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PSP gives planning grant to expand Powel School

By the Notebook on Sep 24, 2012 07:24 PM

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.


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Comments (9)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2012 10:05 am

Congrats but is the district going to spend millions building/renovating a middle school for Powel while closing down schools? Or is PSP going to step up in a big way, bigger than it has for any school to date? Drexel's not putting money behind this.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2012 11:02 am

While Drexel may not put money behind the building of a new school, they recognize the importance of having good public school options in the area to support a vibrant neighborhood of families and residents. Drexel has been thinking "outside the box" with its development lately. My guess is that part of this grant is to identify funders and other means to support the development of the schools. Expanding Powel is a good way to "create more high performing seats", while supporting Philadelphia Public Schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2012 12:56 pm

Yes, that's great - the "you" build it, "we" benefit model pioneered by PAS. Just hopeful that it's someone else besides the taxpayers footing the bill this time. Good luck to Powel.

Submitted by A worried Philadelphian (not verified) on September 25, 2012 3:48 pm

Powell has historically been a feeder for Masterman. (The current Masterman principal was the former Powell principal.) Those who don't qualify for Masterman went to Middle Years Alternative. Apparently, not all parents like MYA.

Powell's demographics are different from its neighborhood schools - lower poverty, whiter, lower number of IEP and ELL, etc. (So, yes, more Powell students will qualify for Masterman, Gamp, etc. than other West Philly schools.) Will expanding Powell turn it into another Penn Alexander - a school in a wealthy catchment for a much wealthier student body connected to a university? This will be nice for Drexel and the parents that live in the catchment but what about the rest of West Philly? (North Philly, South Philly, etc.)

The Phila. School Partnership apparently is divinely ordained to determine which schools are "worthy" and have so-called "high performing seats." This is not a democratic process. A few wealthy people, once again, are having far more say over public education than their numbers merit. This is an oligarchy - headed by Gates, Walton, Broad and now Philadelphia Partnership.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2012 4:17 pm

Powel with on "'l" but you are correct otherwise.

It would be awful nice (but undemocratic as you point out) for PSP to give money to a struggling district school trying to become a place of "high performing seats." String Theory (Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter organization) got millions from PSP for a district school they just obtained through the Renaissance program. Before the reconstituted school even opened, PSP anointed it a school with high-performing seats and funded it. Would PSP take the same risk in the millions for a district-run school trying to do the same?

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on September 25, 2012 8:20 pm

I have a question for someone who has knowledge of the situation. If Powel is overcrowded, why are so many students from out of the catchment area attending there? From where are these non-neighborhood students coming?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2012 8:45 pm

The district used to have this posted on the Facilities Master Plan site but I can't find it now. The previous catchment for Powel was very small and composed of a lot of Drexel student housing:
The school's HSA seems very proud of the many catchments represented in the student body. I know they mean well but I've seen bragging that they have a student travelling from Frankford to Powel which mostly made me sad for that child's commute.

Powel, for decades, has been seen as a West Philly "school of choice" alternative to the other neighborhood schools as it is small and had an "open classroom" option long after the district officially did away with those types of programs. The downside was it was a bit self-segregating with the selective parents from greater West Philly choosing the open classroom and the parents from closer to the immediate neighborhood largely choosing the traditional classroom. Penn Alexander with its K-8 program attracted a lot of "Powel-type" parents away from the school and problems with past Powel principal (the interim between the current one and the one that left for Masterman) led to it declining somewhat if you go by PSSA resuts which I don't think you should. In the last two years, the scores seem to have recovered.

With the closure of Drew, Powel's catchment was expanded significantly and the district intends more students to come from the catchment. Unless there's an enormous influx of families moving into the new catchment, entirely possible since the new catchment maps with the Drexel employee home ownership program pretty closely, Powel will still likely have a large out-of-catchment population.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 27, 2012 2:35 pm

EGS, I was looking forward to your thoughts on this.

Submitted by ion (not verified) on July 22, 2014 9:34 am

If the money is available they should expand. Adding the fifth grade would be a good thing if they're having such good results. Children should benefit even more from this institution. echipamente profesionale

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