The University of Pennsylvania is poised to change the fortunes of another West Philadelphia public school, pouring nearly $1 million annually for five years into Lea Elementary.
It would be the second such transformational, recurring commitment Penn would make to a Philadelphia School District school. The university already partners with Penn Alexander, providing it with $1,300 a student — money used to pay for extra staff and other supports.
Lea parents were told of the coming commitment Friday evening. The school board is expected to vote Jan. 27 on a measure that would enter the district into a memorandum of agreement with Penn worth $4.1 million over five years.
The reason? Penn, the district, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers “wish to emulate the success of the Penn Alexander School and desire to collaborate to support the Henry C. Lea School,” according to the board resolution. The money “will further support the provision of the highest-quality educational opportunities for children in West Philadelphia and Penn’s desire to collaboratively support Lea.”
The aim is wide-ranging, according to board documents, and includes improving instruction and school culture, and bringing more innovation and flexibility to school operations. Lea would become a “vigorous clinical setting” for teacher development and “testing and refining effective instructional and curricular programs and practices through applied research,” and serving as a sort of research lab to replicate and scale the model over the next five years.
The specifics of the Lea partnership are not final, but a portion of the $816,500 available to Lea annually will come through in-kind services.
Penn, in a statement, confirmed that it is “in discussions with the School District of Philadelphia and the PFT to deepen our partnership with the Lea School in West Philadelphia,” Dean Pam Grossman said in a statement. Penn has been involved in Lea since the 1960s.
Though Lea, as Penn Alexander, will still be a neighborhood school run by the school system and staffed with its employees, the new Lea approach will be built differently from the Penn Alexander model.
Lea, at 47th and Spruce, opened in 1914. By contrast, Penn Alexander was not a preexisting district school, but arose from a 1990s Penn idea: Build a strong public school as a way to revitalize the neighborhood surrounding the university, in part to make it an attractive place for Penn faculty to live. The university helped design Penn Alexander, which opened in 2001 with extra staff and opportunities not available in most other district schools.
Despite being just a few blocks away from each another, Penn Alexander and Lea have significantly different student makeups. Most Penn Alexander students live inside the catchment area; 45% are white, 26% Asian, 14% Black, and 4% Hispanic. Just 46% are economically disadvantaged, far less than district average, and 7% receive special education services. The school scores a 90 out of 100 on the district’s School Performance Report, placing it among the top performers in the city; it won the coveted National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence distinction from the U.S. Department of Education in September.
Penn Alexander often has a waiting list for kindergarten; for years, parents camped outside the school for days to secure a spot for their children. (The students who did not win a seat at Penn Alexander were most often sent to Lea, which typically is not full.)
Lea is more representative of the school system as a whole: 43% of its students live in the catchment area; 65% are Black, 13% white, 12% Asian, and 5% Hispanic. Three-quarters of its students come from economically disadvantaged families and 15% receive special education services. It scored a 53 out of 100 on the district’s internal metric, landing it in the second-highest performing group of schools.
Principal Aaron Gerwer, in a letter to parents, said the Penn partnership would represent an opportunity for Lea to embrace “a student-centered learning model through which teaching and learning is focused on students’ lived experiences and their questions about the world, where students participate in community-connected projects.”
Despite its contributions, Penn has taken some heat for its role in the community. Penn Alexander gentrified the neighborhood, forcing out some low-income residents and people from University City, and some advocates have pushed hard for Penn not just to provide supports for one or two schools but also for the university to pay payment in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) to benefit the entire district, a position Penn has not embraced.
Early indications are that both the university and district understand the possible large-scale implications of the Lea gift, and are taking steps to assure the community that existing families will be able to stay, and will have a say in what happens at the school going forward. Both Penn and the district, the school board document said, have as a goal for the partnership “enhancing appreciation for racial, ethnic, economic, and other forms of diversity among students, teachers and staff.”
Gerwer, in the letter, said he was “committed to leading a process through which our school community can discuss and design together a strengthened partnership to achieve our collective goals. I am committed to making this process inclusive, most importantly by engaging with the diverse communities that make up our Lea school community — including students, families, school staff, partners, community members, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the School District of Philadelphia, and Penn.”
School and community meetings on the partnership will be held in January and February, Gerwer said.
“It is both exciting and demanding to have an opportunity like this before us while we are all dealing with so many challenges in our school, community, and city,” Gerwer said. “This opportunity to plan together for the future of our school has filled me with hope, and I am excited to work with all of you to collaborate on our continued growth as a school community.”
Ultimately, milestones for the school will be set both by the district and Penn, and the district will report annually on its progress.
Staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this article.