March 3 — 2:09 pm, 2004

New questions raised as District’s school construction plan gets rolling

As the first batch of projects in the School District’s ambitious Capital Improvement Program moves into the design and construction phase, both the School Reform Commission (SRC) and community groups are getting more assertive about what they want to come out of the process.

The $1.5 billion program calls for building as many as 20 new schools and renovating dozens more over the next five years. It will fulfill a need that has long existed in a district where 71 percent of existing school buildings were built over 50 years ago.

In a March interview with the Notebook, SRC member Martin Bednarek said the five-member body that oversees the District wants to make sure that the Capital Program is done right.

"This could be a real legacy for this SRC," he said.

Specifically, the SRC wants to create "a master plan," based largely on population studies and neighborhood data, to formulate detailed guidelines for how the site selection and construction process is to take place for the new school buildings.

"I want to be careful that we’re going to put [these new schools] in the right places where it’s going to benefit [neighborhoods] and help revitalize areas of the city," Bednarek said.

The SRC is expected to issue a document soliciting proposals for consultants who would craft the plan for the school construction process. Bednarek said he believes this will happen "sooner rather than later because it’s going to hold things up" in the construction process.

Seventeen school projects are underway in the first round of improvements taking place across the city. One brand new elementary school and one replacement of a high school are included in this first round of projects. While most of the schools will receive major renovations to their buildings, others are receiving additions or being converted from middle schools to high schools.

Groups express desire for input

As the District moves closer to breaking ground on new school sites, some community groups hope the SRC’s call for a "master plan" will also support their efforts to have input into what the new schools in their neighborhoods will look like.

Crafting an overall game plan for the Capital Improvement Program will hopefully cause the District to "recognize that communities need to be involved in this process," said Eric Braxton, executive director of the youth organizing group Philadelphia Student Union (PSU)."They need to really figure out how to have authentic community participation."

PSU members from West Philadelphia High School have researched and developed a plan for their school, which is one of eleven high schools scheduled for a new building in the five-year plan. PSU’s proposal calls not only for creating a better building, but also for the transformation of the school into a campus of four smaller schools.

The District’s program for community input includes school planning teams – small design teams at the school level with teacher, parent, and community representatives – along with a series of town meetings at each site where community members have a chance to discuss design plans with the architect.

Chris Harris, director of capital projects for the District, calls this "a two-pronged approach" to doing community outreach.

"Our desire is to get substantial input at a variety of levels," she said.

Harris also said the focus of all these discussions is on school design, rather than the educational program of the school.

The community outreach effort uses both District staff and consultants. District staffer Anton Hackett leads a "Community Outreach Team" that works to insure community input on the project.

Working with Hackett are Mayor Street’s former campaign manager Lana Felton-Ghee, and her two assistants. Felton-Ghee’s consulting firm, Lana Felton-Ghee Associates, has a 3-year, $715,000 contract to provide support for the team in soliciting community input on the plans. Ghee’s contract, however, is with the URS Corporation, the project management firm guiding the District’s capital program.

The District itself has hired yet another community outreach firm, ACG Associates, headed by local entrepreneur Cody Anderson, to work with Felton-Ghee’s team in doing outreach for the large-scale public meeting process to take place in the communities affected by the capital program.

District spokeswoman Cecelia Cummings says the District has put several new enhancements in place to facilitate community input into the capital program. These include publicizing current building projects on the School District’s website and advertising the formation of school planning teams within the schools slated for projects.

Cummings urges community members who seek to have input into how school building improvements are being made to exercise patience.

"Live out the process. [It] has not been completed in one instance," she says. "The point of large-scale community input has not arrived yet."

Bednarek acknowledges that the people who live in the communities where these schools will be built should play a role in the school construction planning process.

"They know their neighborhoods better than anybody. They are the people that live there," he said.

Schools spur economic growth?

Many point to the Sadie Alexander School-a University of Pennsylvania-assisted K-8 school in University City-as an example of how building new schools can positively impact neighborhoods and contribute to the overall economic development of the city.

Property values have shot up for homes located in the school’s catchment area, causing some to see new school construction as a viable strategy for improving both schools and the communities where they are located.

Debra Kahn, Mayor Street’s education secretary, agrees that Alexander is a good example of what can happen when schools are built strategically.

"It does make some sense to look at school construction from the community economic development perspective," said Kahn, who added that the process must be carried out in a way that is sensitive to the needs of the school’s surrounding community.

"When you’re making a big public investment, there can be multiple payoffs," she said.

Viewing new school construction as a means of stimulating economic development does raise concerns for some community advocates.

If done without careful planning, a school construction project has the potential to harm some communities, said Nora Lichtash, executive director of the neighborhood development group Women’s Community Revitalization Project.

"I think there could be a real danger in spurring gentrification," Lichtash said, arguing that planning must focus on the people who already live in the community, not solely on those who could potentially move there.

But "if there is a real process where there’s some community control" over how schools are built, schools also have the potential to become anchors in low-income communities with few visible, stable institutions, she pointed out.

Ultimately, the Capital Improvement Program can positively affect the city by causing its leaders to work together more closely, says Kahn, who said she sees the plan in part "as the nexus where the city and the School District meet."

Bringing together officials from the School District, city and state is key, said Bednarek, in developing a guiding plan for the capital program.

"We really need to take a look at what we’re doing to make sure that everybody is on the same page," he maintained. "You’ve got to involve all the stakeholders."

As the District moves forward in building new schools and renovating existing ones, community group leaders say they will be closely watching how the process unfolds.

The design and community input process is currently underway at the following schools:

Major renovation: HA Brown, Bluford, Gratz, Longstreth, Mifflin, Roxborough, Shawmont, Strawberry Mansion, University City, Washington High

New building: G & Hunting Park Elementary, Fels

Middle school conversion: Sayre, Vaux

Building addition: Lawton, Moore, Ziegler

Two other projects where the process will be starting up soon are Ethan Allen and GAMP.

For more information on how to get involved in the planning process, visit the Philadelphia School Improvement Team’s website at www.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/psit/ or call 215-875-3650.

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism