Construction commences at Wissahickon Charter School’s Awbury Campus

 On Monday, officials broke ground for Wissahickon Charter School's new Awbury Campus on Monday. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

On Monday, officials broke ground for Wissahickon Charter School's new Awbury Campus on Monday. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

With a celebratory sprinkling of native grass seeds by first graders, ground was officially broken for the Wissahickon Charter School’s new Germantown campus on Monday.

Located on East Washington Lane near Chew Avenue, the site will house a K-8 public charter school with an educational focus on the environment. The 49,000 square-foot, two-story building will contain 23 classrooms for up to 500 elementary and middle-school students.

The school’s “Awbury Campus” will partner with the neighboring arboretum as an extended, outdoor educational classroom.

The school’s current site on Wissahickon Avenue near East Falls, with more than 450 students currently enrolled, will remain open after the new building opens its doors in time for classes in the fall of 2014.

“This has been years in the making,” said Kristi Littell, WCS chief executive officer at Monday’s groundbreaking event.

How it came to be

At a time when several charter schools are expanding to accommodate increased enrollment, WCS is uniquely opening a second campus rather than upgrading or replacing an existing one.

Originally a K-5 when it opened in 2002, WCS later expanded to include a middle school.

With demand for entry into the program constantly growing, school officials sought ways to shorten the wait lists. Ultimately, they partnered with the Mt. Airy USA (MAUSA) community development corporation to make the second campus a reality.

When it originally bought the property in 2008, MAUSA planned a mixed-use residential/commercial development.

Anuj Gupta, executive director of the MAUSA, said that there was high level of “emotional investment” in the process, such as when unforeseen costs associated with soil remediation put the project over $1 million in the red.

With the funding gap solved — in addition to grants, $16 million comes from New Market Tax Credits via Chase Bank and The Reinvestment Fund, and $2.5 million from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program — MAUSA received zoning board approval in February to put the school on a site which was originally zoned for industrial use.

Echoing on Monday the strong community support offered throughout the process, state Rep. Dwight Evans told school officials, “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

Area improvemements

For many, the school represents a significant step in transforming what some have described as a blighted area.

Just last month, an 18,000 square-foot Bottom Dollar grocery store opened next to the WCS site.

Local police indicate that the nearby intersection of Chew Avenue and Washington Lane, once problematic, is now much quieter than in the past.

Referencing the closing of Germantown High School and Fulton Elementary School earlier this year, state Rep. Stephen Kinsey said he heard a variety of concerns voiced throughout the community.

“There were conspiracy theories. Folks were saying that there was an assault on public education in Germantown,” said Kinsey. “That might be so, but when you see Wissahickon Charter School being built from the ground up, some of us are able to step back and breathe a sigh of relief.”

Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass praised the efforts of school officials for seeing the project through.

“As parents, we all recognize there’s nothing more important than the future of our young people,” she said, “and this building will really make that statement in a profound way.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal