Six weeks before classes would start, Camelot Schools officials make their GHS pitch [video]

Dozens of residents packed the pews of a Germantown church on Wednesday night to learn more about a proposal that, if approved, would bring three alternative-education programs to the neighborhood.

With six weeks to go before the start of the new school year, officials with Camelot Education told residents that the for-profit company wants to merge all of its city programs at Germantown High School’s freshly shuttered building.

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. Participants, who must be at least 16, attend voluntarily.

Camelot Academy, on the other hand, works with middle-school and high-school students who were removed from traditional schools for disciplinary infractions. Enrollees are expected to transition back to a regular school after a period of remediation.

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Not a new program

All three programs exclusively serve students from the Philadelphia School District, which has partnered with Camelot for the last decade.

“These are kids that have fallen through the cracks,” said Camelot CEO Todd Bock inside Janes Memorial United Methodist Church.

The new school would serve between 400 and 800 students, a number of whom are not performing at grade level.

About two thirds of the school’s population would be “accelerated” students from Camelot’s Excel programs. The remaining third would be “transitional” students from Camelot Academy.

The school would be privately staffed by Camelot teachers.

Bock said the company needs to find a singular home for its programs due to a drop in funding from the district. In the past, the Texas-based outfit received $10,100 per pupil; that figure now sits at $8,750. The district lays out $12,620 per pupil at its traditional, non-charter schools.

“We can’t afford three programs in three different buildings,” Bock said.

Why Germantown?

Milton Alexander, vice president of Camelot’s Alternative Education Program, is a Germantown native and said he has a special place in his heart for Germantown High School.

“This all came from me,” said Alexander, whose sister graduated from GHS. “I cannot imagine Germantown High School being empty.”

GHS closed in June after 99 years as part of the district’s facilities master plan.

Bock has said the building, which Camelot would lease from the district, is also centrally located to a number of neighborhoods the company serves.

Residents react

Many members of the Germantown community who lined up Wednesday to question Camelot officials simply wanted to know more about the company. The disciplinary program was the focus of several questions.

Alexander explained that students at Camelot Academy were suspended from traditional public schools and sent to Camelot Academy, but that the community shouldn’t view them as problematic.

“It’s not a sentence,” he said. “It’s not the end of the line.”

Assistant Superintendent Benjamin Wright, who oversees the district’s alternative programs, added that a number of students come from Northwest Philadelphia neighborhoods, including Germantown.

Residents also asked about Camelot’s student-to-teacher ratios, graduation rates and college-acceptance rates.

Alexander said Camelot has a 90-percent graduation rate for students “eligible” to graduate in one year. Other data were not immediately available. Both Alexander and Bock vowed to make them so following the meeting.

During the nearly two-hour question-and-answer session, three former Camelot students stood and spoke first-hand about Camelot’s reputation. Their testimonies appeared to inspire some audience members.

Solangie Penafilix graduated in June from Camelot Academy. The 20-year-old, a former student at Dobbins Technical High School in North Philadelphia, said Camelot staff made sure she graduated as she struggled to beat breast cancer.

It was the kind of support she didn’t get at home.

“I had staff check up on my chemotherapy,” said Penafilix, whose story caused some residents to stand and cheer.

Why couldn’t GHS stay open?

Others, still reeling from the loss of GHS, wondered why Germantown’s building may be opened to Camelot, but the public high school had to close.

GHS alum Doug Tolbert said he’d like to see other offers for the building, a sentiment that was echoed by fellow attendees.

“When you’re buying a car, you never take the first price,” said Tolbert.

Other residents wanted to make it known that they flat-out rejected Camelot’s proposal.

John Keogh, a newly-minted Germantown resident, called the plan “a disaster” for a neighborhood that he said is moving in the right direction, but still needs work.

“We have other parts of the city that are more stable,” said Keogh. “We want to develop a commercial center here. We want to get people moving in and taking care of these old houses.”

Meeting next week

Community stakeholders are scheduled to meet next Wednesday to discuss this week’s meeting and make a recommendation to Eighth District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass and state Rep. Stephen Kinsey, who arranged the meeting.

The two will consider that recommendation before making one of their own to the district.

Camelot needs an SRC-approved resolution before it can move into Germantown. The last regularly scheduled SRC meeting before the start of the new school year is Aug. 22.

The first day of classes for Philadelphia public-school students is Sept. 9.

Camelot will need to find a new home no matter what; the company’s lease agreements at Excel Academy North and Excel Academy South have expired and its agreement for Camelot Academy is also up.

Following Wednesday’s presentation, Bock said he’s hopeful about his company’s future in Germantown.

“I’m hopeful that folks will be able to differentiate between the disappointment of Germantown High School closing and what is another option that’s viable and that can still serve kids in Germantown,” said Bock. “It might not be the best answer for them, but it’s certainly something better than having a vacant building.”

Official reaction

For her part, Bass would not publicly reveal where she sits on the matter. She said she’s still troubled by the loss of GHS, but worries about what a longstanding vacant building would mean for the neighborhood’s commercial corridor and beyond.

“I see both sides,” said Bass.

Kinsey said he also hasn’t decided one way or the other.

“I’m still open-minded,” he said.

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