Changing Skyline: Bolstering school for the neighborhood

The landscape architecture firm has developed a master plan for Chester A. Arthur's schoolyard at 20th and Catharine, which calls for an underground storm-water management system, a running track, and a multipurpose play area. Olin
The landscape architecture firm has developed a master plan for Chester A. Arthur's schoolyard at 20th and Catharine, which calls for an underground storm-water management system, a running track, and a multipurpose play area. Olin (Olin)
Posted: July 06, 2013

It's not easy being a parent in Philadelphia. Every day, you hear more bad news about funding cuts for the beleaguered schools. But sending the kids to private school would be like taking on a second mortgage. Besides, you're already bracing for a whammy hit when the city's new property-tax system kicks in.

You could, of course, pack up and move to the suburbs, like generations of urban pioneers before you. The problem is, you like living in the city: There's the diverse mix of neighbors; the summer block party; the sleek, new cafe; the great playground; the riverfront trail; the museums. It's nice being able to walk to everything. If only there were a way to make the school thing work.

It's a lament that has plagued Philadelphia's middle-class neighborhoods for decades. Usually, it's the suburbs that win the argument.

But, despite some very bad odds, that is not what is happening right now in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood.

Rather than looking elsewhere for better schools, a determined group of families has started a nonprofit to improve the quality of the one where they already live, Chester A. Arthur at 20th and Catharine. We're not just talking about raising field-trip money, either.

Forget the doomsday budget and the worst school-funding crisis in city history. Forget the outrage over the new AVI tax structure. "We have no interest in moving to the suburbs," says Ivy Olesh, an economic development consultant who helped start Friends of Chester Arthur and is now president.

So far, the group has amassed almost $350,000 for enrichment programs, after-school clubs, and physical improvements to the school, where 89 percent of the students are poor enough to qualify for reduced-price lunch. The Friends have plans to pump in an additional $2 million, with the hope that more middle-class residents in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood will stick around and enroll their children.

With the state seemingly unwilling, and the city unable, to help the Philadelphia School District out of its financial hole, the Friends group has assembled an impressive roster of private funders to fill the breach: Wells Fargo, Keystone Mercy, Pennoni Engineers, Olin Landscape Architects, Drexel University, and Children's Hospital. Their donations, both cash and in-kind, have enabled the Friends to build the school's first playground, hire the Walnut Street Theatre to manage a drama program, and buy supplies for the school's Civil Engineering Club.

Graduate Hospital - the name of the area below South Street and west of Broad - is hardly the first neighborhood where residents have rallied to help their schools plug funding gaps. Stanton, at 17th and Christian, has a devoted parents group, as do well-regarded Center City schools such as Greenfield and Meredith. Silent-auction fund-raisers help many a Philadelphia school buy the occasional extra.

But there are differences at Chester Arthur. One is the scale of the Friends' effort. The other is that most of the volunteers don't have school-age children - yet.

Because of the speed with which the neighborhood has gentrified in the last decade, the area is dominated by freshly minted families, people mainly in their 30s. A play group started by the Friends counts more than 50 toddlers who would start kindergarten in 2017.

A decade or two ago, a similar cohort probably would have taken a cold-eyed look at its options. But "we started having conversations," Olesh recounts, and "it turned out we were all like-minded people who wanted to stay in the city and believe in public schools."

Then, a light went on in everyone's head simultaneously, and "we realized we didn't have to move to the suburbs if we didn't want to," she says.

That was four years ago. Before Olesh herself was even pregnant with her first child. Before she had even set foot in Chester Arthur.

When she did, she discovered that the tidy, redbrick school was doing pretty well on its own. It is a small school, with just 210 students through eighth grade, and a strong core of supportive parents, says Mike Franklin, a math teacher who is the official liaison to the Friends.

Chester Arthur has met the "No Child Left Behind" standards for three years, and frequently sends graduates to the city's most prestigious high schools. Like most Philadelphia schools, though, it lacks the kind of extras suburban schools take for granted.

Chester Arthur does not offer music instruction. There is no librarian to run the library, no guidance counselor, and the nurse is there only two days a week. Teachers must pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, and the school relies on grants to pay for field trips. It can't even afford plastic for its laminating machine.

To demonstrate their commitment, the Friends organized daily tutoring sessions. With the first $100,000 they raised, they installed play equipment in the school's cracked asphalt lot. Because many children in the school are diagnosed with autism, the Friends also created a quiet garden in one of the school's courtyards.

Using professional connections, the group got the landscape architecture firm Olin to develop a master plan to green the schoolyard. They just received a $232,000 grant from the city Water Department to construct the foundation, an underground storm-water management system. They're working on raising $2 million to complete the plan, which calls for a running track and multipurpose play area.

In many ways, what's happening at Chester Arthur foreshadows the future of public education in Philadelphia, with schools increasingly dependent on private donors for all but basics. That works in a neighborhood of rising affluence like Graduate Hospital. But where does that leave schools in the rest of the city?

There's no guarantee, either, that all the Graduate Hospital families who say they plan to send their kids to Chester Arthur will follow through. Next year, the small school will become a much bigger one when it absorbs 130 children from the shuttered Walter G. Smith School in nearby Point Breeze.

Olesh remains optimistic.

"Even if half the kids in the play group enroll, that's a lot."


Contact Inga Saffron at ingasaffron@gmail.com, 215-854-2213 and on Twitter @ingasaffron. Read more about architecture and planning on the Built page, inquirer.com/local/built/.

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