A junk-removal crew hauled old desks past teachers in freshly decorated classrooms at the Deep Roots Charter School, readying for the first day at the new school in Kensington.
The school, off Frankford Avenue, had planned to locate down the street. But construction there "revealed issues with a transformer," which would have delayed its opening, said G. Logan Blyler, Deep Roots' 29-year-old leader. Instead, the school moved into a former Catholic school building that was just vacated by another charter — save for its furniture.
The last-minute purge on Tuesday was just one of many steps along the way to Deep Roots' opening, after it was approved last May as Philadelphia's first new charter-school operator in nearly a decade.
While other charters have opened in recent years in Philadelphia — where brick-and-mortar charter schools serve one-third of public school students — they have been started by operators already running schools in the city.
"It's been difficult," said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, an influential nonprofit that gives grants to charter and traditional schools in the city. He cited "a certain history of tension" between charter and other public schools that "I think has led the school board to be reluctant to approve charters by unproven operators."
"But there's a little bit of chicken or the egg in that: When you don't approve new operators, that dampens the interest of new operators to even apply."
Whether other operators will succeed under the new school board is uncertain. Advocates of traditional public schools want the board — successor to the disbanded, state-appointed School Reform Commission — to take a harder line on charters.
But Gleason said he hopes that the opening of Deep Roots "will send a message to other charter operators that applying for a school in Philly is worth it." He noted that the SRC earlier this year approved another new-to-Philadelphia charter operator, Hebrew Public, to open a school in East Falls.
The Philadelphia Schools Partnership is putting money into Deep Roots, providing a $1.8 million grant over four years to help fund the school's model of placing two co-teachers in each classroom. Blyler said he did not know the total amount of outside support the school is slated to receive.
"The charter sector, like all of the sectors, has great and not-so-great schools," Gleason said. "One of the ways we're going to raise the overall quality is by recruiting some new talent."
Although Deep Roots isn't part of a chain that runs any schools in Philadelphia, it has ties to an education nonprofit based in the city that focuses on coaching teachers.
"If we want to see students grow, we should be investing in the people in front of them every single day," said Blyler, who for three years has worked for that organization, Jounce Partners. "If our teachers aren't growing, our students aren't growing."
That emphasis is what makes Deep Roots different from other schools, according to Blyler, who plans to spend 80 percent of his time training teachers. But it wasn't easy to sell his vision to the School District. The SRC initially denied Deep Roots' application, after the district's Charter Schools Office expressed concerns about its focus, staffing plan, and other areas.
The SRC later approved the school, though one commissioner said, "It doesn't come close to meeting an educator's standard."
A former teacher who spent five years at charter schools in Philadelphia and Camden, Blyler decided he wanted to start a school in the area after he and his wife — then a fellow teacher — moved to Port Richmond to start a family. "I wanted to make a bigger impact," said Blyler, who has since moved out of the neighborhood. But "I didn't know what it would look like."
While teaching, Blyler met the executive director of Jounce, which emphasizes feedback and "high-repetition practice" for teachers and works with schools in Philadelphia; Washington, and Memphis. Blyler coached teachers and principals, enabling him to "pull aspects from high-performing schools" while preparing the application for Deep Roots.
The application process "was incredibly difficult," Blyler said. One area that drew scrutiny was the school's discipline philosophy — billed as both "restorative justice," avoiding suspensions or expulsions, and "sweating the small stuff," imposing consequences for minor infractions.
The school revised aspects of its application after it was rejected by the SRC in February 2017. Still, School District reviewers "continued to note a possible misalignment between the stated restorative-justice philosophy and proposed academic and organizational programs of the school." The SRC approved the application that May.
The approval rankled such advocates as Lisa Haver, a retired district teacher and founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. "If [new school board members] don't want to be seen as just a new SRC, a big part of that is, they're going to have to be serious about standards for charter schools," said Haver, whose group has also questioned a School District contract with Jounce.
Echoing others in the charter community, Blyler saw the charter-approval process as burdensome. While "I appreciated the pushes we got" on the application, "I felt as though there were a lot of barriers put up," he said.
He describes the school's disciplinary approaches as "two sides of the same coin." Deep Roots will have high expectations, Blyler said, but "also meet students where they're at," providing added support to those who need it.
His school is filled for the coming year — 300 students in kindergarten through fourth, with more than 80 percent of students from the Kensington catchment area. Blyler, who met families by knocking on doors and attending community events, hopes the share will grow to 100 percent.
The school also intends to grow — both in students and in size. Under its five-year charter, Deep Roots has been approved to add a grade each year, serving up to 540 students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
The school's budget needs those students. While Deep Roots is currently receiving grant money, its model won't be sustainable until it gets revenues from the district for its full enrollment, Blyler said.
But they won't all fit in the current space. "The building will sustain us through year three," Blyler said. He said the school will be working with Shift Capital, a real-estate firm that helped it secure its location. It hopes to expand where it is.