Urban Land Institute Keynote

Let me say, first of all, on behalf of everyone at Drexel University, thank you for recognizing this project as part of the ULI Philadelphia 2021 Awards for Excellence. We are deeply honored that it was chosen as one of the six winners of this year’s competition.

And to have a national jury of ULI members shine a spotlight on us for excellence in public-private partnerships, education development and community engagement, well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

The new Powel Elementary/Science Leadership Academy Middle School is a project that’s very close to our hearts. Not only because it has produced a remarkable setting for learning, but because it is central to our efforts around engaging with and building up our West Philadelphia community.

Most of all, we’re proud of this school for what it means to the Powel and Science Leadership Academy students themselves. In fact, as I look back over the many steps in what proved to be a decade-long process, one moment stands out for me:

It was during the groundbreaking in December 2019, which was alive with all the energy and excitement of the school children who joined us. This was their school and one middle schooler said it best when she told us, “This will be our home.”

So, I’m really looking forward to our panel’s conversation [on the project] this morning. I guess I would frame the discussion with a number of questions: Why did we decide to build a school? Why here? And why did we build it in this manner? That is, how was it that a public-private partnership navigated all the challenges, raised the funding, responded to a community need, and didn’t let a global pandemic get in the way?

For us, this project is the realization of years of planning and close cooperation and consultation with neighbors and school partners.

That grew out of a shared realization — which came into sharp focus for me when I became president in 2010 — that Drexel had a ways to go to live up to the ideals and vision of its founder.

Even though today’s civic and business leaders have taken to calling University City ‘Philly’s Hottest Neighborhood,’ in fact, more than a century ago, Anthony J. Drexel had reached the same conclusion. When he was thinking of founding what became Drexel University, he looked around this neighborhood and he saw that it was at the very heart of an urban space. There were rail yards, mills, factories, warehouses — even slaughterhouses — all operating in close proximity to the bustling residential neighborhoods we know as Powelton Village and Mantua.

Drexel described the area where he built at 32nd and Chestnut Streets as, quote, “central to the best of the working population of a great industrial city.” And that led to his vision for an institution that differed from those that catered mainly to privileged, white, Anglo-Saxon men.

In A.J. Drexel’s world view, there was no room for restrictions on students’ race, religion, socio-economic status — or gender. … And he made none. That outlook shaped our university in profound ways … and it has inspired my conviction that we have a responsibility to be an engaged partner, an anchor for the residents, the schools, the businesses, the churches, and the nonprofit organizations around our campus.

Those of you who know Drexel today know that we have worked hard to be a responsive university, listening to community interests and bringing the full wealth of our expertise and resources to find solutions and opportunities.

So, here’s the story.  Soon after I became president we received a request — initially it was from the parents at Powel Elementary, our neighbors — to embrace that responsibility and help their school, which was just blocks from our campus. At the time, the Powel School felt at risk, with a small school population at a time when the School District was closing and consolidating schools. Already in a facility that was overcrowded and unable to accommodate their rich instructional program, they asked us for help.

As we got to know the Powel community, we came to understand its enormous potential. Powel is a long-time jewel in Philadelphia, one of the strongest elementary schools in the School District, with high quality instruction and great outcomes. But as a K-4 elementary school, they were out of step in an increasingly K-8 school environment.  

So, we dug in, first by thinking about a middle school partner and then, when the School District decided to close several schools located next to our campus, by conceiving an entirely new facility that could accommodate Powel and a new middle school.

We were lucky to get a planning grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership so the community, teachers, District administrators and Drexel colleagues could imagine how these schools could relate to each other and to Drexel. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Science Leadership Academy, the excellent Philadelphia magnet STEM high school, stepped up to offer a new inquiry-based middle school — known as

SLAMS (SLA Middle School). Theirs is a hands-on instructional model that fits Drexel to a tee and is a perfect complement to Powel’s thoughtful and nurturing approach to early education.

We formed an incredible partnership with Wexford Science & Technology to purchase the site, which was a 14 acre tract that formerly housed University City High School, Charles Drew Elementary School and the pre-K Walnut Center. Incredibly, this site sat in the heart of what was quickly becoming a center for innovation and knowledge creation.

In Rob Rogers and his partners, we found a great firm to design a beautiful building that could accommodate the different needs and cultures of these two schools. And we began to put together the capital stack, which included a crucial anchor gift from Marquerite and Gerry Lenfest, and help from the School District, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s RACP program, corporate philanthropy including Ventas and PECO, and an incredible investment from four entities participating in the New Markets Tax Credit program. This was a public-private funding partnership at its finest and most creative.   

All the ingredients were there for a real thriller, and I can tell you it felt that way at times. We had a committed community asking for education worthy of their children … Two first-rate innovative schools able to deliver on the learning needs of the 21st century … A construction site in the heart of a burgeoning innovation district … A compelling and beautiful design for a school building … A real funding challenge … And then, a pandemic.

Oh, and through it all, children continued to learn.

Powel rented additional space in a nearby church to accommodate its students and rich academic program. And SLAMS opened in 2016 with its first fifth-grade class at Drexel’s urban extension center in Mantua, the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. Two years later, SLAMS moved to 3600 Market Street, and this June — following construction that was completed during the pandemic — they actually held their eighth-grade graduation – their second — at their new home.

I’ll leave it there with this thought:

These are schools that are beloved in this neighborhood. Powel, in particular, has educated generations of local children. Our goal was always to ensure that their future is here.

The dedication and commitment of West Philadelphia residents to these schools and to this neighborhood is what inspires us — and makes us so committed to expanding opportunity here.

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