Expansion project continues at West Oak Lane Charter School

On first visit, the office of Dr. Debbera Peoples-Lee seems a bit generously sized.

Then she explains it’s actually a classroom. The office of the CEO of the West Oak Lane Charter School was demolished as part of the school’s ongoing expansion project, and the new administrative suite is still weeks away from completion.

On a shelf next to her desk, Lee keeps a pair of hardhats handy for what one senses is a regular walk through a maze of work crews, cinder-block walls, hanging lights and concrete dust that dominates the school’s campus at 7115 Stenton Ave. When finished, the $16 million project will create a 64,000 square-foot school with about 850 students in kindergarten through grade 8.

The new building keeps some of the current structure, with additions wrapping around three sides. The entrance preserves the colorful mosaic across the facade, but moves the main entrance to the left. The current cafeteria/auditorium will remain, but only for eating. Gym classes now held in the parking lot or in classrooms will move into a full-sized gymnasium.

Inside the main door, a central atrium hallway will connect to administrative offices on the right, and a total of 45 classrooms, a library/literary center, two computer labs and office and prep spaces to the left.

The project is still very much a work in progress. Late-summer sunshine streams through the metal roof beams of the new gym. Plywood walkways connect old and new parts of the building. Metal studs and natural light are the decor.

Classes are scheduled to begin on Sept. 8, but all grades and staff won’t likely be brought together in the finished building until October, after a slightly-extended Columbus Day weekend. Until then, kindergarten through 4th grade will stay in the current building, with grades 5 and 6 in trailers, and 7 and 8 in the yellow building on the site which will eventually be demolished for new parking.

“We really want to make sure we get into our new facilities before we get too far into our new academic year,” Lee said.

Founded in 1998 at first for K-4, the school eventually spread across three buildings in the West Oak Lane Shopping Center. One of the buildings, and the former playground area, have been cleared to make way for the new construction. The school is owned and managed by a subsidiary of state Rep. Dwight Evans’ Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. (OARC), which handles the school’s accounting and facilities management.

Friends of West Oak Lane, LLC bought the entire shopping center last year and won financing for the project through Fulton Bank, said Norman Barnum, CFO of the community development agency. The bank required five years of clean audits, a detailed analysis of the school’s future business strategy and on-site visits to assess the school administration, Barnum said.

Enrollment numbers and the mix of neighborhoods in which students live have been on a rapid rise, with some families entering the admission lottery from as far away as South Philadelphia.

“My community is now the city,” Lee said. “We are becoming a school of choice.”

During Lee’s first year at the school (2006-07), the school received a warning on its reading performance scores, but has made Average Yearly Progress (AYP) in all areas every year since, and 86 percent of WOLCS students get into special-admission high schools.

Students wear uniforms, and teachers follow a dress code, too. Signs in the hallways remind students to be silent, respect each other and keep their hands to themselves. College pennants are meant to keep the kids focused on where they’re going. Even the grading curve is strict — it takes at least a 74 to pass.

The school is chartered to expand up to grade 12, but Lee said the focus remains on elementary and middle grades. “I’ve been trying to find what we’re really good at in this school, and what we’re good at is getting students into really good high schools,” she said.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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