Board paves way for KIPP Prep to move into the former Whittier Elementary School

It also passed a resolution to designate Sept. 24 as Voter Registration Day and to promote voter registration in District high schools.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated include a more detailed definition of an “innovation” school.

The Board of Education took action Thursday that will allow KIPP Philadelphia Preparatory, a middle school, to move into the vacant former Whittier Elementary School at 26th and Clearfield Streets in North Philadelphia.

The board voted 6-1 – two members were absent – to sell the building to an entity called MIS Capital LLC, for $775,000. After renovations, the building will open to KIPP students in fall 2020.

It also gave five-year renewals to two charters, both located in the West Parkside neighborhood: KIPP DuBois, a high school, and Inquiry Charter, a pre-K-5 school that is part of the Belmont Charter Network.

KIPP Philadelphia Prep, now located at 2539 N. 16th St., enrolls 360 students in grades 5-8. The move will locate Prep closer to KIPP Philadelphia Elementary, its K-4 feeder school, said Christina Grant, head of the Charter Schools Office.

“The organization did a tremendous job getting community support from elected officials, community organizations, and informed families,” Grant told board members, adding that the move “will have no impact on neighboring schools.”

But the building sale was approved only after the board took a recess to amend the original resolution after complaints that it contained no provision that would prevent MIS Capital from closing the school and flipping it for profit for another use.

“I’m not opposed to reopening the school and using it for students,” said board member Angela McIver. “But what we don’t have [in the resolution] is protection that it will remain a school.” She ultimately voted against the sale, even with the amendment that gave the District first right of refusal on any future sale

Advocates who object to charters and privatization opposed the whole idea, revisiting the turmoil for many neighborhoods that accompanied the decision of the School Reform Commission (SRC) to close Whittier and about two dozen other District schools in 2013.

“Selling Whittier is another move in a disturbing track record in ignoring community wishes,” said Karel Kilimnik of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS). “The board needs to take a different approach than the SRC and stop turning over buildings to charter organizations and corporations.”

She said that a local church had lined up financing to turn the building into low-income housing, but that the District “turned down their offer with no explanation.”

The five-member SRC governed the District for 17 years after the state took control of the District, and for much of its history, it supported an agenda of privatization. The city regained local control in 2017, and the current nine-member board was appointed by the mayor.

Lisa Haver, also from APPS, said that the charter renewal votes violated the Sunshine Act because the details and conditions of the renewals were not made public in advance. She read from her statement as the board ignored her and proceeded with its roll call.

Inquiry Charter is one of three schools in a network founded by developer and big political contributor Michael Karp. It originally came up for renewal in 2017, but had failed to sign an agreement until now.

At the board’s last meeting, it declined to sell to Karp’s organization the former Belmont Elementary School. The building is now occupied by Belmont Charter, which serves as the neighborhood school for the Mantua neighborhood.

Board member Christopher McGinley said that selling the building would be equivalent to abandoning its responsibility for educating students in its catchment area. The board was also blindsided by legislation passed by the pro-charter school General Assembly that was apparently tailored to Belmont, creating the new category of “innovation school” with specifications that make it the only school eligible to apply. That category would give the school the ability create a state-approved model focused on integrating academics and behavioral health that allows it to obtain waivers in eight areas, including academic testing.

The circumstances for selling the Whittier building are different. It has been vacant since 2014, when the school was closed, and students in its former catchment area were reassigned to other schools. The KIPP schools draw students from all over the city. McGinley voted for the sale after the amendment was included.

McGinley was the only dissenter on two resolutions totaling $167,000 to help pay for four residents in management positions in the academic and operations offices underwritten by the Broad Foundation, which trains corporate executives and others to assume school leadership posts. Haver and other APPS members are staunch opponents of outsourcing such positions and specifically of Broad as promoting a “corporatist” agenda in education. McGinley, a former principal and superintendent, said he agreed with their position.

In other action, the board voted to designate Sept. 24 as Voter Registration Day and to promote voter-registration activities generally in District high schools. City Commissioner Lisa Deeley told the board that such activity is crucial because it is important to get people into the habit of voting “at an early age.”

The commissioners, who are responsible for the conduct of elections, have started programs in schools, including mock elections, and Gov. Wolf awards medals to schools that register at least 65 percent of their eligible students. Some students have also been able to be poll workers on Election Day.

Last fall, before the 2018 midterm election, there was a controversy when the (now former) head of the state Republican Party accused Central High School teacher Thomas Quinn of engaging in partisan political activity during his campaign to register students to vote. That controversy was not mentioned at Thursday’s meeting.

The board also passed a group of resolutions accepting donations to improve or build playgrounds in several District schools. The biggest donations, adding up to more than $700,000, were to the Tanner Duckrey Elementary School, and a group of students came with parents and organizers to thank the board.

“It’s important that you know the extent of importance of this project for the community as a whole,” said organizer Danita Bates as the children held up signs urging members to vote for the playground.

The board also:

  • Voted to spend $895,000 for four modular classrooms at the high-performing Meredith Elementary in South Philadelphia, which is overcrowded as demand increases for spots in its classrooms. In some cases, siblings of students already enrolled can’t be accommodated and are enrolled instead in nearby Nebinger.
  • Voted to spend $300,000 for a temporary modular unit while a more permanent building addition is constructed at Mayfair Elementary, which is also overcrowded.
  • Approved a $500,000 contract with Access Matters Health Resources Center for reproductive health education and testing for sexually transmitted diseases in 15 District schools.
  • Contracted with the firm of former Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, known for his work on juvenile justice reform and less-punitive discipline, for $147,600 for training and protocol around the use of metal detectors, now that they are required in all high schools.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Angela McIver voted against the sale of the Whittier building.