June 27 — 9:08 pm, 2019

Penn Alexander 2.0? Two Philly schools to move into building owned by Drexel

Plan to sell Belmont Charter to its management organization is postponed due to concerns about a new state law.

Avi Wolfman-Arent and Makoto Manheim

School board member Chris McGinley speaking at a Board of Education meeting. (Photo: Greg Windle)

Two West Philadelphia public schools are officially on the move, with plans to relocate in a building owned by Drexel University.

Powel Elementary, a K-4 neighborhood school, and Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLAMS), a 5-8 school focused on project-based learning, will open the 2020-21 school year in a new facility located at 36th and Filbert Streets in Powelton Village.

The School District will pay $7 million of the projected $38 million construction cost, and then pay Drexel a nominal rent of $12 a year after that. The agreement will last 35 years, according to a resolution approved Thursday night by the School District of Philadelphia’s Board of Education.

The unusual arrangement comes with an unusual, and circular, back story. This prime parcel of real estate once housed University City High School, which the district closed in 2013. The district then sold the property to Drexel, which will now build a school used by two district schools.

The arrangement is reminiscent of the partnership the School District of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania forged in 2001, when Penn agreed to provide guidance and extra money for students at the newly created Sadie Alexander School, just beyond its campus.

Sadie Alexander, known now as Penn Alexander, became an award-winning school, credited with improving the once-neglected neighborhood just west of the Ivy League university. But the school’s also been accused of fueling gentrification in its increasingly desirable neck of West Philadelphia.

Powel Elementary is located on the fringe of Drexel’s campus, a few blocks north of where University City High School once sat. It’s a sought-after school, although many of its families come from outside the immediate neighborhood. Science Leadership Academy Middle School gives preference to students who attend Powel or live in the Powel catchment, but technically draws from all over the city.

Those who back the plan to build a new school for Powel and SLAMS say it’s a cost-effective way for the school district to move students out of an old building and into a new one. The district, they point out, would typically have to fork over far more than $7 million for a new facility.

“I see it as a very responsible move on the part of the district,” said board member Chris McGinley. “This is a good partnership with the university. And if we were to rebuild Powel School ourselves we would be spending way more than this amount.”

Skeptics, though, say the district could relocate Powel or its students to nearby schools instead of financing a new facility. They see the new building as a misallocation of resources and evidence the district favors students in fast-developing sections of University City.

“It’s time for the district to truly care about the other 15,726 students in the West and Southwest regions of the city,” said community member Leah Clouden.

Some also worry the new school could spur a real estate frenzy similar to the one that engulfed the area surrounding Penn Alexander.

SLAMS principal Tim Boyle said Drexel was keenly aware of the way Penn Alexander changed its home neighborhood and already working to avert a repeat scenario.

“They actually have partners in the neighborhood to address affordable housing in a way Spruce Hill never had when that project got going,” said Boyle.

SLAMS first opened three years ago at a site owned by Drexel before moving to a second location at 36th and Market Streets. Administrators felt the school needed a real home.

“This was existential,” said Boyle. “There’s some permanence to this. [SLAMS] goes from being a new, fledgling program to part of the fabric of education in the city for the next 35 years.”

While the Drexel project sailed through, the school board pressed pause on another anticipated, West Philly land deal.

District administrators had endorsed a plan to sell Belmont Elementary School in the Belmont section of West Philadelphia to the charter organization that has run the school for the last 17 years.

Belmont Charter School officials said they wanted to buy the aging building for above asking price so that they could make major repairs that their lease didn’t permit.

If the deal went through, Belmont Charter would have been the first charter management organization to own a neighborhood school building in Philadelphia. The district has turned over the management of neighborhood schools to charter companies, but always retained ownership of the buildings.

But before the school board could vote on the sale, Board President Joyce Wilkerson pulled the proposal from the agenda.

She said new language embedded in a state bill could be problematic, and that the board wanted more time to review the bill before voting on Belmont’s fate.

“Today we learned that the state is considering House Bill 1615 which would codify a designation where Belmont Charter School could be exempt from all state and local oversight,” Wilkerson said.  “For this reason, I have withdrawn the sale of the Belmont facility until we understand the outcome of this legislation”

House Bill 1615, an omnibus bill that would make several changes to the state’s school code, now contains a section entitled “Innovation Schools Program.”

That section allows for the creation of Innovation Schools, using specific language that appears to single out Belmont Charter School. To be eligible for this designation, a school would have to serve a certain percentage of low-income students, be located in a federal Promise Zone, and “partnered with behavioral health specialists” — all of which apply to Belmont Charter School.

The bill requires Innovation Schools to submit an annual report. The bill states that if the Department of Education approves that annual report it shall “waive state regulations.”

Despite this unexpected twist in the Belmont saga — which has roots in a separate West Philadelphia land deal — several community members spoke on the school’s future.

Supporters said that Belmont Charter School represents the neighborhood and that selling the school would enable the charter organization to make necessary repairs.

“For the record, Belmont has been, is, and will be a neighborhood school for the community,” said Carter Belmont, a staff member at Belmont.  “By purchasing the building, we have the ability to respond to the parents’ wants.”

“We cannot fail our students,” she added.

Opponents say the district shouldn’t cede control of a neighborhood school, which has a catchment area from which it draws students. They worry the district could be left in limbo if Belmont ever loses its charter authorization.

Also on the charter front, the school board approved four renewal applications Thursday. It granted renewals to Independence Charter School West; Philadelphia Montessori Charter School; Mathematics, Science and Technology (MaST) Community Charter School II, and Universal Audenried.

Mathematics, Science and Technology Community Charter School II’s renewal included an amendment to add 650 students, bringing its total to 1900. The board also approved raising Philadelphia Montessori Charter’s enrollment from 168 students to 509.

The School Reform Commission originally voted three years ago not to renew the charter of Universal Audenried, a high school operated by music producer Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies. The SRC cited academic and operational deficiencies.

Universal has been fighting the closure since then. The five-year renewal voted on by the school board is retroactive, so in effect only lasts for two more years, and comes with the condition that the charter be surrendered at the end of that period if certain goals are not met. 

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