frederickdouglassmastery
image courtesy Google Street View

Children in a Philadelphia charter school have been consuming water from drinking fountains with astronomically high levels of lead, possibly for years, and parents are only now becoming aware of the issue.

Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter School, which serves approximately 750 students in grades K-8, (of whom nearly 100% are black and fall below the poverty level) has had issues with its water for over 15 years, but nothing has been done aside from occasionally taking the affected fountains out of rotation for a while. Parents were finally notified of the issue recently, and they are understandably upset.

The most recent tests on drinking fountains at the school, conducted by the district in compliance with a new city ordinance, showed water concentration levels of lead that reached upwards of 3500 ppb (parts per billion); the accepted maximum is around 10 ppb, although most medical professionals will agree that there is no amount of lead that should be acceptable in drinking water. All this while teachers report that there have been, for an untold number of years, special coolers with water designated for the teachers, because on some level it was understood that the fountains did not deliver water that was acceptable to drink.

Consuming high levels of lead, especially in children, has been attributed to lower IQ scores, increased incidence of ADHD, and other developmental and behavioral problems. The FDA sets the standard for lead concentration of drinking water at 5 ppb, while the EPA remains more conservative at 15 ppb.

Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter School is among 18 schools in the Philadelphia area operated by Mastery Charter School. The building itself was built in 1938, and until 2010 was under control by the School District of Philadelphia. As early as 2000, however, drinking water tests at the school have shown lead levels higher than what is deemed acceptable, and have consistently been swept under the rug.

The district admits that the maintenance backlog is so extensive that fixing the problem just isn’t possible, citing other issues in crumbling Philadelphia schools such as HVAC malfunctions, asbestos, and chipping paint.

On Frederick Douglass’s home page a quote from a parent features prominently:

“I just love the communication between
the parents and the teachers and the school.”

-Yonita Martin, Mastery Parent

One has to wonder if this parent is now eating their words, after realizing the school has been keeping parents in the dark about their children’s health and safety for years.

Test scores, perhaps unsurprisingly, rank low compared to state averages, with just 22% demonstrating language arts proficiency (compared with Pennsylvania’s 63%) and 7% demonstrating math proficiency (compared with Pennsylvania’s 46%).

Philly school knew about toxic lead in drinking water but kept parents in the dark

Frederick Douglass Elementary – Mastery Schools

Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter School – Public School Review

Lead Toxicity – What Are U.S. Standards for Lead Levels? – CDC.gov

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