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Lab Charter relocation to East Falls is approved

The board voted 5-4 in favor of the move. East Falls resident Joyce Wilkerson cast the deciding vote.

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

Despite considerable community opposition, the Board of Education on Thursday voted 5-4 to approve relocating the middle grades of Laboratory Charter School to the former Medical College of Pennsylvania campus in East Falls.

The opposition centered on concerns that a charter could undermine hard-won progress at the local neighborhood elementary school, Thomas Mifflin, as well as issues with transportation and traffic. Opponents also said Lab’s administration had not made sufficient effort to conduct outreach in the community.

The deciding vote in favor was cast by Board President Joyce Wilkerson, a 30-year resident of East Falls who said she is a strong supporter of Mifflin, but had been swayed by changes in the application since Lab applied a year ago to move the entire K-8 school to the East Falls site.

Last April, the Board postponed Lab’s application indefinitely, primarily due to the community opposition.

But this year was different.

“This is my community. Mifflin is a jewel in our neighborhood. I’ve seen the school grow,” Wilkerson said, noting that she is now part of a senior citizens’ group, East Falls Village, whose members volunteer in the school. “I was particularly concerned that whatever goes into the community not compete with the wonderful progress and community support of Mifflin.”

Limiting the grades to 6-8 took care of that fear for her (Mifflin is a K-8 school) and also addressed the concerns about traffic, because older students would be traveling to school via public transportation, not school buses or private cars, Wilkerson said.

Another charter school on the sprawling site, Hebrew Public, which started with grades K-2 in 2018, has not attracted many neighborhood residents, Wilkerson said. At the same time, environmental and other building issues made Lab’s three current locations “inappropriate” for students.

“So,” she concluded, “it is fitting the board approve the move to the Henry Avenue site.”

Lab, whose official name is Laboratory Charter School of Communication & Languages, is currently spread among three campuses across the city, two in Overbrook and one in Northern Liberties. The board resolution also approved moving grades kindergarten through 5 to a building at 926 Sedgley Ave.

At the beginning of the meeting, Wilkerson announced that opponents presented a petition with 613 signatures opposing the move. There were 47 letters submitted against the move and only six in support.

The District’s Charter Schools Office had recommended the relocation, as it had last year.

Several people who spoke at the virtual meeting reiterated complaints that they have made for the entire year – that Lab Charter officials made little effort to engage the community and address their concerns, despite ample opportunity to do so.

Throughout, the relationship between the charter and the neighborhood has been testy, and it grew more charged this week.

Lab’s outreach “was perfunctory at best,” said Carla Lewandowski, whose three children attend Mifflin. “Despite knowing about this move since last July … they did not come to speak to our community until just last month.”

Alex Keating, who has two children at Mifflin, said that he attended that one meeting and assumed it was just a prelude to further outreach that would include a traffic impact study, among other forms of engagement.

“Needless to say, I was shocked when I found out that one month later the school board was voting on their application,” he said, explaining that he was “not a charter hater by any means. My wife is a longtime teacher at a charter school in Philadelphia,” but one located in an area where there are no other good District options.

Lewandowski also noted that the relocation would allow Lab to almost double its enrollment to nearly 1,100 students, which she and others have noted would drain dollars from the District at a time when it could ill afford it.

“Lab’s motivation is clear. The move will allow them to get more students. … What’s still not clear is how this will impact our thriving neighborhood school. This type of behavior and lack of outreach should not become the precedent for the interactions of future charters with potential neighbors.”

The four board members who voted against the move were Letitia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix-Lopez, Lee Huang, and Christopher McGinley.

“It is very clear to me that they have not done the local work in the community,” McGinley said.

Besides Wilkerson, Angela McIver, Maria McColgan, Wayne Walker, and Julia Danzy voted in favor.