By Benjamin Herold
for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner
The Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) made its first grant to a traditional public school Monday, giving a team of partners $215,000 to map out a dramatic transformation of the neighborhood schools in West Philadelphia's Powelton Village neighborhood.
The hope is to expand tiny Powel Elementary while also creating a new, District-run neighborhood middle school nearby.
"As a school community, we're ecstatic," said the school's principal, Kimberly Ellerbee. "The Powel community has long imagined an expansion of our current program to include fifth grade, and the opportunity for our students to attend a high-quality middle school in our neighborhood."
The grant will fund development of a plan to be presented to the School Reform Commission for consideration sometime next year. Along with Powel, Drexel University and Science Leadership Academy (SLA) are partners in the effort.
"The cornerstone of Drexel's community revitalization effort is education and a commitment to improving public school options for families in the neighborhood," said Lucy Kerman, Drexel's vice president for university and community partnerships.
"We're really excited to have gotten this vote of confidence."
Drexel and SLA, a popular Center City magnet high school affiliated with the Franklin Institute, will help develop a project-based educational program for the proposed middle school.
All told, the hope is to add 500 "high-performing seats" in Powelton Village.
"We as a city ought to be doing everything we can to scale up a school that's doing a good job so it can serve more students in the community," said Mark Gleason, PSP's executive director.
The two-year old nonprofit organization has already raised more than $50 million to support the expansion of successful Philadelphia schools. PSP has long stressed that it supports all schools, regardless of management model, but the group had faced criticism for directing all of its early whole-school grants to charters and private schools.
"Hopefully District principals and school leaders will take from this grant that we are serious about investing in their schools," Gleason said.
Wissahickon Charter, a K-8 elementary school in Northwest Philadelphia, will also receive a $75,000 planning grant from PSP. The SRC in May authorized Wissahickon to add 500 seats in a second school, slated to open in 2014.
Even with Monday's announcement, the envisioned changes in Powelton Village are by no means a done deal. There are significant logistical hurdles to adding space at Powel, which is already using multiple trailers and a nearby church for enrichment programs, pull-out instruction, and office space.
In addition, about 80 percent of Powel's students currently come from outside the school's geographic catchment area, making it difficult to project how expanding might impact a number of surrounding schools and communities.
And convincing the SRC to support construction of a new middle school at a time when it is planning to close several dozen other schools across the city could be a tough sell.
But Gleason said that his organization is "bullish" on the plan's chances of coming to fruition.
"We wouldn't make this grant if we thought it didn't have a chance of ultimately winning approval," Gleason said. "But we also recognize that to convince the SRC, the plan needs to be strong and reasonable from a cost standpoint.
Spokesman Fernando Gallard said the School District was pleased to hear about the investment in Powel.
"While there is no proposal before the District at this time, we welcome the opportunity to explore how to increase the educational opportunities at the Powel School."
PSP is also involved in "numerous other conversations" with District schools, said Gleason.