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What’s next for broken schools? Keep the charter schools out!

The lawn is neatly mowed, the brick-and-limestone exterior free of graffiti. Steam rises from a pipe behind the cafeteria. Unlike most of the other 23 schools that Philadelphia closed this June, Anna Shaw Middle School shows signs of life. It is, at least partly, still in operation: The second floor is home to Hardy Williams High, a charter school and tenant since this summer, which enrolls several hundred students. The third and first floors lie empty.

A former student might find the atmosphere subdued, compared to the days when thousands of kids roamed the corridors of this grand, three-story building. But for a neighborhood feeling gutted by the closure, the current iteration of Shaw suggests one way forward. Mastery Charter Schools is attempting to buy the building from the Philadelphia School District and use it to house both Hardy Williams High and a middle school.

What happens to a public school when it’s not a public school anymore? This is the question on everyone’s mind in Philadelphia, where 28 schools, or about one-eighth of the district’s building stock, are for sale. A charter school is an obvious option for reuse; residential conversions have also grown popular. Neither is without controversy. In American cities, innovative reuse of defunct school buildings remains the exception rather than the rule.

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