The stalled reopening of a West Philadelphia pool is at the center of a contentious debate over pool access for Black and brown children as summer approaches.
Tensions ran high at the Philadelphia school board’s Feb. 23 meeting when community and school board members clashed over a bogged-down plan to reopen the pool at the Sayre Morris Recreation Center.
Neighborhood residents argue that the pool, which closed in 2017 for repairs, needs to reopen as soon as possible. Knowing how to swim gives young people a sense of confidence that goes beyond the pool, they say. And in addition to providing teens with summer job opportunities, the pool offers children a place to safely congregate and be part of a strong community institution. Such concerns are top of mind for many in Philadelphia at a time when gun violence is plaguing the city and having an especially traumatic impact on the city’s youth.
Board members — who a year ago voted down a plan that would have authorized $10 million to repair the pool — said there are still bureaucratic and financial obstacles to deal with before the facility can reopen.
“It’s just a back-and-forth mess,” said Kristen Britt, president of the Sayre Rec Advisory Council, which works with the city to support the recreation center where the pool is located.
Among other things, kids who swim also have better mental health and do better in school, Britt noted. Reopening the pool would help address issues — such as mental health and attendance — that are priorities for the district, she said in an interview. Sayre’s closure has also affected summer jobs for neighborhood teens, she said, as its Olympic-size pool has historically been used to train lifeguards.
Meanwhile, Sayre and two other district-owned pools in majority-Black Philadelphia neighborhoods remain closed.
While the district owns the pools, the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation manages them. The city and the school board are working on a memorandum of understanding to spell out their joint and separate responsibilities regarding the Sayre pool.
City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier told Chalkbeat she’s worked with Mayor Jim Kenney and state Rep. Joanna McClinton to raise about half the funding needed — estimated to be between $8 million and $12 million — to repair and reopen Sayre.
School board member Mallory Fix Lopez said in an email to Chalkbeat that the board is committed to enrichment activities, including athletics and extracurricular programs. But she added that “for every spend we make, there is another need that goes unmet.”
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At the Feb. 23 meeting, she said that the situation with the pool is in a “holding pattern.”
Sayre, which opened in 1966, is one of the city’s few indoor pools and the only one easily accessible from North and West Philadelphia, where many children of color live. The district-owned Lincoln Pool, in Northeast Philadelphia — a primarily white neighborhood — is open, but it’s on the opposite side of the city from Sayre.
Philadelphia, like the rest of the country, has a long history of racial discrimination when it comes to water access. (“Pool: A Social History of Segregation,” an exhibition focusing on “the nation’s handling of race as it relates to public schools,” opens at the Philadelphia Water Works on March 22.)
“We want to make sure that in each end of the city there is the opportunity for Black and
brown children to learn how to swim, and provide a safe space,” Britt said. Without that, she said, they can’t get summer lifeguarding work and other jobs that might ultimately help them get into college.
Martha Ankely, a veteran lifeguard and swimming instructor in Philadelphia, said that ensuring access to pools for children helps them get over their fear of water, which can be “debilitating in a lot of ways.” What’s more, she said, “knowing that you’re able to manage in a different environment can help you cope with managing the everyday environment.”
City pools, which provide free swimming lessons, are important for more than just
recreation, Parks and Recreation spokesman Andrew Alter said in an email to Chalkbeat. “Knowing how to swim is a safety precaution that can save your life,” he said.
What’s more, the Sayre pool is “a historic community asset,” Gauthier noted. “It was a place where children from the Cobbs Creek community and their families would go to
swim, or learn how to swim, and that’s been taken away,” she said.
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Fix Lopez said that when the school board voted down a renovation plan for Sayre last year, the district asked for a memorandum of understanding from the city to include plans for operations as well as long-term funding. For now, the board is in a “holding pattern,” she said at the meeting.
Gauthier said she’s “hopeful” an agreement can be reached this spring to reopen Sayre.
Superintendent Tony Watlington wants to implement a plan to look at all school facilities, including pools, Fix Lopez noted in her email to Chalkbeat. (Watlington paused that facilities plan late last year to align it with the district’s upcoming five-year strategic plan.) She also said that Sayre’s situation is a prime opportunity for the public to learn about “how interwoven and complicated these systems are to work through.”
“I think it’s fair to say we all value the benefits that Sayre could bring to the community,”
Fix Lopez said in the email. “We have heard how much this pool means to the community.”