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Drexel, others anxious for University City High to be made available

By the Notebook on Sep 25, 2013 01:34 PM

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared at PlanPhilly.

by Jared Brey for PlanPhilly

Drexel University has its eye on University City High School. The school at 36th and Filbert streets in West Philadelphia was just one of 24 Philadelphia public schools shuttered in June, but it may be the one that’s least likely to sit empty for very long. The Office of Property Assessment put its value at nearly $23 million, and according to a number of sources, Drexel is not the only entity ready to make an offer on the empty property.

But it may be the only entity ready to make an offer that includes opening a new public school. Last year, the Philadelphia School Partnership made a grant to Powel Elementary, a small K-4 school near 38th and Powelton Avenue, to plan for its expansion and possible relocation. The planning involved Drexel University and Science Leadership Academy, a public high school that is itself a partnership between the School District and the Franklin Institute.

“Drexel has been in planning for almost a year now about how to support the Powel school,” said Lucy Kerman, Drexel’s vice provost of university and community partnerships. “How do we expand that to create more classrooms at Powel and create a middle school? What would a school be like that would address the potential in this neighborhood?”

Kerman said that the university was previously looking at relocating Powel to the nearby site of Drew Elementary School, also closed, but is “very interested” in making an offer on the University City High School property.

Currently there are several possibilities for the disposition of closed public schools in general and for University City High in particular. The Nutter administration had been working with the School District since spring on a plan to sell and otherwise reuse the surplus school properties. That plan includes categorizing properties according to their “marketability” and using a combination of tactics to sell them to developers or otherwise put them back to use.

In August, Superintendent William Hite announced that the District needed $50 million to even open the remaining schools on time. City Council responded by suggesting that it would transfer the $50 million to the School District in exchange for its surplus property, which would then be sold by the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development.

Council introduced a bill authorizing the $50 million transfer at its first session, but other than that, neither plan has moved forward. Drexel, Kerman said, is just “waiting for the School District to release the site” so it can submit a proposal.  

“There’s great need in this city for high-quality education options,” Kerman said. “And we have a great partnership that is more than willing to jump in and create a great school environment, and we’d love the chance to do it.”

The potential buyers aren’t the only ones eager for the vacant school property to be formally put on the market.

“The question is this process, what we’re going to do.” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, whose Third District includes University City High. “Is the School District going to sell them? ... We need to resolve that question immediately, so we can get the School District the money and have our schools operational.”

“I need it done yesterday,” she added.

Blackwell said she didn’t know the amount that Drexel would offer for the school. But its proposal, according to Blackwell and Philadelphia School Partnership director Mark Gleason, is likely to involve demolishing the high school, relocating and expanding Powel Elementary, and building a new middle school, along with other, potentially University-related mixed-use development.

Gleason said the expansion of Powel is likely to involve adding a fifth grade as well as one class for each of the lower grades, a total expansion of 200 to 250 students. The 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-grade middle school, based on the Science Leadership Academy model, would teach between 350 and 400 students, Gleason said.

“It’s silly that we’re debating who should sell the building when there’s a buyer standing ready,” Gleason said.

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who led the administration’s plan for reusing closed schools, did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Council President Darrell Clarke’s office also did not provide comment on Wednesday morning.

“This is an opportunity the city cannot afford to miss,” Gleason said. “You’ve got a willing buyer and partner to help create and expand a great school, you’ve got land that’s owned by taxpayers that’s now vacant, and you’ve got a school district that desperately needs cash. Something should happen quickly here, because it’s a win/win/win.”

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Comments (20)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2013 2:13 pm
Keep Gleason out of everything. He is not for the public schools. How much is the building really worth vs what is Drexel going to pay for it? Taxpayers take it on the chin again.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2013 3:28 pm
Why is there a need to expand Powell and open a middle school in University City? If the high school was closed for low enrollment, is there a need for more schools in this neighborhood? Glean's Phila. School Dictatorship just funded SLA #2 in Overbrook (at Beeber). Are they going to "expand" Beeber into SLA Junior? Who is making the decisions? Is Gleason the one calling the shots? No Democracy. No Peace.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on September 25, 2013 7:53 pm
No democracy, no peace, INDEED. The PEOPLE better man and woman up and get a grip and fight this blatant corruption. Sitting and waiting for our own execution is pretty damn dumb but apparently that is WE. Yes, of course, Gleason is a crud but who doesn't know that ?!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2013 3:51 pm
Is anyone surprised? As a teacher who closed out Uni, we all knew there were already bids. I'm suprised it took this long to become public. There was a lot of good still being done at UCity but when a single school can cut the deficit that dramatically the writing was on the wall
Submitted by JMH (not verified) on September 25, 2013 8:11 pm
Hello my friend...I was there too. We all knew that the battle we fought was doomed from the beginning...yet we fought anyway. We fought for the the students and the parents and the community. In the end we taught students to advocate for themselves...they lost did we , but we did not fight in a faceless, nameless way. Students from University City High School have an enormous amount to be proud of... we kept the promise we made to them until the end and they did us proud by their passion and true grit in the end. UCity was cash in hand....the question remains...was that $$ worth those kids? These are amazing kids....I know that the district has no idea what they missed when they dissed these kids. JMH
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 26, 2013 6:20 am
JMH & Anonymous from Uni: Know that you have impacted children's lives very deeply. They will not forget you and they will not forget what was done to their school and to them. They will go forward with their lives and learn from their experience -- so will you. I taught at Uni for 20 years early on in its history. It was a wonderful place to work then and there were always great things even miracles which happened within its walls. I am sure both of you and your colleagues have served them well. Uni has always had an ethos all its own. Those who have never worked there can never understand. Those of us who have worked there for considerable time know and understand exactly what you mean. That school lived and breathed its own passion for 40 years. Birth and death is part of life and it is so with schools, too. Cherish those memories of the good things which happened there and those Great students and colleagues you have come to know through your years there. Somehow, some way, a few of your students will reappear to you maybe 20 years down the road. They will thank you for what you did for them -- then you will more fully understand the power of your kindness and your dedication to them and the impact it really does have on children's lives. That is the ultimate reward of the teaching profession.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2013 9:14 am
also a u-city teacher who closed out the school-- i often feel like we are all survivors (not losers) of a war. the staff and kids have an unspoken bond that the district failed to recognize. night after night we all appeared at those meetings. we fought for a caring culture and the HISTORY that the land represents. everyone there knew the story of the black bottom and aimed to honor it by doing the best job we possibly could. the low enrollment was because of CORRUPTION pure and simple. we knew what was going on with the feeder pattern and the closure of schools like drew. but still we fought. those kids suffered a trauma, but they also learned more about politics, public speaking, reform, protest, government, classism, racism, urban development, education, etc. than any doctoral student at penn or harvard. these kids have bright futures because of what we did and what they did. no one will understand unless you were part of that special community.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 25, 2013 3:35 pm
Interesting. How about if we think up an innovative governance structure for this new school which would ensure that it is a collaborative professional learning community? May I suggest that this new school have a Board of Trustees, And, that the board of trustees be elected by the parents of the students enrolled in the school, and by the teachers who teach at the school. And, that the teachers be regular public school teachers with all rights granted to them by the Pennsylvania Public School Code, including tenure. That would ensure that it is governed and led as a true public school and as a "collaborative model" of school governance.
Submitted by Powel Parent (not verified) on September 26, 2013 11:54 am
Rich, Powel parents and staff along with neighborhood representatives, have been involved with Drexel and (many) other entities in this planning process for the past two years. Specifically, in the past year, different committees met to discuss how both Powel and an SLA Middle would function individually and together. I personally was not involved with the SLA Middle committee, but know governance of the school was addressed, similar to what you proposed. The teacher rights were not addressed, since these meetings occurred last year, prior to the stripping of those rights. In general, the meetings were very "pie in the sky", but if half of what was proposed happens, it will be two amazing PUBLIC schools. There are still many unanswered questions, but the expansion of Powel and creation of SLA Middle is for the public good. Powel currently attracts families from all over West Philadelphia and serves a fairly diverse population. The expansion of Powel and new SLA Middle would continue in this tradition.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2013 11:31 am
This is more investment is a school with connections and means while depriving other neighborhood schools. Powell has never functioned as a neighborhood school. Its students either go to Masterman of MYA. If the middle school is opened, I assume MYA will close. Yes, the argument is "well, more students will go to Powell" but then it will be even less of a neighborhood school. It will continue to be part of the "Center City" expanded district of well funded schools with parents with political and economic clout.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 26, 2013 3:21 pm
Yes, equality is a burning issue which needs to be addressed. I am sure the article by Ben Herold which was just posted will raise some much needed discussion.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 26, 2013 2:32 pm
It is really great that you are so excited that these will be two Amazing Public schools and I am certainly all for you as we do need to create more Great Public schools. I posted the comment because I recognized a "teachable moment" and I am glad you responded. How a school is governed is just as important as how it is led. But the most important thing to remember is that the common factor of all Great schools is that they are Great school communities. A school community works best if it is a collaborative professional learning community. That can only occur if all stakeholders are full participants in the governance and decision-making processes of the school. How the board of trustees is elected or appointed is the legally determinative factor in whether a school is a public school or not. The essential question of school governance and leadership is -- Whose school is it? .
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on September 25, 2013 5:33 pm
Watch is will be sold to a Darrell Clarke supporter for a $1.98. That is council's plan.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2013 8:36 pm
It's Blackwell's district. So it's her buddy will get it for a song.
Submitted by Headstart teacher (not verified) on September 25, 2013 6:39 pm
And there is no assurance that the money from the sale will go to neighborhood schools. My bet it will somehow be funneled back into the charter expansion movement. Very little would go to the schools that truly need the cash. What a bunch of bologna.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on September 25, 2013 11:23 pm
Yes, it's all a bunch of something though bologna wouldn't be my first choice.
Submitted by rscherf1 (not verified) on September 26, 2013 8:53 am
This building, and all the rest, are owned by the taxpayers. If this building is sold, the money from the sale should go back to the taxpayers and NOT used for anything else. We paid for it, we own it, when we sell it, we want the money for it. Why do the politicians get to decide how the money should be spent on the sale of taxpayer owned property?? They did not put up the money, the taxpayers did. This goes for any sale of taxpayer owned property, not just the school district. When did the government start to rule instead of represent?
Submitted by linda (not verified) on September 26, 2013 12:58 pm
Why do the politicians get to decide how the money should be spent on the sale of taxpayer owned property? Becuase we elected them.....we need to stay on the politicians. They have the power we give them, they make the decisions that we let them make, this is how we got stuck the the SRC, ACT 46 and so many other ill conceived ideas. Linda K.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2013 4:49 pm
I would submit that most taxpyers in this city did not elect people to enact Act 46 or instiitute the SRC .We are long overdue to have local control again, so when do we get it after al the district schools have been hijacked? Note the diversion, many people are talkng about supplies, "pitching in, and "making thngs work in a tough economy" rather than structural changes.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2013 10:04 am
If the building is sold to Drexel, who is going to pay for the construction of a new school for Powel/SLA? Penn did not build Penn Alexander, taxpayers did to the tune of over $17 million and district officials have said with rising construction costs a similar school building could cost twice that these days. PSP funding has a max of $50,000/seat, nowhere near enough to fund a new building. Is Drexel going to build the building and then rent it back to the school district? If so, what the heck is the district doing getting into rental agreements when it's been trying to decrease its rental agreements as part of the facilities master plan? Jared Brey did a nice job and all in the context of PlanPhilly but there's plenty of serious questions that have not be asked. Too much space devoted to airheads calling this a win/win/win.

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