Phila. school gets funding to plan for expansion, new MS

Powel Elementary, a tiny public K-4 school in West Philadelphia, has long been regarded as an oasis in the neighborhood - a safe, strong school where kids achieve.  But parents often worry - with a dearth of good post-Powel options, what happens after children finish fourth grade?

They got a boost on Monday when the Philadelphia School Partnership awarded Powel a grant to plan to add a fifth grade, expand its enrollment, and plan for a brand-new middle school modeled after Science Leadership Academy, one of the city’s top schools. Drexel University will partner with Powel and SLA to help plan the new school, which would likely be located on the same campus as Powel, perhaps in the nearby former Drew School, which closed in June.

The goal is to serve an additional 500 students in West Philadelphia.

The nonprofit’s $215,000 investment is significant - it represents the first time PSP, a relatively new but increasingly powerful organization, is funding a Philadelphia School District project. It has raised over $50 million in two years, but to date given money to only charter and private schools in its quest to expand high-quality educational choices for Philadelphia students.

“Making this kind of investment has been a priority for us since day one. It’s taken us longer to get to the point of approving a direct investment only because of the circumstances involved,” said PSP executive director Mark Gleason, referencing the district’s recent leadership changes, financial turmoil and move to close schools.

Powel principal Kimberly Ellerbee was ecstatic today; when she told one parent in the hallway of the school on N. 36th Street in Poweltown Village, the mother had tears in her eyes.

The school will add a fifth grade next fall, and if the School Reform Commission signs off, the new middle school would open in 2014.  It’s not a sure thing, Gleason said, but the district has shown some interest in the concept.

SLA, the innovative project-based magnet high school that’s earned national attention since it was opened as a partnership school with the Franklin Institute six years ago, was fascinated by the idea of helping create another inquiry-driven, hands-on school.

“I think all of us at SLA and the Franklin Institute are pretty excited to extend what we’ve done down to the middle school level,” said Chris Lehmann, SLA’s founding principal.  “The pedagogical model will work well at that level.”

The new middle school and SLA would have a collaborative relationship, but the middle school students would get no leg up when applying to SLA, one of the toughest schools in the city to get into, Lehmann said.

Still, “this is something that the community has wanted for so long,” Ellerbee said.  “It was always like a dream.  I don’t know that they ever thought it would ever happen.”

Powel, which has 260 students, most of whom are poor, was among the elite crop of 33 schools district-wide that met its goals on the 2012 state reading and math exams.  About 70 percent of its students read and do math at grade level, beating the district’s average.

Even so, lacking strong middle grades options was becoming a real problem.  Powel feeds to MYA, the nearby Middle Years Academy, a school some parents don’t feel comfortable sending their children to.

“It’s a community that needs better access to quality seats,” Gleason said.

“It was becoming a dissuasion in some cases for parents to enroll their children at Powel.  They felt like maybe they would be stuck,” said Ellerbee. Many Powel parents hope to get their children into Masterman, Conwell and GAMP, city magnets that start at fifth grade, but their space at each is limited.

PSP heard about Powel through Drexel, which has partnered with both Powel and nearby McMichael for years.  The school impressed Gleason.

“There’s a strong culture of high expectations, there’s a good school leader who’s been able to improve the school’s results and build a strong teaching corps,” said Gleason.

The move gives Powel, which has only 260 students, surer footing.  With tens of thousands of empty seats in city public schools, district officials are gearing up to close dozens of schools, and small schools like Powel could be vulnerable.

Prior to the grant, parents were definitely worried whether the school might be targeted, Ellerbee said.

Lucy Kerman, Drexel’s vice provost for university and community partnerships, said the school plays a crucial role in the neighborhood, and it was important to sustain that.

“Powel is one of those neighborhood schools that really supports the community, and has supported generations around it - it’s really beloved,” Kerman said.  “Being able to help stabilize that at a time when the district needs to think seriously about every single school - we are eager to be part of that.”

The Powel grant provides a moment of optimism during a tough time for the district, she said.

“These are two great public school principals who get it and who want to do more,” Kerman said. “Perhaps this will be a model for other schools.”

Gleason said if the organization likes Powel’s growth plan and the SRC signs off on it, PSP will consider funding a grant to get the new middle school off the ground.  

He said he also hopes to make more grants to other district schools.

“We want principals to recognize that if they have ideas for how they can expand a high quality school, or turn around a school that needs improvement, we are very interested in those opportunities,” he said.  “We have a number of district conversations going, but we would like to have more in the pipeline.”

PSP on Monday also awarded a $75,000 planning grant to Wissahickon Charter, which will open a second campus in Northwest Philadelphia.