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Germantown Friends adds Center City preschool

"Planting the flag." With millennials flocking to Center City, Germantown Friends School opened an early childhood and after-school program on Washington Square this fall to tap into the burgeoning market.

Jen Sharp, an early education program teacher, back right, reads books with students at the new  Germantown Friends School site in the Curtis Center, overlooking Washington Square.  JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Jen Sharp, an early education program teacher, back right, reads books with students at the new Germantown Friends School site in the Curtis Center, overlooking Washington Square. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff PhotographerRead moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Germantown Friends, the Quaker school founded in 1845, has seen a glimpse of its future, and it's not confined to Northwest Philadelphia.

With millennials not only flocking to Center City but staying and having children, the school with 960 students from preschool through 12th grade, opened an early childhood and after-school program on Washington Square this fall to tap into the burgeoning market.

Statistics gathered by the Center City District show that nearly 9,200 children under the age of 6 reside in greater Center City — more than children aged 6 to 17.

"We studied what the need was and what our needs were and decided that we should embark on placing a pre-K in Center City," said David J. Feldman, a member of the committee that oversees GFS and lives downtown. "You walk around any of the parks, and you practically get run over by strollers."

Germantown Friends is believed to be the first area private school to add a preschool site in Center City.

"I don't know of anyone else, " said Barbara Kraus-Blackney, president of the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools, which represents private schools throughout the region. But she said she would not be surprised if other schools were considering similar programs for Center City.

"We tell our schools through our programs to think about strategic ways of looking at the future, and this would certainly be one of them," Kraus-Blackney said. "This region has so many [independent] schools; they're not likely to be divulging their plans until they're ready to go."

Drawing on U.S. Census data, recent reports show that millennials – young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 – make up 40 percent of the city's downtown residents, and they tend to be educated. Fully 59 percent of the residents in greater Center City have at least an undergraduate degree.

"The school committee studied in great depth to see where the children were going to be in the next five to 10 years," said Page Fahrig-Pendse, associate head at GFS. "It is true that more younger people were moving and staying in Center City – even when they had young children. Where in the past, maybe those families moved out to the northwest. That's not happening as much."

In fact, GFS says about 30 percent of youngsters in its early childhood classes on the main campus live in Center City.

But school officials know that some parents are reluctant to have their 3- and 4-year old children riding back and forth to Germantown every day.

Plus, Feldman said, families often face waiting lists at existing downtown preschools. So GFS decided it was time to open a  satellite center that would replicate the early childhood education offered in Germantown. That program, which began in 1982, combines early childhood academics, the arts and play – and blends it with the tenets of Quakerism, which honors differences and believes "there is that of God" in every person.

After more than three years of planning, the new GFS center in Center City was accredited by the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools in August.The program opened in September in leased quarters in the venerable Curtis Center with four pioneering 3-year-olds. More are slated to join them in January.

The program, near 7th and Walnut Streets, is not connected with Mayor Kenney's pre-K initiative. Parents pay $20,500 annual tuition to send a child to the GFS preschool five days a week. The day begins at 8:15 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m.

John Pomp, who lives in Northern Liberties, is a parent of one the first students. While checking out preschools for Jonah, the family visited the GFS main campus in May. They were very interested when they heard about the site opening in Center City. "It seemed to be a really good fit," Pomp said.

He said his family was drawn to the new GFS center for more than its well-rounded academics. "We're most interested in building character, and I think the program nurtures and builds character," he said.

And Jonah is very happy at the center. "He has taken to the program and to the teachers there," Pomp said.

The bright, airy space that GFS renovated at Curtis overlooks tree-filled Washington Square and includes three classrooms, an art and science studio and a movement and indoor play area with monkey bars, a climbing wall and a slide.

"The kids do go outdoors every day for exploration and for science," said Sarah McMenamin, director of early childhood education at GFS. "But when they're doing their running and playing, they have a space to do that."

Feldman said that finding the right location was one of the biggest challenges.

"We probably looked for two to two-and-a half years for the right kind of space in the right kind of neighborhood," he said. "Not a lot of buildings want kids riding the elevators. And finding 8,000 to 10,000 square feet in a high real estate market was difficult. We looked at a lot of spaces."

About once a month, children from the Center City program mix and mingle with their main campus counterparts. The Center City children went to Germantown for Halloween, and last week 13 3-year-olds from the main campus visited Washington Square.

The programs follow the same curriculum, and the specialist instructors for subjects like art and music teach children at both sites.

GFS expects youngsters from Center City will want to head to Germantown for kindergarten. GFS early education students receive priority for admission to  kindergarten – a boon since the school typically receives twice as many applications as it has spots.

Paul R. Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District, noted that 76 percent of children from downtown attend public schools that have been re-energized in recent years by activist parents' groups. He said three private school stalwarts – Friends Select, St. Peter's and the Philadelphia School – have successfully served other downtown families for decades. He said in addition to giving families another option, Germantown Friends' decision to open the new early childhood center made sense on multiple levels.

"This it is a very smart marketing strategy for them," Levy said. "This is a way to accommodate those families who they already have and also a way for them to plant the flag in Center City."