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The Netter Center's University-Assisted Community Schools works with Lea Elementary to host school and summer programs.

Credit: Emily Xu

The School District of Philadelphia has approved Penn’s $4.1 million investment into West Philadelphia's Henry C. Lea Elementary School, reigniting a conversation about gentrification.

With zero dissenting votes, the agreement between the two institutions was confirmed at a Jan. 27 school district board meeting. Penn administrators voiced their enthusiasm about the deal, marking it Penn’s next step in fostering positive relationships with the West Philadelphia community. The $4 million investment to Lea Elementary will occur over the span of five years.

Dean of the Graduate School of Education Pam Grossman viewed the investment as a positive step towards supporting families, teachers, and students of Lea Elementary. 

“This initiative is part of a more expansive effort [from Penn] to work with schools in West Philadelphia,” Grossman wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “The [Lea Elementary] principal will be soliciting family and community input on how best to realize a shared vision.”

However, the West Philadelphia community expressed fears that the donation to Lea Elementary may force out low-income residents. As Penn's investment evolves the school into a more desirable destination for families to send their children, a surge in housing prices could occur — as seen with Penn’s previous investment to Penn Alexander School.

Leonard Bonarek, a Lea Elementary parent, published an op-ed on Jan. 27 in WHYY opposing the Penn investment, writing that families would face the threat of displacement. Instead of Penn’s investment, Bonarek believes the district should accept donations on a district-wide basis to mitigate the uneven distribution of wealth and that Penn should pay PILOTs.

Penn for PILOTS also retweeted a Jan. 26 Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed denouncing Penn’s "cherry-picked" school investments that exacerbate West Philadelphia gentrification. In the past, Penn for PILOTS has criticized the University’s lack of Payments in Lieu of Taxes to Philadelphia’s Educational Equity Fund.

Penn’s relationship with Lea Elementary dates back to the 1960s. In recent years, emphasis has been placed on providing resources and expertise upon the school’s request such as professional development opportunities, according to Grossman. 

Initiatives such as Lea Elementary’s City of Philadelphia Out-of-School Time and its 21st Century Community Learning Center, funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, will remain in operation in addition to the latest Penn investment, according to del Río. 

Penn's began its current partnership with Penn Alexander School in the 1990s, as a way to make the surrounding community more attractive for Penn faculty and continues to provide them with $1300 per student per year. Lea Elementary’s student body is more demographically representative of the district than Penn Alexander, with 75% of students coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in comparison to 46% at Penn Alexander, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.