In 1954, the civic leaders of Pennsbury School District laid the cornerstone for what would become, through five decades of expansion and renovation, the Pennsbury West High School.
They could not have imagined the building they erected would one day be contemplated to house 2,900 students. That it would stretch a quarter of a mile from end-to-end. That there would be such a thing as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Nor could they imagine that their rectangular block building would one day become a labyrinth of hallways, twisting corridors, dead-ends, and 61 exterior doorways.
The PHS West structure has served this community, and served it well, for nearly 70 years.
But it is unable to serve the community any further without significant investment.
Tonight, the school board is going to decide whether to renovate it or build a new high school on the PHS Campus.
Renovation will add a new wing of several hundred thousand square feet to PHS West, while keeping large parts of that 1954 structure to anchor the foundation of Pennsbury High School education for the next 50 years. It will also add a dozen or more exterior doors to the PHS West building, bringing that structure to at least 73 exterior doors.
A new building will be a new building. It will recognize that what we have learned in 50 years of public high school education on that site tells us that modern education requires a modern facility. It will also recognize that school safety and security have evolved significantly since that foundation stone was laid. Based on the footprint of new high schools built in Lower Merion and Avon Grove, such a new building would need 40 doors or less.
Why am I so focused on doors?
In February 2018, a disturbed young man entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., through an unlocked door and murdered 14 children and three staff members. Seventeen others were wounded.
In May 2022, another disturbed young man entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and murdered 19 children and two teachers, wounding 17 others. He entered through an unlocked door.
In this discussion around the future of Pennsbury High School, discussions around cost, accessibility, positive learning environments, and more have dominated.
But the safety issue is there, it is real, and it deserves the consideration of the school board.
Quite frankly, the Frankenstinian structure that is PHS West has too many doors as it is, and an expansion will only compound the incredibly real security risk that these points of entry represent. And we can’t just get rid of them.
Pennsylvania code (Title 34, Chapter 54, § 54.21) requires that no occupancy area of a school building should be more than 75 feet from an exit. The code further calls for the elimination of dead-ends or areas with only a single path of exit. Walk the building that is PHS West today and you will find a structure littered with hallways that dead-end at an exit.
Chaining those doors is illegal, representing a significant hazard for emergency exits. And sealing them up as part of a renovation means limiting dozens of corridors to a single exit path from the building, while also falling short of the legal obligations for an exit every 75 feet.
This represents a real safety threat. It’s not feasible for the district’s security staff to patrol and secure 75 exit points throughout the day. Especially not when there is a better option.
The district impaneled a committee of citizen, student, and teacher volunteers to evaluate the question of whether to renovate PHS West or build a new high school on the campus to house the entire student body. As part of that process, we toured new buildings in Lower Merion and Avon Grove. Each of those buildings was around 300,000 square feet and averaged 31 exterior doors.
And secure doors work to create safe schools. In 2017, a gunman attempted to enter Rancho Tehama School in Corning, Calif. Unable to find an unsecured door, he fired 30 shots at the building and left. Two students and eight others were injured in that attack, but there were no deaths.
Secure doors save student lives. That’s a fact. And those who are advocating for renovation should understand that they are advocating for double the vulnerable points of entry over a modern facility built to modern safety standards.
The difference in tax burden on the average district household for renovation vs. new construction is, according to District CFO Chris Berdnik, projected to be $43.11 per year. Or $3.59 per month.
The current cost of a medium coffee and a doughnut is $3.81.
The cost of a student life isn’t even worth an attempt to calculate.
So, yes. As a parent of three district students and a member of the Pennsbury High School Committee who spent significant time with officials, staff, and my fellow volunteers, I agree with all of the arguments that a new school provides a better learning environment, true accessibility for all Pennsbury students, and facilities that, for the first time in decades, will match the abilities of our amazingly talented kids.
But, more important, I will rest better knowing that a new structure is undeniably safer. That a building built with the vision of 2024’s leaders will protect our kids in ways that the vision of 1953’s leaders could never have fathomed being necessary.
This is a matter of safety. This is a matter of security. The Pennsbury School Board should vote to protect the lives of our students and move forward from the vision of 1954 with a vision of 2024.
Build the new school.
Colin W. Coyle is a member of the Pennsbury High School Committee. He’s also the father of three Pennsbury students and a Lower Makefield Township Supervisor.