Back to feature: The Education of Pedro Ramos

The Community’s Schoolhouse
Enrollment will be diverse, class sizes small and public
spaces generous at the Penn-assisted school that's soon
to be under construction.

Photo by Bill Cramer

By Susan Lonkevich

The shovels haven’t hit the dirt yet, but plans to open a new, Penn-assisted public school in West Philadelphia next fall are moving forward. And as part of this project, the University recently announced an expanded set of initiatives to aid existing schools in the neighborhood.
   
In July the Philadelphia Board of Education approved a racially and economically diverse enrollment area for the new pre-K-8 school, ending months of debate about who will attend. Construction begins this fall for the $21 million, 100,000-square-foot facility, which will feature smaller class sizes and serve as a hub for teachers’ professional development as well as a community center.
   
“It is quite clear that no catchment area can ever please everyone,” notes Stephen Schutt L’83, vice president and chief of staff for University president Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66. “But I do think this one is thoughtful and well-considered by the school board. It’s truly about as diverse an area as one can imagine.” What Penn didn’t want, he says, was for enrollment to be determined by lottery. “We didn’t feel that was a fair or appropriate way to build community in University City.”
   
Next September three classes each of kindergartners and first-graders will start school on the site, at 42nd and Locust streets, using existing, renovated buildings. The new school should be complete around February 2002, and it will reach full enrollment over the next few years. (Penn will build the facility under what’s known as a “turnkey developer” arrangement, getting repaid by the district when the keys are turned over upon completion.)
   
Under an agreement with the school district, Penn will provide $700,000 a year for 10 years for its operation, and the Graduate School of Education will contribute academic support and training.
   
But under the latest plan for the school’s development, the University also will give $1.5 million over three years to the aging Lea Elementary School—just four blocks away—to help reduce its class sizes, support its new library and make other improvements.
   
In addition, Penn has secured commitments from two other institutions to assist local schools. Drexel University has agreed to work with Powel Elementary School and the University of the Sciences will work with Wilson Elementary School.
   
And, following through on an earlier pledge, Penn reached an agreement with the University City Science Center to provide land at 38th and Market streets for the construction, starting in the fall of 2002, of a new facility for George Washington Carver High School for Engineering and Science.
   
“Everyone who’s been involved in this project agreed from the very beginning that we did not want to create a single, isolated, privileged school,” explains Schutt, who serves on the project’s coordinating committee. “We wanted to introduce a new school into the neighborhood that could become part of the network of existing schools and provide broader enhancements and improvements to public education throughout University City.” As planning progressed, he says, “It became apparent that the existing schools needed significant help themselves.”
   
With a 700-student limit for the new school, many local residents were worried that the enrollment issue would divide the community and put neighbors’ children in starkly different learning environments from one another. Amy Williams, a West Philadelphia resident speaking on behalf of the University City Community Council Committee on Education, said the new plan “significantly addresses our concerns,” but warned the group will continue to monitor its progress. ”We expect to see all of the commitments which are stated in this proposal implemented in a timely fashion,” she said during the school board meeting at which the plan was announced.
   
Of the school-age children in the attendance zone, 55.9 percent are African American, 19.8 percent are Asian, 18.3 percent are white, 5 percent are Hispanic and 1 percent are Native American. The median household income for the total area is about $25,000.
   
With its northern boundary at Sansom Street, the enrollment area goes up as far west as 47th and as far east as 40th, then zigzags past Baltimore Avenue for up to several blocks on the southern end. School district officials say the plan achieves the diversity both the district and Penn were looking for, and alleviates some of the overcrowding in other West Philadelphia classrooms.
   
Board of Education President Pedro Ramos C’87 says the project is significant on a number of levels—not the least of which is Penn’s choice to build a public rather than a private school. In addition, he says, Penn’s investment “gives us an opportunity to demonstrate that, with some additional resources, public schools could do a lot more.”
   
Construction was scheduled to start in March, but got delayed, Schutt explains, when it became apparent the original design would be too expensive, due to rising construction costs. “So we had to go back to the drawing board,” he says, “and I think we did it incredibly successfully,” preserving the important elements of the original design.
   
Planning for the new school has been an intensive process, involving the recommendations of three planning committees composed of University and school district staff members, parents and neighborhood residents, as well as more informal input by the public.

Education
“This is going to be a school where the teachers are learners,” says Dr. Susan Fuhrman, dean of the Graduate School of Education and another member of the coordinating committee. This should be happening at all schools, she adds, but here it will be emphasized at every turn.
   
Teachers might come together in a video lab at the school to watch a taped or live broadcast of a classroom demonstration given by one of their peers. Or a less-experienced teacher could spend several weeks working with a mentor on a problem area. Educators throughout West Philadelphia will come on-site for workshops or spend time in residencies there to bring back ideas for their own schools.
   
“Professional development is going to be woven into the very fabric of this school,” adds Dr. Nancy Streim, associate dean of the Graduate School of Education and chair of the educational-program committee. “Professionals in all fields need opportunities to keep up with the current literature and techniques, and to collaborate with their colleagues and peers,” she says. “But there have not been as many opportunities for educators to do that.”
   
Streim envisions the new school as a place which will use the community as a laboratory for learning, provide students with a technology-rich environment and possibly group students in a couple of grades together for better continuity in instruction. “Rather than sending kids on a field trip twice a year, we’re imagining the children using resources in the community on a regular basis, whether it’s University facilities, parks or cultural institutions,” Streim says. She also expects members of the community to come into the school regularly. “One could imagine that a small-business owner in West Philadelphia might work with a group of middle-school students on applied math and basic economics issues, or the University City Arts League might offer some of their activities to children in the school.”
   
The concept of multiple-age groupings, she says, recognizes the fact that children learn at different paces, and it allows individual learning to “occur at its own trajectory.” Because they would be with the same small group of children for two years, teachers could get to know their students better.
   
“To break down some of the traditional boundaries” of learning, Streim’s committee also advocates extended-day and year-round schooling. Just as valid as the math lesson held during school hours, she points out, may be the time students spend at 4 p.m. in the studio with resident artists.
   
The search for a school principal will begin this fall and core staff will be hired after that. Streim says they’ll be looking for candidates who are not just well-qualified in their “content areas,” but who also have experience with using technology or leading professional-
development programs for their peers.

Design
“Learning and education,” says Stephen Schutt, “have truly driven the process of school design. The architectural plans are the work of Tony Atkin GAr’74, an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Fine Arts who is with the Philadelphia firm Atkin Olshin Lawson-Bell.
   
Tom Lussenhop, managing director of institutional real estate for the University and a co-chair of the new school’s facility/site committee, notes some of the highlights, which include places for teachers to retire to discuss professional development; more classrooms than in a typical school to accommodate the lower student-teacher ratio; and generous-sized classrooms to “permit an easy flow of professionals in and out of the room in a way that doesn’t interrupt the class.”
   
Natural features will be retained where possible on the school property, providing both recreational outlets and opportunities for the occasional outdoor biology lesson, he says. “There is not just one playground. There are multiple outdoor spaces that the building opens up onto.”
   
In contrast to what one might find in a traditional school, this building also will feature a mix of assembly spaces—“sort of public squares, if you will—within the school,” Lussenhop says. “Flexibility is the key word in all of this.” An atrium at the front of the building, a large
seminar room on the third floor, a cafeteria, and a combined gym/auditorium will provide places for students, staff and the community to gather.

Community
Planners envision that the new school will offer a range of recreational opportunities and services to the community, from computer training and arts classes to day-care, parent-education programs and home-ownership workshops. It could also be a venue for civic forums, musical presentations and club meetings.
   
“As close as we can get to this, we really would like this to be a 24-hour-a-day facility,” says Schutt. The idea of a school that is a center for community activity “has been a driving force for this project from the start.”
   
The Parent-Infant Center, which currently operates day care on the school site, will continue to do so and will likely expand its services. (Another tenant on the site, the Penn Children’s Center, has been relocated.)
   
“It’s been part of a vision of University-community relations that Judith Rodin brought to the University when she came here in 1995 that we establish a place of this sort,” Schutt says.
“I think the benefits of that for the University will be a stronger, more vibrant community at our doorstep, and I think the benefit to the community will be a more engaged university participating in its affairs and activities. And I think everyone is going to benefit as a result of that.”

Back to feature: The Education of Pedro Ramos

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