincide with the best interests of the neighborhood. It's a pretty simple equation -- Penn needs a safe, vibrant and attractive neighborhood in order to thrive. So does West Philadelphia. A first-rate public school is great for both. Unfortunately, suspicions between the two continue to run so deep that coming to any understanding is apparently impossible. Residents will never believe that Penn does anything in West Philadelphia other than provide for its own best interests. The thing is, that really doesn't matter. Penn is trying to build a great school, and there aren't a whole lot of them in the City of Philadelphia. Why the University is doing it is irrelevant. So with construction finally beginning, let's put this controversy to rest. Let's be happy for the 700 students and the opportunities they will soon have. And let's just acknowledge that this is one of those times where the University really has done something positive for the community.Comments powered by Disqus
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