Benjamin Persofsky’s is an age-old Philadelphia tale. He and his wife moved to Center City as a young couple, where they had a vibrant group of friends. Years passed, and those friends got married; they had kids; they began to agonize over city schools. Then, one by one, Persofsky’s friends left the city for the suburbs. For Persofsky, who still lives in Center City with his wife and now a new baby, the exodus signalled more than a loss of his own community. He saw it as a loss for the city as a whole: As his friends left Philadelphia, so did their real estate taxes, wage taxes and discretionary spending, all funds that the city needs to become more livable. Like so many before him, Persofsky wondered: How can we convince people to stay?
His answer: Build a school they’ll want their children to attend.
This fall, Persofsky formed the Partnership School for Science and Innovation (PSSI), which applied to open a new branch of the acclaimed MaST Community Charter School in Center City. PSSI’s application was among the 40 submitted to the School Reform Commission in November. But it has one thing the other charters don’t: A catchment area that would draw students primarily from Center City, an area with the wealthiest Philadelphians and the city’s most lauded public elementary schools.
“We’re trying to help the School District solve a problem that also can help the city of Philadelphia,” Persofsky says. “We have all this churn in the higher-end brackets, over this one issue. That has a huge impact on the city. We need to give people more options so they don’t have to move.”
Whether the SRC will affirm Persofsky’s reasoning—and the school’s proposal—is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, PSSI has drawn the ire of critics—already disinclined to favor charters—who see the proposal as elitist, providing more great seats to the haves, while much of the District languishes behind. “I feel like they’re just looking out for themselves and their children,” says Lauren Summers, a schools advocate (and public school mom) who runs Philly School News, a Facebook group with over 600 followers. “This doesn’t really help the students who need better schools, which is what charter schools are supposedly about.”
Persofsky is not an educator. He’s a Philly native who says he grew up poor in the Northeast, where he (unhappily) attended Northeast High School, before eventually becoming a banker. Now, he is a senior vice president at Brown Brothers Harriman, a privately-owned bank; his wife, Danielle Sandsmark, is a neurologist at Penn. Besides Persofsky, PSSI’s board is made up of other doctors and Penn professors, accountants, bankers and a couple of education administrators, about half of whom have small children. They chose MaST as their partner based on the state’s performance scores, on which the tech-focused Northeast school ranked highest among K-12 schools in the city. (MaST has also applied to open another branch in the Northeast.)
Persofsky loves data, and he has culled studies on the city’s population and behaviors to bolster his thesis about the need for a new school in Center City. According to a 2014 Pew study, the population of millennials in Philadelphia grew by about 100,000 from 2006 to 2012, the highest jump of any city in the country. The biggest concentration of Philly’s young people is in Center City, where the new Comcast Innovation Center is expected to bring 2,000 new jobs. Persofsky notes that the city has one chance to convince those families to move to Philly, rather than the suburbs. But it will be a tough sell: Even among millennials who already live here, half those surveyed said they expect to leave the city in 5 to 10 years, nearly 30 percent because of “schools and child-upbringing concerns.” In an ideal world, those young people will change their minds. If they do, the city faces a different crisis. Persofsky notes that in 2011, 453 babies were born to families in PSSI’s catchment area. Those kids would start kindergarten in 2016. But Persofsky says Greenfield, McCall, and even the slightly more far-flung Meredith, would have room for only about 200 of those students, combined.
“If we didn’t do this, the District would have to do it themselves to meet the demand,” says Persofsky. “But there is already $1.89 billion in deferred maintenance. New construction is not a priority. The money that is generated from having our school will help the District more than the cost of starting the school.”
While 80 percent of students under PSSI’s plan would come from families in the Center City zip codes, the other 20 percent of seats are reserved for children outside the primary catchment, primarily poorer neighborhoods. The 80-20 split is deliberate: Persofsky cites research that shows that children from underserved communities performed better in schools with a sizable population of middle class families, compared to schools that pooled poor children together. This runs contrary to the popular idea of a neighborhood school, serving the immediate community, that can somehow raise everyone to the same level. But Persofsky and his team might be on to something. “We have a segregated city, and a segregated school system,” says Temple education professor Maia Bloomfield Cucchiara, author of Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities: Who Wins and Who Loses When Schools Become Urban Amenities. “We should want more integration in the schools if we want a truly integrated city. We should be figuring out the best way to do that.”
Persofsky’s idea is not altogether new for Philadelphia. It harkens back to the Rendell era, when the mayor pushed for Center City development as a way to bring new life to the city, with ripple effects in surrounding neighborhoods. The progress outwards has been slow, but the population shift in neighborhoods like Northern Liberties and Graduate Hospital are beyond dispute. In 2004, the city launched the Center City Schools Initiative, with the same prevailing theory: Make local public schools appealing to middle class (and primarily white) parents and they—along with their money—will choose to stay and educate their children here. It seems to have worked—to a point. Cucchiara notes that the number of Center City first graders enrolled in Greenfield, Meredith and McCall increased by 60 percent between 2004 and 2009, from 111 to 177. Meanwhile, the number of students from outside the catchment—traditionally poorer neighborhoods—decreased by 42 percent. “We need to be careful when we channel public resources toward an already advantaged group,” says Cucchiara, who wrote about the issue for The Atlantic last year. “Despite the conversation being about how everybody wins, everyone doesn’t win. Some people are marginalized or excluded.”
Persofsky knows his is not a perfect plan. “It would be pretentious to think that,” he says. The outlines of what he proposed to the SRC in December are just that—an outline. This may be learned humility, after PSSI’s application got off to a rocky start in November. When the state passed the cigarette tax in September, legislators mandated the city open its charter application process. This gave Persofsky and his team just 30 days to complete the proposal, hundreds of pages, including two 501c3 applications and a real estate plan. (Persofsky later said he’d been hoping to do this in 2016, not now.) In the rush to finish the application, PSSI identified an old chocolate factory at 21st and Washington as a potential site for the school. Which meant it would be located in South Philly, but primarily take students from outside the neighborhood.
This did not go over well with school advocates and the local community. Within days, Philly School News had 120 comments about PSSI’s proposal on its Facebook page, and other parent-focused listservs held their own (mainly critical) discussions. “A stated focus on serving a demand in “the extended Center City area” does not indicate a concern for the community in which this proposed school will be situated, nor its children—but rather, for those upper/middle-class families in the Center City catchment,” one parent wrote. “Frankly, I cannot see anything other than elitism/classism in privileging students from more affluent zips over the needs of those families for whom moving to the suburbs is not a financial possibility.”
Persofsky caught wind of the discussion, and joined in a lengthy back and forth with Summers on her page, then met with her and others to explain his ideas and hear their concerns. Soon, he posted a mea culpa on MaST Center City’s blog, insisting that the Washington Avenue address was a “Giant Blunder,” made in the throes of finishing its application. In fact, Persofsky says, PSSI always intended the school to be located in Center City, so most students could walk there—thereby also saving the District on transportation costs.
“To clarify once and for all, we did not have an intention of pursuing the property on Washington Avenue,” he wrote. “Unfortunately we missed things at 2am while we were pulling this together. That one sentence was like kerosene on twigs and understandably, people in the area around the Chocolate factory were enraged.”
By the time of his December presentation before the SRC, Persofsky had made other concessions to his critics as well. He spent most of his allotted 15 minutes outlining the philosophy behind his catchment idea, and altered the admissions schedule for 2016, to allay Summers’ and others’ concerns that opening the charter could dramatically disrupt the school communities that have built up around Greenfield and McCall.
Persofsky and his team followed up the session with an informational town hall in late December, distributing flyers in Society Hill and elsewhere asking parents to sign a petition advocating for the school. They’ll need the support. No charter school in Philly has tried to open with a catchment area, and Cucchiara—among others—is skeptical that the idea will pass muster with the SRC. To do so, Persofsky will have to convince them not just that it is an important goal to keep these new young parents in the city, or that a Center City MaST will do that, but that those families will live in exactly the area where he wants to put the school—not, for example, in the near South or North Philly neighborhoods that have seen the highest growth of millennials, and where there are more houses affordable to middle class families. If he is successful, and MaST does open to Center City students in 2016, even Persofsky recognizes that his school—no matter the controversy it has raised—will have a limited impact on the city, either good or bad. It is, after all, one school for a few hundred students in a District of 200,000.
“It’s true that keeping people in Center City will help keep Philadelphia economically strong and competitive,” says Cucchiara. “But you can’t say that this will decrease poverty and increase revitalization of other neighborhoods in the city. There is just not a lot of evidence to say that families in North Philly are better off because a bunch of people stayed in Center City.”
PSSI MaST’s second hearing before the SRC is on January 23 at 9 AM at 400 North Broad Street.
To see MaST’s and other charter school applicants’ presentations click here.