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KIPP presents proposal to move into closing Wilson Elementary

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by Sonia Giebel and Mark McHugh

KIPP wants to move into the soon-to-be closed Wilson Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia, starting with a 100-student kindergarten next year and gradually expanding to a K-4 school.

Marc Mannella, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia, presented the proposal to a community meeting Thursday night called by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who is among those fighting to keep Wilson open in some form.

“The majority of the parents, the grandparents, the neighborhoods, everybody, the whole neighborhood, this community, everybody wants to keep the school open,” Blackwell said. “I don’t know one person who doesn’t want the school open. That’s their first priority.”

The KIPP solution would not solve the neighborhood’s biggest concern -- that the current students at Wilson will have to travel a long distance to Lea Elementary without, community members say, sufficient guarantees of their safety.

And it also flies in the face of the School Reform Commission’s decision to freeze any charter school expansion until the District has gotten out from under its financial crisis.

Mannella, however, said that he had been in contact with District leaders about the plan and that it hasn’t been rejected out of hand.

“We don’t have a ‘yes,’ we don’t have a ‘no,’ we have a ‘hang on,’” he said.

He said that KIPP would rent the building and educate the 100 kindergartners at its own expense in the first year, not asking the District for the payment it would be owed. This would create a “one-year bridge,” in Mannella's words, and presumably skirt the SRC’s determination not to add any charter seats.

But, after that, KIPP would add a grade each year and eventually become a 500-student K-4 charter school with full District funding. The school would be called KIPP: Encourage.

“What we’re doing at KIPP is changing lives,” Mannella said.  “We’re trying to be part of the solution.”

He said the plan would also keep the building open at a time when community members fear that crime will increase if it is abandoned.

District: No charter expansion

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said that the SRC has been talking to charter operators, including Mannella, but remains firm on not granting any new seats to charters for the next school year.

"Our current fiscal crisis requires this shared sacrifce," Kihn wrote in an email. "Unfortunately, the families of District schools are being forced to sacrifice, as are our employees, as are charter schools."

At the same time, he said, the District remains open to "creative solutions to our complex financial challenges," specifically "ways to reduce the net cost of charter schools to the District."

Presumably, Mannella's plan to educate the 100 kindergartners at its own expense could reduce the District's net costs next year if KIPP cut enrollment at its four existing schools and didn't seek to put an expansion request for these students in its charter. Kihn also said that the District was not now considering charter expansion requests beyond next year, but charters can be amended later if the District gets a more stable funding base.

Pressed further on the KIPP plan, Kihn wrote: "At this time any [charter] school's actions, creative or not, that would require an increase in the authorized seat numbers written into their charter agreement constitutes an expansion."

The District must plug a $304 million budget hole for its next fiscal year and is seeking $120 million from the state, $60 million from the city, and $133 million in union concessions. Just two weeks from the deadline for Harrisburg and City Hall to adopt their budgets, nothing has been settled. City Council passed a $2 cigarette tax, but to be applied, it would require Harrisburg's approval. State legislators have been discouraging about coming up with anything near the $120 million for city schools.

So far, to make ends meet, the District has laid off nearly 3,800 workers, including all its counselors and secretaries, most assistant principals, more than 600 teachers, and every school-based support worker.  

The District also voted to close 24 generally underutilized schools, including Wilson, in an attempt to “rightsize” and eventually cut overall costs. Although some other school communities successfully lobbied the SRC to keep their schools off the closure list, Wilson was not among them. But since the March vote, parents have continued to lobby to keep Wilson open and they have a powerful ally in Blackwell.

Kihn said, however, that there are no plans to reverse Wilson’s closure.      

Concerns about safety

At Thursday’s meeting, not everyone among the 60 or so in attendance was sold on the KIPP proposal. Some community members stressed that they were most concerned about the safety of the current students who would have to commute to Lea, located a mile to the north across highly trafficked thoroughfares like Baltimore Avenue and Spruce Street.

Transportation isn’t provided for students, no matter how young, unless they live at least 1.5 miles away from Lea, at 47th and Locust Streets.

“The crime rate around that school [Lea] is terrible. They have all those halfway houses. They get out the same time the kids do,” said Wilson parent Lisa Woods.  

Blackwell agreed. “Going from here to Lea is like going from here to South Philly or Germantown. It is not at all the same area. That’s a big, big problem.”   

According to Woods, many community members do not own cars, and their children would be forced to walk to school, regardless of weather or safety concerns. They also worried about overcrowding in the Lea building with the addition of several hundred students.

“We’re concerned about everything from transportation to neighborhood fights, to all of the community issues that you have when you take two different areas of the city and put it together,” Blackwell said.

Quetta Jefferson, head of the West Shore Civic Association, is primarily worried about what will happen to the Wilson students. “We’re fighting for our children’s right to stay,” she said.

Regardless of KIPP’s possible move into Wilson, 1st through 4th graders and current teachers at Wilson will be displaced. Jefferson said they are looking into a private transportation alternative.  

At the meeting, KIPP promised community members preference in their lottery, practically ensuring that a Wilson-based kindergarten would be populated with neighborhood children.   

Mannella hopes to move into Wilson because of its proximity to KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter.

KIPP had originally wanted to rent the shuttered Turner Middle School, but the District relocated Motivation High School into that building.

Plans for K-12 networks

KIPP Philadelphia now operates four schools in the city -- three in North Philadelphia and a middle school in West Philadelphia -- that educate more than 1,000 students, according to its website. Its goal is to create two K-12 networks.

Its North Philadelphia charter is up for renewal, and it is seeking more than 1,000 new seats to fill in missing grades and otherwise expand. The three schools now operate as a K-2, 5-8, and 9-11.  

The SRC’s next meeting is June 19. The commission is demanding that charters seeking renewals sign an agreement with an enrollment cap. KIPP is among several charters that have not yet done so.

KIPP does not participate in the Renaissance Schools initiative, in which low-performing District schools are converted to charters. It prefers to start its own schools in underserved neighborhoods one grade at a time.

Sonia Giebel and Mark McHugh are interns at the Notebook. Contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa contributed reporting.

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