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This is what it’s like inside Philly’s brand-new, $80 million school in the Northeast

“It’s a 21st-century learning environment,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said of Northeast Community Propel Academy.

The cafeteria at Northeast Community Propel Academy, a new Philadelphia School District K-8 at 7500 Rowland. The $80 million, 180,000-square-foot school opened Tuesday.
The cafeteria at Northeast Community Propel Academy, a new Philadelphia School District K-8 at 7500 Rowland. The $80 million, 180,000-square-foot school opened Tuesday.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

A new, $80 million school has risen in booming Northeast Philadelphia.

Northeast Community Propel Academy — the first new neighborhood school in the Philadelphia School District in years — welcomed 1,200 students Tuesday.

The sprawling K-8 building on Rowland Avenue, not far from Lincoln High School, will help ease overcrowding in a number of bursting-at-the-seams Northeast schools. Pupils from Propel Academy were drawn from Mayfair, J.H. Brown and Forrest Elementaries; the school will also replace Meehan Middle School, which will close at the end of this school year.

Propel Academy “takes a load off all of our other schools,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said.

The school is one of three buildings being opened by the district this fall; the Powel Elementary-Science Leadership Academy Middle School in West Philadelphia and Solis-Cohen Elementary, also in the Northeast, are also new construction, but Powel-SLAMS and Solis-Cohen are replacement structures for existing schools.

The 180,000-square-foot project came together relatively quickly — construction began in 2019.

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Hite said the project’s public-private partnership was responsible for the on-time job completion. Propel Academy was a “turnkey” job — the district contracted with the outside firms Stantec Architecture Inc. and Gilbane Building Co. to handle all aspects of the design and construction, and the finished school was handed to the district.

On a tour of the new school this week, Hite said it was the biggest K-8 school he’s ever built, a building with a campus feel, heavy on flexible and collaborative spaces, with pops of bright color throughout. It’s full of natural light and green space, backing up to Pennypack Park.

“It’s a 21st-century learning environment,” Hite said. The aim in building the school “was thinking about not just the current environment but what will be.”

There are two makerspaces, multiple open courtyards, and areas for children to huddle outside of class. Hallways near the lower-grade rooms have deep, soft benches built into walls for the youngest learners to calm down or read quietly. There are “learning stairs” — wide, deep steps that can be used as places to sit or even perform. There’s a gym with a stage, computer labs, and libraries (though no librarians). Eventually, there will be a piano lab.

The gleaming new building stands in stark contrast to most other Philadelphia schools; the average district building is more than 70 years old, and many schools have been troubled by asbestos, lead paint, and other environmental issues — some of which have sickened students and teachers and halted in-person classes as recently as this week.

That wasn’t lost on officials who spoke at the building’s grand opening Wednesday.

“If I had my way, we’d have a building like this in every neighborhood in the city,” Hite said.

Mayor Jim Kenney said every student in Philadelphia deserves a school free of asbestos and other old-building problems.

“Having every child in the district have access to a school like this is really important,” said Kenney.

Founding principal Dywonne Davis-Harris has lived and breathed Propel Academy since it was just an idea and a construction site. The longtime former principal of Potter-Thomas Elementary in North Philadelphia, Davis-Harris said she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to build a school community from scratch.

“I told the kids, ‘You’re part of history,’” said Davis-Harris. Propel Academy educates kindergarten through seventh graders this year. Next year, it will grow to eighth grade, and about 1,600 students.

The school’s name fits Davis-Harris’ vision for moving students forward academically, emotionally, and as citizens. She’s thrilled Propel Academy students will have myriad opportunities “to tap into their individual genius.” At her former school, Davis-Harris said, “because of the lack of resources and space, we couldn’t tap into a lot of that.”

Propel Academy is a diverse school in an increasingly diverse neighborhood. The school’s student body is split nearly evenly between white, Black and other students of color. About 30% of the school’s students are English language learners, with large populations of Mandarin, Portuguese, and Spanish speakers.

Davis-Harris, who is Black, lives close to the school herself; when she moved into the then-mostly white neighborhood 20 years ago, “it was rough, initially.” Now, her family is part of the fabric of the neighborhood, she said.

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She wants Propel Academy to be the kind of place where “we model what America should look like, where students see the beauty and diversity of it all.”

So far, teachers at the school are wowed by the building.

Before moving to Propel Academy, technology teacher Andrew Skopp didn’t even have windows in his classroom.

“I’ve been teaching 23 years, and I feel like this is the gold at the end of the rainbow,” said Skopp. “This is like a college setting.”