Scores of charter school supporters, wearing identical red T-shirts and holding up "Vote Yes" signs, stood silent and stone-faced as the SRC roll call fell vote by vote - then they collapsed into one another's arms, some crying, some cheering.
"It's a big step forward for the people of Chinatown," said AAU executive director Ellen Somekawa.
The Folk Arts-Community Treasures Charter School - FACTS for short - will operate in a warehouse-style building near 11th and Callowhill Streets. AAU leaders expect to sign a lease immediately and begin classes this fall.
Charter schools are independent public schools, funded by taxpayers but designed and run by groups of parents, educators and community leaders. FACTS will serve 286 children in kindergarten through fifth grade, using folk arts - everything from African dance to Chinese opera - to help youngsters discover the value of their own and other cultures.
Special classes will help children learn English - crucial as Chinatown shoulders a steady influx of newcomers, particularly from Fujian province on China's southeast coast.
If the school enrolls 286 students, it would receive at least $1.8 million in taxpayer funds, based on the current funding formula.
For 150 years, since the first Cantonese immigrants settled along Race Street, Chinatown has had but one school: Holy Redeemer, the beloved Roman Catholic school that opened, along with the church, in 1941. Children whose families can't afford private tuition usually attend McCall Elementary School, a mile south of Chinatown.
Yesterday's vote came after weeks of bitter and sometimes personal debate, a fight that laid bare the divisions within Chinatown.
Leaders of the Philadelphia Chinatown Community Development Corp. argued that a charter school was unnecessary, that it would drain students from Holy Redeemer and McCall. Board member Cecilia Moy Yep accused AAU of causing contention in the community, "with vague promises and misstatements of fact," and warned that AAU would indoctrinate children in "an ideology of protest."
AAU never really fired back at the development corporation, making its case directly to the reform commission through petitions and letters; through the support of leaders such as the Rev. Robert Shine, former president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity; and by arguing that a neighborhood's unanimity - or lack thereof - was no measure of its need.
In the end, the vote wasn't even close - commissioners James Gallagher, Martin Bednarek, Daniel Whelan and chairman James Nevels voted in favor, while Sandra Dungee Glenn was absent.
Nevels directed school district chief executive Paul Vallas to personally marshal the project, given its controversy. "I think the community is going to come together," Vallas said, promising to meet soon with Chinatown leaders.
Later, Vallas said the district is considering whether to create a dual-language Chinatown high school, which could open with a class of ninth graders as early as next year.
That plan is uncertain. What's sure is that, starting today, AAU has about five months to create a school from scratch.
"We have so much support - I know we'll be able to do this," said AAU board member Deborah Wei. "This whole thing is about building something beautiful for the children."
Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2810 or email@example.com.