The Chester Charter School for the Arts has finally said goodbye to the days of students' getting exercise by running around the parking lot, to the gym with the giant pillar in the middle, and to tiny windowless classrooms carved out of a converted warehouse.
This month's opening of a gleaming, $30 million campus on Highland Avenue for the nine-year-old arts-focused charter school not only brings CCSA into the heart of Chester, where the bulk of its nearly 600 students live, but has teachers, students, and school leaders celebrating a flood of natural light after five years in its dingy Aston home.
"It's amazing. I burst into tears when I first walked in here two weeks ago," reading and writing teacher Tara Park said of her first look at the 92,000-square-foot building, where sunshine pours in from every angle – cascading into two dance studios, an art studio, two science labs, classrooms, a sleek cafetorium, and, at long last, a real gym.
The new building with its crimson-red facade advertises CCSA to motorists on nearby I-95 and anchors a redeveloping corner of the economically disadvantaged Delaware County river city. It is one of Chester's three main charters, which critics say suck up students and funds from the struggling school district. Charter tuition accounts for $52 million of Chester Upland's $130 million budget this year.
To those in the surrounding community, however, the school is a beacon.
"My granddaughter said, 'I want to go to that school,' " said Dezaree Davis, who lives around the corner on Beverly Lane and whose 10-year-old granddaughter now attends Chester Community Charter School.
CCSA, which will receive $7,572,800 from the district, was funded with tax credits, $5.8 million in philanthropy, and $24 million in bonds from the Delaware County Industrial Development Authority.
Officials said the facility – erected in a speedy 14 months – will allow the charter school to complete its long, one-grade-a-year expansion and become Chester's only K-12 school next fall, while trying to reclaim its former reputation as one of the top-performing schools in Chester Upland, one of the lowest-performing districts in the state.
"It sends a message to the community of the respect, love, and value that we have for them and their city," said Akosua Watts, CCSA's chief executive officer and head of school, which now goes up to 11th grade and splits grades into two classrooms of about 25 students each. When it adds 12th grade next year, the school will max out at 650 students.
"That will allow us to have home games and build school spirit," Watts said of the gym, with bleachers that will soon be packed with fans watching CCSA's Sabers play hoops this winter. When kids and families saw the new building a few weeks ago, Watts said, there were "dropped jaws, oohs and ahhs, squeals, laughter."
There weren't many dropped jaws when CCSA moved into its prior home in Aston, where the school landed after starting in 2008 as a small public-private partnership between the school district and John Alston, a Swarthmore College professor and director of the Chester Children's Chorus. That move was carried out in a matter of weeks after school organizers won a court fight against the district five years ago for the right to open a charter school that was then grades K-6.
The former location was less than ideal: The pillar in the gym meant it could only be used for practice, so all of CCSA's basketball games were played away, as were outdoor sports like lacrosse and soccer, for the lack of a playing field. That was in addition to the small classrooms off a large, dusky central corridor.
"We talked about adding skylights," Don Delson, head of the board of trustees, recalled. "But we also thought, we should be back in Chester. That's where our families live. Everybody had to be bused."
In spite of those obstacles, CCSA – with its strong focus on music, dance, theater, and visual arts – managed in 2014-15 to score 71.7, the top score in the district on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, a measure of school achievement. No other Chester school cracked 70, a number that the state considers adequate.
Its upward trajectory came crashing down the following year when it scored 48.4, which Watts attributes in part to changes in the way schools were rated, a problem that many schools experienced. But she acknowledged that while CCSA has a successful intensive reading-intervention program, it needs to do better in math instruction and has instituted a schoolwide math initiative. With more high school students on board, the school is also looking for partners to provide honors and Advanced Placement courses, which it doesn't have.
However, during the construction, school leaders decided to add a health sciences curriculum, so two additional classrooms were added at a cost of $500,000. Meanwhile, school backers are looking ahead to a second phase that would involve raising an additional $6 million for a professional theater and athletic locker rooms.
The school has grown at the same time that Chester Upland's traditional public schools have struggled with near bankruptcy and shrinking enrollment, which Delson blamed on cumbersome union rules, skyrocketing pension costs, and leadership turnover that CCSA hasn't had to deal with. He said the waiting list for the charter school has grown from 160 to about 500 children over the last year as the new building neared completion.