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Powel-SLAMS construction project finally breaks ground

The new building, backed by a public-private partnership, will open in fall 2021.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes celebrates the groundbreaking with Powel and SLAMS students. (Photo: Bill Hangley)

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The glass half-full version: Two new public schools will open in West Philadelphia in 2021, backed by a host of government and corporate investors who say they’ve created a powerful template for future public-private partnerships.

And the glass half-empty: It took nine years to do it.

But despite the rainy, gray weather, lawmakers and officials focused on the positive Monday as they gathered to break ground for a new building to be shared by Powel Elementary and the Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLAMS). The two schools will share the site of the now-demolished University City High, a block north of Market Street in the heart of West Philadelphia’s growing science and technology sector.

Just getting the project to this point was an achievement, said John Grady of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC), the city’s community development bank.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of projects in the city of Philadelphia, and usually the more people involved, the less likely it is to happen,” Grady said.

But what will make the Powel/SLAMS project a long-term success, Grady and other officials said, was multiple partners’ “unwavering dedication” to the mission of creating a high-quality public school, open to all local residents.

At the top of that list, Grady said, was Drexel University president John Fry.

“He didn’t want it to be a charter school. He didn’t want it to be a private school,” Grady said. “He wanted it to be a neighborhood school where anyone from the community could come.”

The new Powel/SLAMS building will be ready for occupation in fall 2021. At Monday’s groundbreaking, officials praised the project as one that will allow West Philadelphia residents to tap into the wealth and opportunity created by the community’s growing academic and tech industries. Teachers and school leaders said they can’t wait to get into new spaces built specifically for them.

Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLAMS) student Nyla Williams speaks at the groundbreaking. (Photo: Bill Hangley)

“An opportunity to have a building that can accommodate us is huge,” said longtime Powel principal Kimberly Ellerbee.

“We are family, and family means home,” said SLAMS student Nyla Williams.

A long process comes to a close

The Powel/SLA project was crafted to simultaneously address the needs of the community’s families and its growing cluster of academic and scientific institutions, anchored by Drexel University.

Planning and financing the $40 million project involved a range of philanthropies and institutions, including the Lenfest Foundation, the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), the AFL-CIO, and corporate supporters, including PNC Bank and PECO/Exelon. Support included $7 million in District funds; $7 million from the real estate investment firm Ventas; $3 million from Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program; and $1.8 million from PSP.

The project also included a variety of tax breaks from the state and city. On hand for the groundbreaking was Mayor Kenney, who called the new school a symbol of the city’s commitment to its youngest residents.

“We really want to see you do well,” Kenney said. “Your job now is to study – please do your best.”

Superintendent William Hite called Monday’s groundbreaking a welcome celebration at a time when the District is confronted with a number of controversies.

“These are the types of press events I enjoy,” he joked.

Hite said the new schools will advance two key District goals – expanding the “innovation network” of schools that includes other SLA schools and the Workshop School, and providing a clear K-8 feeder pattern for the residents of University City, including the neighborhoods of Powelton Village and Mantua. “People wanted a system in place where students could continue from the 1st to the 8th grade,” he said.

Ellerbee, who has been involved in the project since it began, confirmed that for local families, a clear feeder pattern was a priority from the earliest discussions. They wanted a clear middle school option for Powel students, she said, but didn’t want Powel to expand its K-4 configuration to become a K-8 school. The plan that has resulted, she said, will accommodate Powel’s need for a “nurturing, student-focused” elementary school environment, as well as SLA’s needs for its project-based middle school learning model.

The two schools will share their new building, Ellerbee said, using separate floors and entrances for each school. Both will use some facilities, such as the lunchroom and library. Students from Powel – which will keep its unusual K-4 configuration – will automatically qualify for seats in SLA’s expanded middle school, serving grades 5-8.

The new arrangement will spare Powel parents the longstanding challenge of finding another elementary school for 5th grade before finding a middle school, Ellerbee said. It will also expand Powel from its current 250 students to as many as 400.

Ellerbee said the expansion will take place in stages, so as not to disrupt Powel with a huge influx of new students.

“It’s always a concern to preserve school culture,” she said. “It’s a matter of maintaining as you grow.”

For Drexel, the project continues its effort to simultaneously expand its institutional footprint and improve its connections with the community around it. Fry said that the long-term goal is for the young people of West Philadelphia to enjoy the fruits of Drexel’s growth and that of the tech industry around it.

“It all comes back to the children and families who have waited so patiently for this day,” Fry said. “I hope this school inspires you to dream big. … Great careers lie ahead of you [as] innovators yourselves in a changing economy.”

Opportunity – and perhaps disruption

The day’s groundbreaking was one of the final public acts of outgoing City Council member Jannie Blackwell, and her colleagues didn’t miss the chance to praise her contributions to the growth of University City.

Bill Hangley / The Notebook

Appearing at the groundbreaking were (from left) Mayor Kenney, Drexel University president John Fry, Superintendent William Hite, Councilmember Jannie Blackwell, State Sen. Vincent Hughes, SLAMS student Nyla Williams, and Powel Elementary principal Kimberly Ellerbee. (Photo: Bill Hangley)

“Everything you see here around you, if she doesn’t bless it, it doesn’t get done. … Councilwoman, I can’t thank you enough,” said State Sen. Vince Hughes.

Blackwell, who will step down in January after representing the district for decades, was on hand for the 1972 groundbreaking of the now-demolished University City High, which closed in 2013. She recalled a similar optimism when University City High opened and hopes that the new Powel/SLAMS partnership brings new opportunities and growth.

“People move here not only for the quality of housing stock, but for the quality of education. What we’re doing makes a difference,” Blackwell said.

However, she also knows that displacement and disruption can be the unintended consequence of school improvements. The better the neighborhood schools are, she said, the more appealing communities become to prosperous outsiders. That, in turn, can boost rents and property values, she said, and transform neighborhoods in unwelcome ways.

“You have to worry about gentrification,” said Blackwell. “A lot of African Americans are moving [out] because they can get a good price for their home. We do not want that. I do worry about that.”

However, Hughes said that the public-private approach that produced the Powel/SLAMS project can and should be replicated in other parts of the city. School officials have said that private-sector funding has been vital to the improvements now being planned for Powel, and Hughes wants to see the same approach taken elsewhere.

“This is the road map to building schools across Philadelphia,” Hughes said. “This project is bigger than the 500 students that will be educated here. … Every student should have an opportunity to be educated in a 21st-century school.”

One neighborhood that would be a candidate for such partnerships, Hughes said, could be North Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion. There, a rapidly changing area is drawing growing numbers of Temple University students and other outsiders, even as longtime residents demand better-quality school options, while an enormous high school is being under-used.

“All kinds of stuff is happening in that corridor,” said Hughes. “And I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but what are we going to do with Overbrook?” That West Philadelphia community has a similar profile to Mansion, Hughes said: underutilized neighborhood school, an important and growing institutional partner nearby (St. Joseph University), and constituents who have long hungered for improved options near home.

Although nine years is too long, Hughes said, future partnerships could be developed much more quickly, now that the template has been established.

“We’ve talked about getting it down to three to five years,” Hughes said. “We want to challenge everybody else to step up. West is best, and we’re showing you the way.”

However, replicating the Powel/SLAMS deal will not be easy, officials said.

“How many partners does it take? Turns out, a lot,” said PSP’s Mark Gleason. PSP’s initial investment got the project off the ground, he said, but it took multiple players and countless meetings to bring it in for a landing.

Fry agreed that there was nothing simple about the project’s mix of grants, donations, tax breaks, and public funds.

“The financial architecture … was incredibly complicated,” he said.

But he also thinks that the basic concept is a replicable one that can help other neighborhoods. “It is meant to be a template, not a one-and-done,” Fry said.

The Powel/SLAMS building will be owned by Drexel and leased to the District for a nominal annual fee of $12 a year. The site will be shared by three other buildings now in the works, including a new Drexel academic tower, an office/lab building, and a residential space.

And although it remains to be seen if similar projects will take root soon, students and staff from Powel and SLAMS are eager to end their various journeys through temporary spaces and settle into their new homes. Ellerbee said that the sight of Monday’s blue-and-gold ceremonial shovels inspired her to pursue one of her own visions.

“I’d been thinking about changing our school colors to gold and blue, and that’s the color the shovels are,” she said with a smile.

And SLAMS’ Meredith Martin, a teacher who has been with the school since it was founded, said that her school already knows what it will do with the day’s souvenirs.

“I’m super excited. It was definitely worth the wait,” she said. “We still have the big giant scissors from the first grand opening, and the pen we used to sign our first checks. Now we’ve got the construction helmet and the shovel, and we’ll make a big display.”

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