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Bridesburg Charter School Officially Opens New Buildings

On the morning of Friday, October 2nd, grey clouds filled an overcast sky. But despite the uninspiring weather the mood inside the gymnasium of the First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School was far from dreary. Children, teachers, staff and prominent local politicians were on campus celebrating a ribbon cutting ceremony that marked the opening of a number of new buildings on campus.

First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School (First Philly) opened its doors in September 2002 with three different campuses scattered across various Philadelphia neighborhoods. The school moved to a permanent location in 2004 and experienced expansion in 2009, which included the construction of a 700-seat auditorium. Continued growth of First Philly brought about yet another expansion in February 2015 with the intention of allowing the K-12 school to operate entirely on one site. Today nearly 1700 students will be able to receive their education from a single campus setting.

The ribbon cutting ceremony was more than a way to praise the completion of the new brick and mortar facilities. Those who spoke at the event choose to focus on discussing the accomplishments of their students.

“What is behind this ribbon is even more important than a building — it’s our students that inhabit this building that make it come alive each day,” Dr. Joseph Gillespie CEO of First Philly, said. “Yes, they are still growing and developing here at First Philadelphia as they continue their education but we are eager to present them to the world — a world that desperately needs their talents, their enthusiasm, their intellect and their goodness.”

First Philadelphia Charter School

First Philadelphia Charter School

First Philly’s mission was articulated during the ceremony, which highlighted the continued learning of all their students as something of the utmost importance.

“Help kids learn to read so they can read to learn,” Jurate Krokys, CEO of American Paradigm Schools, said. “What greater task is there for us then to empower our students to become lifelong learners?”

American Paradigm Schools (APS) is an educational management organization that assists First Philadelphia and three other local-area charters (including the Memphis Street Academy) in supporting academic success. According to their website, APS was formed on July 1, 2011 to provide a positive blueprint to communities where educational choices were absent. Much of the funding that has allowed First Philadelphia to grow in recent years has been largely managed with the help of APS.

“We hire [APS] to come in and help us with the management of the school,” John MacDonald, First Philly Board of Trustees President, said. “It’s at arms length because, as I have told APS, if we were unhappy with what they are assisting us with, whether its educational efforts or funding, we could look elsewhere.”

It’s been all thumbs up thus far. MacDonald and others at First Philly have been pleased with the ways APS has assisted the schools in recent years and the excitement surrounding this expansion shows that.

But despite the success of First Philly and Memphis Street Academy, they operate within a backdrop of growing concerns and critiques of Philadelphia charter schools. In February the School Reform Commission (SRC) finished the review of 39 charter school applications for the Philadelphia School District. In the end only five out of the 39 were approved.

One of the five members of the SRC, Commissioner Marjorie Neff, didn’t vote for a single charter school to be approved. She sighted a lack of the quality in the applications as her reasoning.

Krokys of APS condemd these listed deficiencies in a Philly.com article after the SRC’s decision had been made: “There were actual facts that were inaccurate and perhaps it reflected a lot of applications they had to review in a short time,” Krokys told Philly.com in Febuary.

Meanwhile public schools are failing citywide and more closures are on the horizon. On October 1st, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite announced closures, conversions to charter schools and even newly proposed schools, which will affect 5,000 students at 15 schools. The superintendent’s plan requires SRC approval and will cost up to $20 million.

According to The Notebook, Hite says that schools slated for the so-called Renaissance charter conversion (Jay Cooke in Logan, Samuel Huey in West Philadelphia and John Wister in Germantown) will build “on the success of the Renaissance charter program, which reignites in-district turnaround efforts, consolidates underperforming programs and launches new schools based on proven and innovative models and approaches.”

Antoinette Powell, who has held teaching and leadership positions at Philly public schools and charter schools, is currently working as the assistant principal at First Philly. After receiving an Eagle Award for outstanding leadership during the ribbon cutting ceremony, she made her way down the new hallways of the school. As she made her way students repeatedly greeted her to spark up new conversations. Powell says this is typical of a normal day at First Philly.

“It’s all about setting the tone with high expectations,” Powell said. “We let the kids know that school is about business and it’s important we focus on where their lives are going. Every child needs a champion… and when you are dealing with such a diverse population of kids from various backgrounds you have to be that champion and push them forward.”

Alexander Ramon is an 11th grade student who started at First Philadelphia in 3rd grade. Before then he attended local area public schools.

“I was kind of bad at reading and math and once I started coming here it boosted those skills and really helped a lot,” Ramon said. “If I did not understand something the teachers had no problem explaining everything. They care so much.”

Mariam Majeed, also in 11th grade, started at First Philly in 9th grade. Born in Pakistan, Majeed notes that despite the cultural differences between her original home and America, First Philly helped her to overcome adversity through opportunity.
“This school is so important to me because one of the reasons why my parents brought me here was because of the education opportunities and this school gives me those opportunities.” Majeed said. “It’s through internships, other programs and trying to send everyone to college. That mentality has been embedded in the environment here. In some it’s still growing and in others it has fully bloomed.”

First Philadelphia Charter School

First Philadelphia Charter School

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