The very day that about 100 angry citizens stormed a meeting of the School Reform Commission, chanting "SRC, not for me!" in protest of the plan to close 29 schools, I was wondering just how we define reform in Philadelphia. Doesn't it feel as if we've seen this movie before?
One side predictably talks about downsizing and closing schools; the other seems intent on defending a clearly failing status quo. Slogans are shouted, intentions called into question. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s plan for the city is no doubt necessary, but where's the innovation? Where are the disrupters with new ways to improve education?
Three of them, wearing hard hats, were at the corner of Oxford and Howard Streets in Northern Liberties the day of the SRC meeting. Local developers Gabe Canuso and Greg Hill, along with their Baltimore-based partner Donald Manekin, had just walked me through the construction site of what will be Oxford Mills, a mixed-use residential and commercial development that will offer Philadelphia teachers a 25 percent reduction in rent (a 700-square-foot one-bedroom will go for less than $1,000 per month) and house a dozen nonprofit education-oriented start-ups - purposefully creating a vibrant ecosystem of reform.
Teach for America, on whose board Manekin once sat, will be taking 13,000 square feet for its operations, and many of those renting apartments will be TFA teachers. There will be a coffee shop, outdoor courtyards, and free parking. The nonprofits will be given conference-room space, a lunchroom, and events designed to foster collaboration among groups that share a vision but have different missions.
"This isn't typical property management, where you just collect rent and keep a building clean," said Manekin, who, after selling his construction company in 2000 spent five years as the unpaid chief operating officer of the Baltimore school system. There, listening to teachers, he learned that those on the front lines of urban education often feel terribly alone. And he saw an opportunity, unveiling what he calls socially responsible development in his hometown six years ago.
"This is about helping teachers solve the mystery about where to live, giving them a community where they can come home and share lesson plans or just say, 'Today sucked' to one another," he said.
Case in point: At one of Manekin's Baltimore properties, a recent brown-bag lunch featured a dean from Johns Hopkins talking about the ways big data would be changing the classroom of the future.
Manekin has two Baltimore sites. His model is to refurbish old factories in on-the-edge areas, thereby qualifying for historic-landmark and new-markets tax credits. In once-blighted communities, restaurants and cafés have sprouted, and teachers who started out renting are buying the surrounding houses that Manekin's company is rehabbing and selling for $150,000 to $225,000.
When Oxford Mills opens next year, it will be the first test for Manekin outside of Baltimore. He has partnered with Canuso and Hill, experienced developers of luxury housing in Philly. Recently, after developing Memphis Flats in Fishtown and serving as the project overseer of the game-changing FringeArts festival space in Old City, they have decided to concentrate on mission-related development. In Fishtown, they underwrote a community art gallery and partnered with neighborhood volunteers on one of Mayor Nutter's citywide cleanup days. That sense of shared engagement felt new compared with their experience at the luxury level.
"Our buyers used to come to closings with two lawyers, and it was often unpleasant," Hill said. "In Fishtown, a young couple buying their first home showed up to the closing with a bottle of wine. We realized we wanted to have an impact on communities and people's lives."
That said, Canuso, Hill, and Manekin are entrepreneurs, not saints. But thanks to those tax credits, which make the discounted rent numbers work, they have found a business model that fits their social ethos, one that proves you can do well while you do good.
Remember Alejandro Gac-Artigas, whom I wrote about last fall? He's the 24-year-old CEO of Springboard Collaborative, a pilot reading program in select charter schools that is combating the "summer slide" - the regression in reading skills that occurs during idle summer months. He's already planning Springboard's move into Oxford Mills.
"I'm really excited about it," he told me in an e-mail. "For those of us trying to transform education, it will amplify our collective voice while fostering the entrepreneurial energy and collisions required to keep ideas fresh."
Gac-Artigas is just one of many passionate young people intent on fixing our schools with whom Canuso and Hill find themselves engaged in deep conversations these days. So now they're thinking of expanding into West Philly, just as Manekin is looking to take the concept to New Orleans and Washington.
Talking to them, you understand that, yes, they want to make money - but they are not in this just to make money. They've become cheerleaders for social change, something this city could use more of among its business class.
"If ever there was a time to make a sort of revolutionary shift, now is it," said Canuso, who is 40 and lives in Center City. "And to be just a small part of it is really, really cool."