It was an intergenerational reunion as a community gathered to throw a goodbye party to a beloved school in West Philadelphia.
The school, Alexander Wilson Public School, closed three years ago after welcoming children to its classrooms for a century. It was among 24 schools in the Philadelphia School District that were shuttered that year due to budget cuts.
To the former students, educators and neighbors who filled the schoolyard Sunday afternoon, the school is known fondly as just “Wilson.”
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“Besides the church and recreation center, this is where we learned values,” said author and former student Rosemary Worthy-Washington, who was graduated from Wilson in 1969. “It didn’t matter that the teachers were black or white. It just mattered that they cared about us.”
Wilson is slated for demolition in January.
The University of the Sciences purchased the school property at 46th Street and Woodland Avenue in 2014 with the intent of building student housing. Plans call for a six-story structure that will will also incorporate two retail spaces and some offices for the university.
Speakers at the reunion praised the University of the Sciences for working with the neighbors to make sure that Wilson had a good send off.
“This is the first time that any university worked with a community to remember their school,” former student Dianne Settles said to the crowd. “We have to coexist. When these young people come, we are the ones who watch out for them.”
Some elements of Wilson will be preserved in the new building. The giant mural painted on one side of the building will be replicated on the new USciences mixed-use building.
“We should respect the school before we put something new [on the property],” said USciences Director of Community and Government Relations David L. Forde. “It was a community treasure.”
Forde and a team of community leaders organized Sunday’s event to celebrate the school and offer a chance for the community to officially say goodbye in style. A band of Wilson graduates played music throughout the afternoon. People brought their photos and memorabilia. A team videotaped people talking about their memories of Wilson.
Settles reminisced about her days at Wilson while she spoke in front of its colorful exterior. She spoke of a school that set a high standard for students. Every boy came to school sporting a tie and every girl wore a dress, she recalled.
“There was no such word as ‘can’t’,” said Settles. “You put on your thinking cap and learned how to get out of it.”
It was only appropriate to dig up a piece of the school’s history. Forde presented a time capsule that was buried in the school in 1960—the year that Wilson moved to a then-new building at 4514 Woodland Ave. The box contained items such as a list of students at the school, a copy of the Bible and the sports section of the Philadelphia Inquirer from May 12, 1960.
Although Wilson has reached the end of an era, a legacy of its impact will live on in the community.
“Life doesn’t stop at the seventh grade,” said Worthy-Washington.