In the eight years since its founding by the director of a popular children's chorus, the Chester Charter School for the Arts has hit an academic high note as the top-performing school in Delaware County's poorest community.
Soon, it will move from a rental space in an industrial park - where young musicians, dancers, and artists hone their skills against the rumble of potato-chip trucks rolling out of a neighboring warehouse - and into a venue more in tune with the school's success.
Administrators and civic leaders broke ground Thursday for a $25 million campus on the edge of Chester. According to plan, a state-of-the-art, 90,000-square-foot building with dance studios, a band room, and a kiln will rise from the vacant lot on Highland Avenue by the fall of 2017.
Chester Charter School for the Arts (CCSA) has 500 students in grades K-9 and 56 staff. Administrators say the move should enable the school to become a full K-12 by 2018, with 750 eventually enrolled.
"One thing I will say is, we're never satisfied," said Don Delson, a retired investment banker who is president of the school's board of trustees. ". . . If you're satisfied, you've stopped working hard."
By the 2013-14 school year, its sixth, CCSA had become the highest-ranked school in Chester Upland - either public or charter - on Pennsylvania's School Performance Profile. Delson said the school has held on to that top rating while also posting a lofty daily attendance rate of 96 percent.
That's no small achievement for a charter school that once had to fight for its existence. It started in 2008 as a public-private partnership between the school district and John Alston, a Swarthmore College professor and director of the 140-voice Chester Children's Chorus.
Three years later, however, the Chester Upland school board rejected CCSA's application to become a full-fledged charter, arguing that the cost of sending students there would be too much of a financial drain on the cash-strapped district. CCSA gained K-12 charter status by appealing to the state.
At the groundbreaking, attended by about 200 people, Alston said the new campus would be "a beautiful school for Chester's children so one day they will grow up and make the world a more beautiful place."
Administrators credit CCSA's success to its carefully calibrated growth plans - it started as a K-6 school and has, year by year, added higher grades and more students - as well as its strong outside partnerships, especially with Swarthmore College.
Funding for the new campus includes a $1 million anonymous donation from a Swarthmore alumnus; other Swarthmore-connected donors have contributed to a $7 million philanthropic fund drive. Much of the rest of the construction will be financed with low-interest, tax-exempt bonds through the Reinvestment Fund, a quasi-state agency.
Delson said that in the first phase of the project, a three-story classroom wing with high-tech science labs, dance studios, and a full cafeteria with a performing stage will be completed. The second phase will include a theater and gymnasium. Administrators say they hope that in a third phase - perhaps five years away - the school will further expand for an anticipated influx of students.
Planning for the big move went forward even as CCSA and the district's other charter schools were clashing with state and district officials over funding issues, such as reimbursement for teaching special-needs students. Delson said that he sympathized with the district - faced with a low tax base and ever-rising pension costs - but that conflicts had only fueled the CCSA's determination to proceed.