Fatimah Ali: THE IVY LEAF EXPERIENCE, EXTINGUISHED
FRIDAY the 13th sends chills down a lot of people's spines. The superstitious fear that there's some truth to the myth that bad luck will strike them on that date. But, for hundreds of Philadelphia middle-school students and their families, this Friday will loom heavy on their hearts because it will mark the date
FRIDAY the 13th sends chills down a lot of people's spines.
The superstitious fear that there's some truth to the myth that bad luck will strike them on that date. But, for hundreds of Philadelphia middle-school students and their families, this Friday will loom heavy on their hearts because it will mark the date when one of the city's finest black academic institutions was forced to close. And that is truly bad luck for the children whose parents afforded them a private-school education and are now scrambling to find a replacement.
Shock waves traveled through the city in January when the Ivy Leaf School announced it would be closing its middle school by the end of this week. Considered at one time to be among the city's finest educational institutions, administrators say they are shutting down because of a sharp decline in enrollment, due in part to the increase in charter schools.
I had a mixed reaction to the news. On one hand, I want the public school system to educate our children without the need for private schools, because many of us can't afford them. I fully embrace the growth of the city's charter and magnet schools - when they're well-run. On the other, Ivy Leaf parents deserved at least enough warning to secure alternatives for their children.
Ivy Leaf was at one time one of the city's most highly regarded institutions, providing a culturally relevant, high-achieving academic education for African-American children from middle-class families. Founded in 1965 by William and Liller Green, it's the oldest independent African-American-owned private school in Philadelphia.
Over the years, Ivy Leaf gradually expanded to serve children from pre-school through eighth grade. What impressed me the most over my years of observation was its founders' vision and commitment to offering black children an alternative to Philadelphia's overburdened public schools at a cost a fraction of some of their competitors.
Mrs. Green told me that enrollment had been declining for years, and they could no longer afford to stay open. The real shame is that they have grown so much over four decades, yet have always managed to keep a modest tuition ($5,100 a year) compared to some private schools, which cost upward of $22,000.
Although Mrs. Green says they have reached out to both charter and other private and parochial schools to find placements for Ivy Leaf's students, many alternative schools take applications in November and have a limited number of open slots. Informing parents in January of its anticipated demise was a huge disservice.
According to Mrs. Green, the emergence of charters contributed sharply to Ivy Leaf's demise, with enrollment plunging from 770 to a projected fall enrollment of only 400. She says her board made the decision to shut down because of underenrollment projected for September.
Green says the school, although accredited by the state of Pennsylvania, has never had a sufficient endowment. I'm not at all surprised. The school's community, including graduates, apparently has always struggled with fundraising.
Unfortunately, stories like this are not uncommon. Ivy Leaf went from being a private school to an independent nonprofit with a board of directors. One major component of any 501(c)3, especially a school, is fundraising, which can come from a number of sources.
Lorene Cary, the writer and founder of the nonprofit Arts Sanctuary, once told me that she was growing her then-10- year-old nonprofit into an institution. With her quick wit, she said that meant if she "was hit by a bus tomorrow, Art Sanctuary could survive" without her. I've watched too many nonprofits suffer because they don't invoke their boards and advisers to implement long-term economic growth by building endowments.
The closing of Ivy Leaf is a travesty for Philadelphia. It could have been prevented years ago had there been a plan far-reaching enough to carry its vision into this century.
Perhaps some of graduates will one day want to relight the torch that cast a brilliant light for them. Hopefully, the students whose education has been interrupted have a strong foundation. After all, as Mrs. Green told me, Ivy Leaf's goal has always been to prepare students to compete anywhere they go, and to give back to the communities that they come from. *
Fatimah Ali is a regular contributor. E-mail her at email@example.com.