This March, parents who were prepared to wait in line for days to register their kindergarteners for Penn Alexander School began lobbying for an expansion of the school — and of the partnership with the University of Pennsylvania that has helped it become West Philly’s premier option for public education. Now, they may get the next-best thing. Nearby Henry C. Lea Elementary has quietly launched a partnership with Penn that will provide a “new level of resources” to Lea, according to Caroline Watts, coordinator of the brand new Penn-Lea partnership. But Penn’s challenge may be how to support Lea without stoking fears of a university takeover.
One thing is clear: Those new resources are badly needed. As schools citywide brace themselves for belt-tightening under a “doomsday” budget, Lea is facing reductions in personnel and extracurriculars. And after the closure of Wilson Elementary this year, Lea will be expected to take on about 125 additional students. “The situation in the School District really requires all of us in the city of Philadelphia to respond,” Watts says.
Penn now heads 23 different school-day and after-school programs at Lea, a third of which were created last year. Penn will be “more engaged in Lea over time,” Watts says, but plans for specific projects and financial support are in flux. The school and Penn are meeting monthly to “figure out what the needs are going to be next year,” says Maurice Jones, the volunteer school president and a Lea parent. Not coincidentally, a new principal is being installed. Replacing Lisa Bell-Chiles, Lea’s principal since 2007, is Wilson principal Sonya Harrison, who received a doctorate in education from Penn in 2012. The district appointed her based on recommendations from a committee of 10, including two Penn representatives.
The university is stepping up in response to requests from community groups. The West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, which has implemented a plan to “green” Lea’s schoolyard, sought Penn’s support. Amara Rockar, president of the coalition, stressed that it is “very conscious of being respectful of the community.” The group’s website notes that, if it succeeds in its goals for Lea, “most of its families will still be African-American and will still be working and lower-middle class.”
Gentrification is a touchy subject in this neighborhood. Housing prices in the Penn Alexander catchment quadrupled in the past decade, while the number of black students in the school declined by half. At Penn Alexander, one in six students is black; four blocks away at Lea, nine out of 10 are.
Penn’s relationships with Lea and Penn Alexander have long been intertwined. In the 1960s, Penn had a close partnership with Lea. That was eventually scaled down. Says Jones, “They wanted something where they had more control, so they built Penn Alexander [in 2002].” At the time, he says, it raised eyebrows. People asked, “Why don’t you build your relationship back up with Lea instead of building another school?” And, in fact, Penn was Lea’s district-appointed Educational Management Organization from 2003 to 2011.
Now, Penn is treading carefully, positioning itself as non-intrusive benefactor. “This is an existing school, an existing community,” Watts says. “We aren’t developing something from scratch.”
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