As a backhoe rumbled in the background, officials Monday trumpeted the start of a $40 million construction project they said would provide a template for the city and the Philadelphia School District.

Powel Elementary and Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLAMS) will rise at 36th and Filbert Streets in University City, the product of a complicated funding structure that brings in public and private money in a deal arranged by Drexel University.

“Nothing is more important than what’s happening here,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), who helped attract state dollars for the building. “This is the road map of how corporate and philanthropic and community can come together to not just stop here, but to build numerous other schools all across the city of Philadelphia.”

John Fry, Drexel’s president, began discussing the possibility of the university’s partnering with the district for a neighborhood school nine years ago. On Monday, he turned over a shovelful of dirt on a project that he hailed as “transformational.”

The construction site at 36th and Filbert in Philadelphia's University City, where a new building for two schools, Powel Elementary and Science Leadership Academy Middle School, will be built. Drexel University brokered a deal to bring together public and private money to build the $40 million structure, scheduled for completion in 2021.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
The construction site at 36th and Filbert in Philadelphia's University City, where a new building for two schools, Powel Elementary and Science Leadership Academy Middle School, will be built. Drexel University brokered a deal to bring together public and private money to build the $40 million structure, scheduled for completion in 2021.

“We can make a difference in the life of this neighborhood,” Fry said at a news conference at which more than 100 dignitaries, developers, and students crowded into a heated tent to cheer for the project.

In addition to $7 million in School District money, the project came together with federal tax credits, and philanthropic support from the Lenfest Foundation, Peco, real estate investment trust firm Ventas, and others. (The Lenfest Foundation is not tied to the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit that owns The Inquirer.)

The state also released $3 million from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. Drexel is providing the land and bridge financing to accommodate donors’ payment schedules.

The 87,000-square-foot, two-story building is scheduled to open in 2021, with SLAMS expected to move into the second floor at the beginning of the year and Powel to follow that summer. The School District will pay Drexel a $12 annual fee to lease the structure for 35 years and will foot the bill for operational costs, capital improvements, and repairs.

Drexel University President John Fry addresses those gathered on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, for the ground-breaking of a $40 million structure housing two schools at 37th and Filbert Streets.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Drexel University President John Fry addresses those gathered on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, for the ground-breaking of a $40 million structure housing two schools at 37th and Filbert Streets.

The Philadelphia School Partnership, a nonprofit that raises funds to expand access to strong schools in the charter, private, and public sectors, provided initial funding in the planning phases of the project.

The schools will occupy the former site of University City High School, which the district closed in 2013, then sold to Drexel, along with the adjacent, also-closed Charles Drew Elementary, for $25 million.

A rendering of the new Powel Elementary School that will be built at 37th and Filbert.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
A rendering of the new Powel Elementary School that will be built at 37th and Filbert.

Once the building is up and running, Drexel will continue to connect with both schools through a dedicated coordinator and expertise in technology and instruction, media arts and design, performing arts, information sciences, health, and teacher training.

Powel is a longtime district school at 36th Street and Powelton Avenue; SLAMS, which opened in a Drexel building four years ago, is at 3600 Market St. Powel, a K-5, has long been overcrowded, with a waiting list, and SLAMS began in part to fulfill the community’s desire to have a K-8 continuum in the neighborhood. (SLAMS accepts students from all over the city with no admission requirements, but Powel students are automatically granted admission.)

A rendering of the new Science Leadership Academy Middle School that will be built at 37th and Filbert.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
A rendering of the new Science Leadership Academy Middle School that will be built at 37th and Filbert.

Nyla Williams, 13, a SLAMS eighth grader, said she was grateful that her school would have a permanent home, even though she won’t get to enjoy the new building.

“SLAMS has been an idea, a program, and a school. With this building, it will now be a home,” said Williams. “More space means more opportunities to be the best school that we can be.”

Officials were careful to emphasize the community’s involvement in the project: The closest thing the district has to the new Powel and SLAMS building is Penn Alexander School, which the district operates with help from the University of Pennsylvania. While the school is academically successful, the neighborhood surrounding it has gentrified, pushing out longtime residents and, in many cases, poor people and people of color.

De’Wayne Drummond, head of the Mantua Civic Association, said he’s been at the table for the Powel/SLAMS project since Day One.

“Gentrification takes place when current residents aren’t part of the process,” said Drummond.

Steve Sebelski, president of the Powelton Village Civic Association and father of a toddler who will attend Powel in a few years, said he was “hopeful that this is going to attract more families to the neighborhood.”

But he and Robin Dominick, a former Powel Home and School Association president and current chair of the Powelton Village Civic Association’s campus-community committee, said it’s crucial that the character of the school doesn’t change as it expands — Powel is a high-achieving elementary where 97% of students live below the poverty line and most are children of color.

“Our goal has been not to be" Penn Alexander, Dominick said.

And though the model was heartily cheered by some, it’s also viewed with wariness by others.

Anne Pomerantz’s son was in second grade when the conversations with Drexel began. Now he’s in high school. Back then, the district was talking about closing schools and privatization was in vogue in public education circles.

Pomerantz is curious about what a public-private partnership will mean for Powel and SLAMS.

“It’s a little scary,” said Pomerantz, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “This changes the fundamental nature of what we say when something is a public school. I think we’re in very uncharted territory.”