West Philly’s Powel school gets grant to look at adding grade

Posted: September 25, 2012

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

They got a boost Monday when the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) awarded Powel a grant to plan to add a fifth grade and develop a brand-new middle school modeled after Science Leadership Academy (SLA), one of the city's top schools. Drexel University will partner with Powel and SLA to help plan the school, which would likely be on the same campus as Powel, perhaps in the nearby 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, has funded a Philadelphia School District project. PSP has raised more than $50 million in two years, but had given money only to charter and private schools in its quest to expand high-quality educational choices for city 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, referring to the district's recent leadership changes, financial turmoil, and moves to close schools.

School Reform Commission (SRC) Chairman Pedro Ramos stressed that no expansion plans had been approved and that Powel's grant was for planning only.

But "from what we know, it's conceptually intriguing," Ramos said, and even as the district plans to close schools, its leaders want to develop successful schools.

Powel principal Kimberly Ellerbee was ecstatic Monday. When she told one parent in the hallway of the school on North 36th Street, the mother had tears in her eyes.

The school hopes to add a fifth grade next fall, and if the SRC signs off, a middle school would open in 2014. It's not a sure thing, Gleason said, but the district has shown interest in the concept.

SLA, the innovative project-based magnet high school that has earned national attention since it 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."

Powel, which has 260 students, most of whom are poor, was among the elite crop of 33 schools district-wide that met their goals on the 2012 state reading and math exams.

Even so, lacking strong middle-grades options was becoming a problem. Powel feeds to the nearby Middle Years Academy, a school some parents do not feel comfortable sending their children to.

"It was becoming a dissuasion in some cases for parents to enroll their children at Powel. They felt like maybe they would be stuck," Ellerbee said. Many Powel parents hope to get their children into Masterman, Conwell, or GAMP, magnets that start at fifth grade, but 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," Gleason said.

The move gives Powel 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.

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," she 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."

Gleason said that if the organization liked Powel's growth plan and the SRC signs off on it, PSP would consider a grant to get the new middle school off the ground.

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

PSP on Monday also awarded a $75,000 planning grant to Wissahickon Charter, a high-performing school that is opening a second campus in Northwest Philadelphia.

Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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