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After months of community debate, the school board approved an attendance zone for the new Penn-assisted k-8 public school while also outlining several steps the University and the district would take to improve existing area schools.

The catchment area is designed to enroll about 700 students of mixed racial and economic backgrounds to the school, slated to open in September 2001.

Construction of the new Penn-assisted school, according to Steve Schutt, Penn's pointman on the project, should begin this fall.

Groundbreaking for the project -- which will cost the city $20 million dollars and Penn $700,000 annually in operating costs -- was scheduled to happen in March, but construction delays and contreversy surrounding the school delayed the start of the project.

But Schutt assured residents that the late groundbreaking of the school -- which will be built in the current home of the University City New School at 42nd and Locust streets -- won't prevent the school from partially opening in 2001 as projected.

Also at Monday's meeting, the school board announced a package of improvements to be implemented at the neighboring Lea School, located at 47th and Locust streets.

"The University has been working with the Lea School and other schools in the area for quite some time," Schutt said. "It became clear that the Lea School has -- and should have -- a special relationship with the new school."

Starting this fall, Penn will work with the district and Lea School to continue professional development and provide technological support at the school.

Community members said that they were pleased with the planned improvements to Lea School.

"I am 100 percent satisfied," Walnut Hill Community Association First Vice President Horace Patterson said. "In the beginning of this process, I was very upset about the catchment area."

"I stopped arguing about the catchment area and said 'do these things for Lea School, and the catchment area is off the board,'" he added.

Penn will also work to reduce Lea School's class size in grades k-3, offering financial support for three years beginning in September 2001.

And the school district completed construction of a new library for the school -- lacking one until now -- and Penn will devote funds for staffing the library and putting books on the new shelves.

"All of this, I think, bodes very well for the future of Lea School," Schutt said.

Monday's announcement comes after some community members complained about the potential demographic makeup of the new school, with many claiming that the construction of the new school ignored the needs of the already existing Lea School.

But Patterson noted that the general sentiment among the community was that as long as Penn and the district followed through on the improvements with Lea School, many West Philadelphians were satisfied.

"This was beyond what was expected," he said. "Most people are satisfied."

The catchment area extends from 40th Street to 47th Street, and stretches from Sansom Street on the north to several blocks past Baltimore Avenue on the south.

Data released by the school board projects that over 200 students attending Lea School will soon be enrolled in the new school instead, once the school opens.

Amy Orr, former president of the Squirrel Hill Association and West Philadelphia resident, said that she wished the new school had been built just a few years earlier, noting that her child had been enrolled in private school for years, as had the children of many of her neighbors.

"I'm sure glad my to see my house is in it," she said. "I wish we had had it a few years ago. There was no place to go."

Orr noted that she herself had attended the Lea School when she was younger, adding that it had once been a center for intense academic programming.

"It's heartening to see that it's coming around again," she added.

School board officials also announced that Penn will work with the district to finalize improvements for Drew, Wilson and Powel schools, also located in West Philadelphia.

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