Valerie Smith Webb moved into one of the new homes built near Audenried High School six years ago and the mother of a teenage daughter quickly learned that the Grays Ferry neighborhood offers few opportunities for children.

"Around here, you have children looking out of their window and seeing the tall buildings in Center City and they think it's New York," Webb said.

"They don't have the opportunity to get out of the immediate area. They don't have connections with the arts. The closest library is on Broad Street and we're at 33rd Street."

With that in mind, Webb, president of the Parent Community Organization at Audenried, supports a school-district plan to convert Audenried into a charter school operated by Universal Companies.

The conversion is part of a "cradle-to-career" plan that the company run by music mogul Kenny Gamble hopes to implement to overhaul the struggling, poverty-stricken section of the city.

The School Reform Commission is expected to vote Wednesday to convert both Audenried, 33rd and Tasker streets, and Vare Middle School, 24th Street near Snyder Avenue, to charter schools run by Universal.

Universal would also work with the district in running two elementary schools in the area.

Not everyone is happy with the plans, however, and even some supporters don't like the way that the proposal is being implemented without community input.

Because Universal won a $500,000 planning grant to develop a Promise Neighborhood plan for the Grays Ferry and Point Breeze neighborhoods modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone in New York, the school district didn't follow procedures used for other Renaissance Schools.

In most cases, parents and community members formed school advisory councils and had a chance to interview different providers and recommend their choice to the district.

But Audenried parents didn't get that opportunity.

"They were not consulted," said supporter Claudia Sherrod, president of the Point Breeze Community Development Coalition. "People will be agitated and upset. If someone came into your house and told you you had to get out and didn't give you any warning there were problems, you wouldn't like it."

But Alfred Brown, marketing director of the Point Breeze Performing Arts Center, said that the chance for Universal's Promise Neighborhood can't be missed. The arts center is one of Universal's partners in the plan.

"We can't let this opportunity get by us," Brown said. "It's the smart thing to do. It has to happen."

In recent months, many Audenried students and some teachers have protested the charter school conversion, including Hope Moffett, the English teacher who believes she was punished for her opposition.

Opponents say that it's unfair to label Audenried a failing school because it reopened only three years ago and test scores have improved since.

Universal has been involved in running city schools since 2002 and its results have been mixed. This would be its second shot at running Vare Middle School, which it ran from 2002 until the SRC took it back for poor performance last year.

While more than half the school's eighth-graders last year were proficient in reading (55 percent), only 20 percent of sixth-graders were.

While Universal also lost control of Pierce School because of poor student performance, both company and district officials noted that Universal didn't have full control over hiring staff or other policies because the schools were managed under the Educational Management Organization model.

At E.M. Stanton, at 17th and Montrose streets, students have made consistent progress since Universal took over. While 30 percent of fifth-graders were proficient in reading in 2006, 75 percent were proficient last year. Ninety percent of Stanton's seventh-graders were proficient in reading last year, while 83 percent of sixth-graders were proficient in math.
 

At Universal Institute Charter School, at 15th and Catharine streets, 58 percent of students were proficient in math last year, and 56 percent in reading.

Charles Reeves Sr., a longtime community activist, said that parents like Webb and other relative newcomers don't speak for the entire Grays Ferry area.

Reeves said that community members were suspicious because School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie was a close friend of Kenny Gamble (the two attended West Philadelphia High School together).

Archie is also a Universal Companies board member and will recuse himself from Wednesday's vote.

"Why would they come to us and say this is a done deal?" Reeves said.

He said he believes that Universal wants to establish itself as part of the Grays Ferry community so that it can develop housing in the area.

Devon Allen, a spokesman for Universal, said Abdur-Rahim Islam, the company's CEO and president, was on vacation and not available for comment.