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Reactions to Penn's investment into Henry C. Lea Elementary School, one year after it began, are mixed among the West Philadelphia community.

Credit: Derek Wong

A year after Penn began its investment into Henry C. Lea Elementary School, some West Philadelphia community members expressed concerns over rising real estate prices and spacing, while others applauded the newly hired support staff.

On Jan. 27, 2022, the School District of Philadelphia's Board of Education approved $4.1 million in funding from Penn for the Lea School — a public school at 4700 Locust St. with approximately 500 children in grades pre-kindergarten through eight. Shortly after the approval, members of the West Philadelphia community expressed concerns about gentrification. A year later, The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to Lea School parents, its partners at the Graduate School of Education, and the school district to assess the funding’s impact.

Penn has partnered with the school district for decades, including contributing the largest donation in its history in November 2020. Penn has had a relationship with the Lea School since the 1960s, which has included providing teaching support, music education, and counseling services. The partnership with Lea was structured to “emulate the success of the Penn Alexander school,” board documents stated, prompting concerns regarding how local real estate would be affected. 

Penn Alexander — which opened in 2001 — operates as a partnership between Penn, the school district, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. While Penn Alexander has received national recognition, some professors pointed to its construction as a possible increase for a rise in market prices in University City as observed by the DP. The gentrification has caused the displacement of some low-income residents and people of color. 

Philip Gentry, a Lea School parent and member of the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, said that he has seen some signs of potential gentrification occurring as a result of the funding granted to the Lea School. 

“Housing prices seem to be going up in the neighborhood; almost every listing now brags about the fact that the local neighborhood school is subsidized by Penn,” Gentry said, citing an example of someone who was renting in the area and had to move away due to rising prices, but kept their kids at the Lea School.

At the Lea School, Penn's funding has provided resources for the school to hire additional staff — such as an assistant principal, a second counselor, a special education case manager, and teachers to reduce class size — according to Caroline Watts, the director of school and community engagement at GSE.

“I’m very pleased because I think that the new staff we’ve hired are great,” Stephanie Fahringer, a Lea School parent and president of the Lea Home and School Association, said. “You just have more hands, [and] with a student body as complex as ours, it is always good to have more hands."

Penn's funding is valued at $816,500 per academic year for the next five years, and there are limitations to how the funding can be allocated. According to Watts, the funding can be used for “improving instruction, improving climate, and developing staff.”

Monique Braxton, a spokesperson for the school district, wrote that the funding has been used to hire new support staff and create new roles that “have been critical to [the] success and functioning as a school.”

While the funding has increased the Lea School’s capacity to staff teachers and other support staff, some parents said that the school continues to face challenges with spacing and overcrowding.

“We’re getting all this money from Penn for extra staffing, but we don’t have the facilities to keep up," Gentry said. "Our principal has been begging the school district for temporary classrooms or any kind of space, and we have not been given that. It is deeply, deeply overcrowded.”

Braxton wrote in a written statement to the DP that the school district has put in a request to add a “little school house” to the Lea building.

“We have worked creatively to use all of the space in our building but space concerns still exist,” Braxton wrote. “However, it is important to note that all students have access to a classroom.”

According to Gentry, when the partnership was announced, some parents raised concerns about the Lea School’s special support programs. Unlike other Penn-backed schools, namely Penn Alexander, Lea offers English to Speakers of Other Languages and autistic support programs. Gentry said that for now, parents are still seeing a "strong commitment" to those programs.

“We were worried that would eventually go away as the population grew," Gentry said. "Penn Alexander does not do that kind of systemic support for those student populations, so our worry is that it will eventually become like that.” 

The school district told the DP that they have hired a new full-time support staff member focused on special education and prioritized furniture modernization for the autistic support classrooms. 

Despite community concerns, the school district pointed out its planning process and engagement with stakeholders.

“It was very important for us to make sure that the vision for this partnership was a collective one shared between the school and community,” Braxton wrote. “To that end, we have engaged in a rigorous school planning process that includes representatives from all of our stakeholder groups.”

The GSE also said that it worked with the community to obtain feedback from the start. 

“We feel confident that not only did the community have an opportunity to be heard, but that their knowledge, concerns, and goals have been — and will continue to be — woven into the plans for the school in coming years," Watts wrote to the DP.