April 04, 2014 by Azwad Rahman
The School Reform Commission of Philadelphia confirmed the purchase of six vacant school properties for a total of $37 million March 20. Of the purchases, Drexel University made the largest, buying the University City High School property along with the neighboring Charles Drew Elementary School at 37th and Warren streets for $25.1 million. University City High School and Drew Elementary were shut down in 2013 and 2012 , respectively.
Drexel has had a commitment to Samuel Powel Elementary, a K-4 elementary school at 36th Street and Powelton Avenue, since spring 2012 to help with the elementary school’s expansion. Together, Drexel and Powel were awarded a grant of $215,000 in September 2012 from the Philadelphia School Partnership, an organization that invests in Philadelphia public schools to create high-quality education. Drexel was planning to make the expansion based on the Science Leadership Academy, an adoptive high school of the Franklin Institute. Powel Elementary currently has 250 students, including those absorbed from Drew Elementary after it was shut down, leaving it over capacity.
Drexel has also had a partnership with Morton McMichael Elementary School since September 2011 as part of President John A. Fry’s vision for community civic engagement from the University.
It was after the school district became interested in selling the properties in fall 2013 that Drexel became interested in the University City High School property, estimated to have a value of $23 million, according to the Office of Property Assessment at the time. According to Mark Gleason, the director of PSP at the time of the grant announcement, Drexel had planned to add 200-250 more students to Powel Elementary and a middle school that would educate 300-400 students in grades 6-8.
In October 2013, Mayor Michael Nutter proposed a deal to sell at least $61 million worth of buildings by June 30. That would cover the $50 million that the city had pledged to the school district and the $11 million that the city budgeted in selling property for 2014. The $50 million went toward the school district’s $304 million deficit, allowing schools to open on time for the 2013-2014 school year. The buildings would be sold by the district with the help of the city’s commerce department and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. If the district fails to meet this goal, the city would cover the difference in the coming fall. Proposals for the schools by bidders were to be submitted by Dec. 17, 2013.
It was also in October that a real estate investment firm from Washington, D.C., offered the district $100 million for over 30 of the vacant schools, according to Philly.com. The proposal, however, was rejected.
According to the Philly.com article, the school district had 20 offers for the properties among the 28 listed schools that the district offered. Seven of them, however, were the only ones up for individual bid, including the University City High and Drew Elementary properties. City Council President Darrell Clarke had expressed concerns about the district’s ability to sell the properties, encouraging them to find professional help, according to the article.
It was in February 2014 that the school district announced four finalists among six schools that would be sold, including Drexel’s plan to buy two properties at 36th and Filbert streets.
In February 2014 Drexel announced it would not include student housing on the school properties, according to what Robert Francis, vice president of University Facilities, had said then. More than 150 people came to a planning exercise Feb. 26 for the University City High property, according to the University City Review.
According to the University City Review article, Fry said that the school would be focused on the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. The SLA would be heading the middle school portion of the school, along with the expansion of Powel Elementary. Fry also said that they would be including the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and The Franklin Institute as partners. Drexel also plans to make more green space in the area, along with mixed-use development.
Francis wrote in an email interview that it is too early to talk about the details of the expansion and how Drexel plans to coordinate the change in the new properties. “Drexel has been very clear in supporting a public school use for part of the site. Clearly, we feel that strong public schools are key to neighborhood vitality.”
The meeting that sold the properties to Drexel drew some criticisms as well. Michael Jones, president of the Powelton Village Civic Association, said that although he was happy that it was Drexel that ended up being the highest bidder for the property, it was “unfathomable” that the SRC never took input from the neighborhood.
“At no time did the School District invite real conversation from the community,” DeWayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association, said, according to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. Drummond pointed out that the SRC never took into consideration what happened to the students after the school shut down, asking about how many were failing, dropping out of school and even incarcerated.
“The winter storms complicated matters,” Francis wrote. “Whatever concerns may have been expressed, Drexel will interact extensively with the community going forward.”