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The charter school goes upmarket with opening of two suburban-style campuses in Northeast Philadelphia | Inga Saffron

Once housed in dowdy buildings, charters now offer expansive playing fields, fireplaces in the library, and Ninja Warrior-themed gyms.

The new MaST Community Charter School in Tacony is on the Delaware waterfront in Tacony, on the site of the former Dodge Steel plant, and has the feel of a suburban campus.
The new MaST Community Charter School in Tacony is on the Delaware waterfront in Tacony, on the site of the former Dodge Steel plant, and has the feel of a suburban campus.Read moreAndrew Donaldson-Evans

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been two decades since the first charter schools opened in Philadelphia. In the early years, those newly minted institutions tended to burrow into buildings that had seen better days — shuttered district schools, Class B offices, old car dealerships. Their main attraction was supposed to be their educational approach, not their facilities.

Maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel right calling the two new locations that MaST Community Charter will open this fall in Northeast Philadelphia “schools.” Set on lushly landscaped, amenity-packed campuses, they might be better described as total educational environments. Whatever you think of the charter movement, the quality of the new designs ups the game for public education in Philadelphia.

MaST II in Tacony, which began holding classes this week, occupies a rise overlooking the Delaware, on what was, until 1986, the home of the Dodge steelworks. Although the surrounding area remains largely industrial, it’s easy to forget where you are when you look out the windows of the soaring, second-floor media center. Freshly sodded playing fields fan out toward the water and the lacy Tacony-Palmyra Bridge rises up in a grand jeté as it leaps across the river.

MaST’s second new campus, called MaST III, may be even more impressive. The school, which opens Sept. 16, took over the former headquarters of Crown Cork & Seal, a Fortune 500 company that quietly slipped out of town last year. MaST got a deal on the company’s 41-acre, Roosevelt Boulevard campus, which comes with walking paths, a pond and an arboretum’s worth of mature trees. With a few deft tweaks, architects at Ewing Cole were able to covert the corporate offices into sun-soaked classrooms for grades K-12. MaST barely had to touch the company cafeteria and fitness center to make them fit its program.

If you haven’t heard of MaST — which stands for Math, Science, and Technology — it happens to be among the best-rated schools in Philadelphia. While not at the level of Masterman, the district’s top performer, it was one of two Philadelphia schools (along with McCall Elementary, a district school) to receive a National Blue Ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education in 2017.

Those campuses bring the number of MaST locations to five and will allow its student population to grow to 4,500, the size of some suburban districts. The amenities that students will find at the new campuses are on par with many of those suburban schools, too.

In the last few years, several other Philadelphia charter schools have acquired sparkling new buildings. String Theory has established several locations, including one in the former SmithKline office building on Vine Street. Wissahickon Charter built a handsome building near Awbury Arboretum in Germantown. What MaST’s new locations have is land, lots of land. For the first time, MaST will have regulation-size fields for sports, playgrounds, and outdoor space for wellness activities, along with specialized rooms for science, engineering, music, art and reading classes.

MaST’s buildings aren’t so much fancy as they are smart. The Tacony project came in at a relatively modest $20 million. That includes the cost of covering the 19-acre industrial site (which had already undergone remediation for toxic chemicals) with two feet of clean fill. Like most charter schools, the project was funded with bonds, issued by the nonprofit foundation that oversees MaST.

What makes the Tacony building special is the light, which pours into every classroom and social space through 14-foot-high windows. The structure, designed by Ewing Cole’s Andrew Donaldson-Evans, is faced in gray, corrugated metal, a nod to the site’s industrial heritage. Bright yellow trim, especially on the rooftop air-handling equipment, gives it a jaunty, maritime feel.

MaST, like other schools with STEM curriculums, is big on makers spaces. There are large, open-plan areas throughout the building where students can build robots, work on mathematically challenging Lego projects, and get together for team projects. The heart of the building is the media center, a 21st-century version of the library that cuts diagonally through the school, energizing the entire space.

While there is no gym yet, it will come in Phase II, when a companion building goes up on west side of the site, facing I-95. Although MaST is required to accept students from all over city, it has forged a special connection with Tacony, located just on the other side of the highway. To encourage its Tacony students to walk to school, MaST built a sidewalk along Magee Avenue and installed a traffic light at the intersection with New State Road. That sidewalk also provides access to the K&T river trail, which now terminates at Magee Avenue.

As beautiful as the grounds are at MaST’s two Northeast sites, they are not easy to reach by public transit. Most students will have to come by bus or car. That hasn’t stopped 27,000 students for applying for the 900 spots available this year at the Crown campus. The trade-off of the difficult location is a cloistered environment that encourages learning. MaST offers a long list of extracurricular activities. “Our goal is to get every kid to stay until 6 p.m.,” the school’s CEO, John Swoyer, told me.

You can imagine how that might be possible at MaST’s Crown campus on Roosevelt Boulevard, where the renovation was overseen by Ewing Cole’s Keith Fallon. With nearly 240,000 square feet of space, MaST was able to install special features like a Ninja Warrior gym course. It plans to build a separate gym on the parking lot, along with an educational garden. The media center here is even bigger than the one in Tacony and includes electric fireplaces in the reading area.

How did MaST manage to build such well-equipped buildings when the Philadelphia School District’s regular schools struggle to keep lead paint chips from raining down on students in aging buildings. “It’s become a tale of two cities, where some schools are clawing along and then you see these castles,” observed Lisa Haver, a cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.

Unlike the district, charter schools aren’t saddled with legacy costs. They don’t have to maintain needy older buildings or support ballooning pension costs. Even though MaST’s Crown campus sprawls across 41 acres, the entire project cost $34 million (including the $13.7 million to buy the property). For comparison’s sake, the school district is spending $50 million to construct a new Solis-Cohen school in Northeast Philadelphia. Solis-Cohen also sits on a large site and will have ample outdoor space, but it is costing more partly because of state-imposed bidding rules. That building, which will house grades K to 5, will have just 140,000 square feet of space, about half of MaST III.

One of the reasons that the school district has encouraged MaST’s expansion is that it can help relieve the overcrowding in Northeast schools, which are bursting at the seams thanks to a neighborhood population boom. MaST has been criticized in the past for being too white, but Swoyer says it is working on achieving a better racial balance. Under the terms of its charter, the Crown campus on Roosevelt Boulevard is required to take half its students from four disadvantaged neighborhoods: Frankford, Olney, Logan, and Tioga. Swoyer said he expects MaST to end up with a student mix that is roughly equal parts white, black, Asian and Latino, making it more diverse than many Philadelphia schools.

Those students will likely have to endure a long bus journey to both MaST schools. But when they arrive at its Tacony and Crown schools, they will find themselves in places where the opportunities are as vast as the campuses. If only every school in Philadelphia could offer students as much.