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Philadelphia School Partnership gives out $3.8 million in grants to four schools




The Philadelphia School Partnership,  a two-year-old organization that is raising $100 million to support high quality public and private schools in Philadelphia, announced Thursday the awarding of four grants totaling $3.8 million.

Among the recipients is the Sustainability Workshop, a unique project-based program for seniors that split off from West Philadelphia High School's automotive academy and was featured this week in a Frontline documentary. It is getting a $175,000 "incubation" grant as it works to grow into a full-fledged high school.

The largest award, $2 million, is going to String Theory Schools to help its turnaround efforts at H.R. Edmunds Elementary School under the District's Renaissance Schools initiative. String Theory now operates the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School in South Philadelphia and has also received the go-ahead to open a 1,400-student high school.

Other grantees are the 13-year-old Freire Charter School, a high school that is adding a 500-student middle school, and Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, a Catholic high school affliiated with a national network of 24 other college prep schools serving low-income students of many faiths.

"This school is only for students who can't afford private schools," said John McConnell, Cristo Rey Philadelphia's president. Partners in the venture include the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Cristo Rey, which plans to open its new school with 125 ninth graders this fall, is getting a $1.3 million start-up grant. Under its model, students work in high-powered internships for one day a week throughout their high school career.

"That means that we send a 14-year-old from Kensington to Comcast, the next year to Saul Ewing, then to CHOP, and the year after that to work at a bank," said O'Connell, who retired from the management consulting firm Deloitte. "That experience is phenomenal and is why Cristo Rey kids are successful in college."

The internships also help pay the students' tuition. Families contribute anywhere from $20 to $200 a month, depending on ability to pay.

The Sustainability Workshop has achieved national attention for its Hybrid X Team that has won competitions building fuel-efficient cars. Matt Riggan, one of the founders, said that it is still up in the air whether the school will be part of the District or a charter school.

As a project-driven, technology-oriented educational program, "we're quite different from a lot of what's going on in high school reform right now," said Riggan, who is also on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. The PSP grant "will help us manage the transition from a small-scale pilot program to designing and building a full school."

He said the goal is to research and identify schools that do this well around the country and "connect with other progressive educators in Philadelphia."

Kelly Davenport, the head of Freire Charter School in Center City, said that it will open a middle school campus with 350 students in September, eventually expanding to an enrollment of 500.

"We have been doing great things with high schoolers, and we had the notion that if we could get the kids earlier we could affect the paradigms of their lives more deeply," Davenport said. "We have to get inside the way kids think early enough so we can help them jump any obstacles in the way to their success more easily."

She said that, according to their own data, they are getting 88 percent of their graduates to go to college, and that 79 percent finish. "If we get them earlier, maybe we can get to 100 percent," she said.

The charter school has been the subject of a dispute with the District over expanding its enrollment. Davenport said it had an agreement with the District to enroll 1,000 students and open the middle school.

Update: "We are honored that the Philadelphia School Partnership has faith in our ability to make a difference in the lives of the students and the parents of the community of H.R.Edmunds which will now be known as the Philadelphia Charter School for Arts and Sciences at H.R. Edmunds," said String Theory's chief operating officer Jason Corosanite.

The grants, from PSP's Great Schools Fund, are promoting the goals of the city's Great Schools Compact to expand "high-performing" seats in the city while eliminating "low-performing" seats. These four schools were chosen from "a pool of applicants," according to a PSP statement. In all, 2,200 seats are included in these grants.

Mark Gleason, executive director of PSP, said that these leadership teams "have all demonstrated their ability to prepare students for college or the work world beyond school."

The statement said that PSP, which has now given out $7 million in grants, "continues to receive and review grant applications" and is "working to ensure a diverse pool of applicants," including District-run schools, charters and private schools.

It has just received a $15 million grant from the William Penn Foundation.

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Dale Mezzacappa

Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.