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Gathering Goes Beyond Reunion; Classmates Target Social Action

April 30, 2009
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Sydelle Zove and Lewis Goodman stake out a seat on "the bench" at Finletter Elementary.
Sydelle Zove had been writing on the walls with some other kids in the third-floor bathroom of Thomas K. Finletter Elementary School. But someone snitched on her alone. So while everyone else was sent home for lunch, the seventh-grader had to wait on the dreaded long oak bench outside the principal's office.

"I just remember being called in. They wanted to know if I did it and who else" was there, she said.

A stint on the bench, followed by time in the principal's office, was very bad news indeed.

"It wasn't welcoming, and it wasn't warm," said Zove's classmate Lewis Goodman when both recently made a trip back to the K-8 school's hallowed halls more than four decades after graduation. "It was the last place you wanted to end up."

Zove still doesn't remember her accomplices that fateful day, but "the bench" still looms large in her memory and many other Finletter alumni. So large, in fact, that a group has begun selling spots on the notorious wooden structure as part of a fundraising campaign to assist the school.

At the request of the Jewish Exponent, the pair revisited the educational institution last week, a few days after more than 450 people showed up for a neighborhood reunion at the Radisson Hotel in Trevose. Nearly everyone at the gathering had attended Finletter and grew up on the city side of the area known as "Second and Cheltenham," meaning near Second Street and Cheltenham Avenue. Amid the family-reunion atmosphere, a group of Finletter alumni -- many of whom hadn't seen one another in decades -- were working hard to give back to the institution that had left them with so many vivid memories.

These days, the gym where Goodman learned to play basketball now doubles as a lunchroom; and the school, which serves 900 students, 75 percent of whom are low-income, had to cut its library program years ago amid budget constraints.

That's why Goodman and Zove have stepped in.

The pair graduated from Finletter in 1966 and went on to work, respectively, as an attorney and as a public-policy advocate. But they're also the chairman and president of the board of directors for 2andC Cares Inc., a registered Pennsylvania nonprofit seeking to raise $50,000 to launch a new library for their elementary alma mater. Spots on the bench go for $1,000, and seven donors will be honored with name plates on the very stretch of seating they once tried so diligently to avoid.

So far, the group has raised about $15,000. Zove, 55, said that the $50,000 goal is only the beginning.

"Fifty thousand is enough to launch the program, but not to sustain it," she said. The initial funds will supply books, computers, furniture and repairs to the facility, but the group hopes that the school district will come up with the resources to sustain the center and hire a full-time librarian.

The old neighborhood, once largely Jewish, is now mostly African-American and Hispanic. And while many neighborhoods nearby have slipped into disrepair, Goodman and Zove's old stomping grounds remain relatively unscathed. Well-maintained red-brick rowhouses -- which their parents bought new for about $13,000 each -- line the city streets, often fronted by well-tended lawns.

Many of these, said Goodman and Zove, were their parents' first homes, built in the mid-1950s and bought with the help of Veterans Administration-subsidized mortgages.

S.O.S. -- 'Save Our School'

While the faces and the facades are a little different now, the overriding vibe has stayed the same, said Finletter principal Joanne Beaver.

"The interesting thing about this neighborhood is that it was always a tight-knit community," she said. "Even though the demographics have changed, it's still very tight-knit."

Back in the halls at Finletter, Beaver led Goodman and Zove to the notorious bench, which now sits outside the nurse's office. The pair tentatively sat down, laughing about old times.

"Sydelle, we're finally on the office bench for a good reason," said Goodman, 56.

When the reunion group first approached Beaver, she said that the best investment for the students wouldn't be something high-tech, but about as low-tech as it gets: books.

It would not be just a library, but a "learning center," since it will house a few computers as well, and it would target students in grades six to eight, she said. "Our kids have technology today, they have access to the Internet. But I'm not so sure how much access they have to high-quality literature."

No work will be done until 2andC Cares Inc. reaches the $50,000 mark and turns the money over to the school district -- standard practice when schools accept money from outside sources.

But Goodman and Zove said the funding is contingent on making sure that the school district is in it for the long haul -- they don't want to see their new library gathering dust in a few years.

"I can't say that this is going to repair the world," said Zove, "but it'll make a dent."


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