Eying expansion, Philly charter school creates incubator for start-ups

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Three female high-schoolers working in a test kitchen, baking equipment, rolling pin on counter

Raven Burckhalter, (from left) Lisa Jane Russell, and Kaitlyn Stone use the test kitchen inside a co-working space created by String Theory Schools. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Philadelphia Performing Arts: A String Theory Charter School occupies an eight-floor office building at 16th and Vine streets in Center City, Philadelphia.

The first seven floors contain classrooms, labs and other fairly conventional school accessories. On the eighth they’re cooking up an experiment.

On Thursday, the charter network formally unveiled Particle, a co-working space that now houses six startup companies (and, naturally, a pingpong table).

Like other co-working spaces, Particle is sleek, open and designed with a minimalist touch. Unlike other co-working spaces, Particle’s tenants don’t pay a dime. Instead they receive one-year “fellowships” that allow them to use the space for free on one condition: They have to provide some educational benefit to the school, which serves students in grades five through 12 at its Vine Street campus.

That could include designing a course or hiring students as interns.

The companies include a hand-bag designer; a nonprofit that teaches kids to code; and a firm that created a search engine for do-gooders. Some have just one employee. Others have up to 10.

String Theory Schools (STS) co-founder and chief innovation officer Jason Corosanite thinks those opportunities will expose his students to real-world work without ever having to leave the building.

“We definitely needed some different experiences and more sophisticated experiences than just, ‘I took AP physics,'” he said.

Any venture involving String Theory’s physical space is bound to raise eyebrows. The nonprofit’s impressive facility once housed a branch of the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. String Theory took out a $55 million bond to purchase the property, as detailed in an investigative report by Philly.com. Shortly afterward, the school cut back on some services, such as transportation.

According to its most recent financial disclosures, String Theory’s expenses outpaced its revenues in 2016 by about $370,000. But the school receives high marks from the district’s charter office for financial management and stability.

Besides, said Corosanite, Particle isn’t a money play. The space is free to all tenants — by design — and STS plans to keep that way.

Looking toward the future

Corosanite does see Particle as part of the network’s expansion plans, though.

Started in 2000, STS has two schools spread out across four campuses and enrolls about 3,500 students. Corosanite envisions a much larger footprint with a stated goal of creating 20 schools.

Given the low funding levels in Philadelphia and the district’s recent aversion to major charter expansion, it’s unlikely String Theory could reach those lofty targets by staying local.

“Right now, it’s probably a closed market for us,” said Corosanite.

Instead, the organization wants to license both its educational model and its incubator idea to other high schools or even universities.

In essence, Particle is one more thing String Theory can offer to those who might want to sponsor its expansion.

“Where there’s opportunities to open a String Theory School with a Particle space, great,” Corosanite said. “Where there’s opportunities to just do a Particle space somewhere, that just gives us flexibility to pivot and expand.”

Licensing the Particle concept could also increase revenue and give the organization more cash as it looks to grow. The organization believes its holistic, technology-focused approach can be a model for urban education around the country.

“We really want to build that next 20 string theory schools,” said Corosanite. “So we’re trying to figure out how do we get to 20?”

But all those plans are in the distance.

Thursday’s focus was on the new space and the students taking advantage of it.

Junior Kaitlyn Stone worked in the eighth floor’s sparkling test kitchen, prepping miniature pumpkin pies under the tutelage of local food stylist — and Particle tenant — Lisa Jane Russell.

Russell moved into the space in late August, saving herself about $1,000 a month in the process. She’s teaching Stone and another intern, senior Raven Burckhalter, the ins and outs of her business. They’re learning how to decorate food so “you wanna eat it off the page”; how to photograph food; how to make viral cooking videos; how to maintain production schedules; and even how to present.

“We’re learning what looks good on camera [and] what doesn’t,” said Stone. “For me, personally, I talk really fast sometimes so I’m kinda learning to, like, slow down.”

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