Friday, August 04, 2006

Done Deal: Charter School Stays in Center City

Now it's official. The Durham School at 16th and Lombard Streets will be sold to a charter school, rather than to a condo developer. It's good news for the buyer, the Independence Charter School, good news for Center City, and good news for parents who live or work in Center City. But ICS's protracted struggle to acquire the old school district building is a reminder that city officials still don't understand that an expanding Center City needs expanded services if it is going to thrive.

Having outgrown its rented space at 7th and Chestnut Streets, Independence Charter had been searching for months for its own building, preferably one with outdoor play space, when the Durham came on the market. Since ICS caters to kids whose parents live or work downtown, the school wanted a Center City location that was convenient to public transit. But the condo boom has made it nearly impossible for the non-profit, K-8 school to find affordable space anywhere near the center. So when the School Reform Commission decided earlier this year to sell Durham, Independence Charter thought it had found the solution to all its problems. Durham is not only a classic, early-20th Century schoolhouse, it comes with a huge playground.

ICS thought wrong. Rather than supporting the charter - and, by extension, Philadelphia's kids - the commission decided to cash in and sell to the highest bidder. The building was put up for auction. Not surprisingly, Independence Charter was outbid by real estate developer, Miles & Generalis, which wanted to use the property for condos. They offered $6 million, about $1 million above the charter's bid. Miles & Generalis have done some fine work converting factories and schools to condos. But with thousands of new residential units planned for Center City, it seemed foolish to pass up such an easy opportunity to improve neighborhood services. Center City's population is expected to grow by about 10,000 in the next decade. Yet City Hall is making little effort to provide amenities that will keep the neighborhood livable and viable - things like schools, parks, playgrounds, and pedestrian connections.

Things might have continued in their usual pre-ordained Philadelphia fashion. But the participants were suddendly gripped by a streak of public spirit. First, the Center City Residents Association decided to take up Independence Charter's cause. Because the CCRA is working on its own private master plan, it has come to understand how much the neighborhood needs a variety of education options. When CCRA objected to condos on that basis, Miles & Generalis graciously decided not to fight the neighborhood. Instead, the developer worked out an agreement that allows them to transfer the building to the charter school at cost. Independence will pay exactly what Miles & Generalis paid the school district - $6 million, plus transfer fees. Although the price is more than Independence wanted to pay, its board considers it a good deal at this point, given the location. The school has already hired the architects at the Schrader Group to design the renovations. Opening is now planned for September 2008. Moving to Durham will enable the charter - which has waiting list of 200 kids - to expand its enrollment from 600 to 720.

James Nevels, the chairman of the School Reform Commission, told me that he's thrilled with the outcome, although he initially felt the district needed to get the highest-possible price for Durham. This way, the district gets a market-rate price for Durham - plus it will get what is effectively a new public school without having to foot the bill for construction. Meanwhile, all those commuters who chose ICS because it is convenient to their jobs will still be able keep their kids in a Center City school. About 80 percent of ICS's students live outside of Center City. Another interesting thing about charters is that they're not bound by the same cumbersome bidding rules as the school district, so they can build at lower cost.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great news for Center City. Congratulations to all parties including the developer for backing out & the School District for making the right decision in the end.

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice job the site is better used as a school. 38 story or what ever sized tower M&G planned was foolish for that site. Inga, you mentioned 10,000 new center city residents; while that seems like a large number it could be 2 or 3 times that if Philadelphia could make a strategic plan to attract some jobs. Just look at downtown Jersey City which is expected to grow by 30,000 to 40,000 new residents and it is only half the size of center city with an expected downtown population of about 80,000 a decade from now. Jersey City has created 40,000 new jobs over the past decade. Philly could blow right past towns like Jersey City that have few amenities other than a couple of good restaurants and proximity to a large labor pool (NYC).

9:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe some of M&G's generosity comes from the fact there is no hope for more condo towers in Philly. There is no market.

9:03 AM  
Anonymous Terry Gillen said...

Thanks, Inga, for highlighting this issue earlier this year in your column. From someone who has been working on this even before CCRA got involved: last year, Vallas treated us with complete disdain. It's too bad the School District had to be draggged into doing the right thing. Fortunately our neighborhood had lots of activists and committeepeople who were willing to fight and a civic association that had done a strategic plan. I worry about other neighborhoods without those resources. They are left to deal with Paul Vallas alone.

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Vince Dean said...

I'm glad that the school was chjosen. I hope that will eliminate the ileagle use of the adjacent playground and sidewalk for the Tribune employee's parking !

8:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is important to note that Independence Charter is not the sort of amenity that will attract or keep most middle class parents of young children. Independence is not an improvement over Greenfield or Meredith, to which any parent in Center City can bank on sending their children.

Parents who aren't satisfied with the current public school offerings will not be satisfied with Independence either. Not even a little. So the options that were already available--private schools and the suburbs--are still the only options available. I would love to send my child to a public school, and I hope that the city's public schools--as reflected by annual test scores--improve enough to make it feasible.

This is a victory for parents in the city as a whole, largely meaningless to most parents of young children living in Center City. Every parent of a young child with whom I talked at the neighborhood meetings about the Durham School was clear about not planning to send their children to Independence Charter. Most of the people who voted for Durham to remain a school did not seem to have school age children. Neighbors who were considering moving to the Main Line to avoid the city's schools will not even blink at the move of Independence Charter.

So let's not pat our collective back too soon.

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is correct that Independence Charter will not attract or keep most middle class parents of young children because law requires Independence Charter to use a lottery for new student admissions. It is nonetheless certainly not too soon to pat the collective back precisely because the commmunity understood this issue. The word is spelled altruism.

It is not, however, solely a victory for the City as a whole because Independence IS an improvement over Greenfield. Higher test scores in just a few short years have resulted from smaller class sizes, more efficient / effective use of school tax dollars and a dedicated school community. Where's the problem in this picture?

Parents not satisfied? Talk to some Independence students' parents who actually live in (gasp!) Rittenhouse. Or some Penn professors whose children attend. Independence will probably give you contact information for such purpose. Go to an open house and see the children learning. The school seems to really work. Don't lump Independence into some weird charter stereotype - they are all different. Some are going to be high achievers. Independence is apparently one of them.

Sure, parents might or might not win the lottery and get their children into Independence Charter, but it will soon be another good educational option right in the neighborhood. Looks like a plus to me.

As to Greenfield, neighbors slowly and inexorably turned it into a self-fulfilling fear-of-a-black-planet prophecy and then Hornbeck downsized its achievement potential with his miserable one-size-fits-all philosophy.

Disclosure: I am not a parent of an Independence Charter student. I may consider their lottery and I may continue to pay through the nose for private school. Might depends on that next consulting job or coming to grips with the need to retire some day.


10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inga correctly points out the CCRA's involvement, but a great deal of credit is also due to 30th (Democratic) Ward representatives Terry Gillen and Dr. Marcia Wilkof who tenaciously kept monitoring the pulse of the community and rallyed them toward what they seemed to call out for. Very effective representation.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that Independence is a good school compared to most in Philadelphia. However, the test scores--which are a matter of Public Record indicate that at both the grade 3 and the grade 5 level students at Independence on average have less mastery of reading and math than students at Meredith or Greenfield. This isn't to say that either of those schools are stellar--far from it. And test scores aren't everything, either, but they can be enough.

Independence is a good option for many, but most parents who are not willing to send their child to Greenfield or Meredith will not be willing to send them to Independence either.

Indeed, altruism is a very good thing, and Independence is to be commended for doing a terrific job. It doesn't change the facts about school options in Philadelphia. The parents that I have spoken with would have preferred a condominium and townhouses. This is better for the city as a whole, though.

1:36 PM  

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