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Germantown High coalition wants to reuse school as skills-based charter

The group, one of 40 that applied to open a new charter school, wants to capitalize on the area's tourist appeal.

WHEN NEIGHBORS and alumni of Germantown High School in the spring of 2013 began discussing possible uses for the shuttered school, the community rallied around one idea: another school. But there were myriad questions - what structure the school would take, how it would be funded and so on.

Then a glimmer of hope appeared in October when the Philadelphia School District announced it would accept new applications for charter schools for the first time since 2008, as part of the deal on the city's new $2 cigarette tax. The community coalition was one of 40 groups that submitted an application.

"We want to give our kids things that they can use that are practical, that you can learn while you're learning your academic material," said Julie Stapleton Carroll, a Germantown resident and a founder of Wissahickon Charter School.

The school, which would start with grades six to nine and gradually expand to 12, would focus on job-skills training, and use part of Germantown High. Stapleton Carroll said the coalition was ambivalent about opening a charter school, but agreed to move forward after a series of meetings. They divided the tasks, spent countless hours writing up an academic plan, and gathered signatures and letters of support from elected officials in two months.

"It was crazy," she said. "It's a Herculean task, so we banded together and got it done."

The group said Germantown needs another school because of the lack of middle and high schools in the area. Three charters there - Imhotep, Imani and New Media - are facing non-renewal. Martin Luther King High, which took many of the displaced Germantown High students, has performed well below the district's average for reading and math proficiency.

The coalition's hope is that a school would not only provide a high-quality educational option, but also help revitalize the community. Despite Germantown's rich history and tourist appeal, there are few restaurants and no hotels in the area, they say. To address that, the school would have career tracks for hospitality/tourism along with construction and building trades.

The long-term vision also includes plans for a private developer to build a boutique hotel and restaurant on the school's campus that could partner with the school.

"We had been fighting since the situation with the school closing, so this is another opportunity to try to bring back what was once there," said Vera Primus, president of Germantown High's Alumni Association who would would serve on the charter's board of directors.

The group is talking with Concordia Group, the private developer that purchased Germantown High and nearby Fulton Elementary, about using part of the high school, but nothing is definitive.

Joe Budd, a Germantown High alumnus and co-founder of the nonprofit organization Men Who Care, said the coalition knows the competition is stiff, but he believes the community support can set it apart. School District staff will hold the first public hearing on the charter applications on Monday and Germantown proponents plan totake a busload of supporters.

"We recognize that [the district is] only going to select a few and we're praying that we'll be one of those," Budd said, "but it's worth a shot."