For decades, the two-story building on North Broad Street was a showroom and district office for PECO Energy. More recently, the century-old property was home to a series of churches, including the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Manna Bible Institute. Before the pandemic, it was purchased by a developer for a residential project that never materialized, opening the door for yet another owner.
On Wednesday, state lawmakers joined school administrators and students to celebrate the building’s next life as the permanent home of YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School. For the last 31 years, the public school has rented a nearby space on North Broad.
“We are going to have at this location, a place of hope, a place of opportunity and a place of love. And that’s what our community deserves,” said Martin Brigham, former board chair, during a sunny groundbreaking ceremony.
The existing building will be transformed before the school is slated to open in summer 2024, when its current lease runs out. When the construction work is complete, the property will have three floors and run about 36,000 square-feet. There will be dedicated instructional spaces tied to the school’s six vocational training tracks. There are also plans to install photovoltaic and solar panels on the rooftop as part of a green energy program.
The total price tag for the project is about $25 million, including the cost of acquiring the property. The money is a mix of private donations, state dollars, federal tax credits, and a loan through the Reinvestment Fund and others.
“The rationale is not so much that we’re doing a new building a mile north because we’re dramatically increasing our enrollment. We’re doing that in small ways. But we’re able to do better by young people in all the spaces that we’re kind of co-creating with staff and students to make this a really beautiful, exemplary building facility,” said executive director Scott Emerick.
YouthBuild Philly currently enrolls 225 students. They range in age from 17 ½ to 21.
Roughly a quarter of the student body is from the ZIP code surrounding the new school building. But all of them are from areas of the city that have high poverty, high violent crime and low diploma attainment, said incoming CEO Le’Yondo Dunn.
The school was created to help students finish high school who previously completed some, but not all of the credits needed to graduate. Enrollees complete a robust one-year program that gives them a competency-based diploma and a vocational work certificate.
The school offers workforce training in business administration and customer service; healthcare; building trades and construction; child and youth care; and the culinary arts.
Students are also required to complete community service hours.
“It’s really deep and impactful work when you’re helping a young person who did not see their potential, who did not see what options they had in the real world, to be able to realize those options, help them navigate those spaces, help them emotionally regulate,” said Dunn.
Maine Robbins dropped out of high school his sophomore year after falling too far behind in a self-paced homeschool program. The West Philadelphia native applied to YouthBuild Philly while working as a laborer for a landscaping company.
A friend suggested he check out the program.
“I went to an info session and then like automatically, because of my background, I see all the trades, like different construction trades, and I’m like, ‘Okay. It looks good,’” said Robbins.
After getting his diploma in 2016, Robbins got a job with Solar States, a workforce development program in Philadelphia that trains people to become solar panel installers.
Now 26, he owns his own contracting company.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Robbins. “Going back to get my high school diploma helped a lot. It just kind of opened a lot more doors, gave me new opportunities.”
Since opening, 3,200 students have graduated from YouthBuild Philly.
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