Community recommendation about Camelot Schools’ GHS plan could reach SRC as early as Friday

 On Wednesday, representatives of 15 community groups with ties to Germantown High School gathered to discuss Camelot Schools' proposal to lease the building. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

On Wednesday, representatives of 15 community groups with ties to Germantown High School gathered to discuss Camelot Schools' proposal to lease the building. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

After meeting with community groups at Janes Memorial UMC Church on Wednesday, state Rep. Steven Kinsey and City Councilwoman Cindy Bass told NewsWorks they would send the School Reform Commission a recommendation regarding Camelot Schools’ proposal to lease Germantown High School no later than next week.

That letter, on which state Sen. Leanna Washington will also have input, will notify the SRC of the group’s thoughts on bringing three alternative-education programs to the neighborhood.

It will be sent as soon as this Friday, but no later than Aug. 9, as Camelot is facing a looming school year without any facilities.

Regardless of what the letter states, the final decision rests with the SRC, which meets Aug. 22. The school year starts less than three weeks later.

“This is a very important issue for Germantown,” Bass said at the meeting’s onset. “We don’t want to do anything that will set us back.”

Questions, answers

Wednesday’s meeting came a week after a session at Janes in which Camelot CEO Todd Bock and others pitched the wider community on the school’s merits.

This audience, however, was more limited in scope.

Kinsey said representatives of 15 groups with ties or proximity to GHS were invited to facilitate a more focused discussion.

Camelot Assistant VP of Operations Matthew Kass, Assistant Superintendent Benjamin Wright — who oversees the district’s alternative programs — and others fielded questions from an array of community development corporations, neighborhood groups, clergy and alumni groups.

The invited groups included Germantown Restoration CDC, Germantown Community Connection, Germantown United CDC, Chew and Belfield Neighbors Club, Germantown Special Services District, Friends of Vernon Park, Germantown Clergy Initiative, the GHS Alumni Association, West Central Germantown Neighbors, Price Street Neighbors, FUMCOG and Men United for a Better Philadelphia.

Topics addressed during the first part of the meeting included:

• Graduation, literacy and attendance rates (which Wright read and noted he would email to anyone who asked),

• Demographic breakdowns,

• Instances of school violence,

• Cost to the district of Camelot’s proposed three-year lease

• Whether a revived GHS could return to the building,

• The possibility of enrolling youths from Germantown,

• Whether community space would be available inside and, among others,

• Whether the officials have sought other tenants.

A Camelot pitch

A burly, passionate defender of Camelot’s “putting students first breeds success” mission, Kass set out to “speak off the cuff,” refuting speculation that the lease was a done deal.

“Rumors of a conspiracy with the School District are the furthest thing from the truth,” he said, reiterating that Camelot Alternative VP, and Germantown native, Milton Alexander was the driving force.

Rueing the thought of a shuttered GHS, Alexander told him, “‘I want to take it home to Germantown, back to where I’m from.’ That was 60 days ago. That’s how this all started.”

He also thanked attendees for coming out to a meeting that had been moved from 6 p.m. to 10:30 a.m., regardless of their thoughts on Camelot.

“In one way or another, you care, and that’s where it all starts,” Kass said. “With your support, the possibilities are endless. I hope you felt my passion because I believe in these students, and I hope you believe in me.”

Time of the essence

Outside on Haines Street, Kass noted another major concern: “Right now, we have 500 students left hanging in the wind.”

Excel Academy North and Excel Academy South, both located in Northeast Philadelphia, serve “near-dropouts” who need a substantial number of credits to graduate high school. Camelot Academy, on the other hand, works with middle-school and high-school students who were removed from traditional schools for disciplinary infractions.

With reductions in per-pupil finding from he district — down from $10,100 per pupil to $8,750 — the for-profit company maintained it can’t afford to maintain three separate facilities.

“The term ‘for profit’ is a little misleading,” he said. “After salaries and benefits, we’re not making much money. We’re there to serve the students.”

After two hours, officials from Camelot and the media were asked to leave Janes to, according to Kinsey, facilitate a frank discussion amongst that core group.

Why go private?

After the meeting, Kinsey explained why he felt it was best to have a closed-door session with interested neighborhood parties. 

He said he wanted representatives to “talk freely, with no pressure” rather than reverting to a situation where groups would be at odds because of quotes that appeared in the media, or were whispered down the lane, as has traditionally happened among Germantown groups.

Of that private meeting, he said he suggested they seek:

• A community oversight review on which leases now or in the future would hinge,

• A community benefits agreement,

• A strategy to draw former GHS students who could benefit from the programs, and

• Considerations for both a relationship with the shuttered school’s alumni group and employment and vending opportunites for Germantowners.

A pro/con list was compiled as well.

“There were a lot of mixed feelings about it; some showed an emotional, personal side,” Kinsey said. “If [the Camelot lease] doesn’t happen, I’m open-minded about sitting back and waiting [for the district to find a tenant] as long as they maintain the property.”

What now?

Bass noted that she, Kinsey and Washington have “to sit down and process” concerns raised by attendees, reaching out to them for further discussion if need be. Though the building is not located in her district, state Rep. Rosita Youngblood’s thoughts will also be sought, both said.

Then, according to Bass, an “X, Y, Z, and this is why” letter will be drafted and sent to the SRC.

The councilwoman said that could happen as soon as Friday, but Kinsey expected it to be sent sometime next week.

“Nothing,” he said, “is set in stone.”

Officials said they will provide NewsWorks with a copy as soon as it has been sent; we will share it with you as soon as possible.

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