When the 5- and 6-year-olds in Betsy Lawson and Brittany Fix’s kindergarten class read books, learn their numbers or dance and sing to rehearse for a performance next Monday, they stay in one brightly colored room that looks just like any other kindergarten room: Tiny seats and tables. Pictures lining the walls. Lots of books and crayons. But KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy, a charter school on the third floor of a building at 12th and Vine streets, is next to an EZ Park lot and across 12th Street from a flashy, purple business that installs car stereos. The roar of traffic whizzes by on Vine outside the front door.
Not the ideal location for a fledgling elementary school.
“It would be nice to have an outdoor area where we could have a real recess,” said Ben Speicher, KIPP Philadelphia Elementary’s school leader – a term KIPP uses for principal. “It would also be nice to have a lunchroom, a gym and a location where kindergartners don’t have to walk up to the third floor.”
They may get it, thanks to an unlikely angel – tennis superstar Andre Agassi. Plans are in the works for the elementary school to move into a renovated building in the Allegheny West section of North Philadelphia next August.
If all works out, it will be the first charter school in the country to move into a building financed by a real-estate fund in which Agassi is a partner.
“We’re still negotiating the final details of the contract,” said KIPP Philadelphia CEO Marc Mannella. “We’re never one to pop the champagne cork before we actually sign on the dotted line.”
Andre Agassi Ventures and Canyon Capital Realty Advisors this month announced the launch of a real-estate fund, the Canyon-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, “to promote the success and growth of best-in-class charter schools in urban communities across the United States.”
The announcement said it is the first fund of its kind developed to help charter schools “overcome the biggest impediment to growth by facilitating the development of more than 75 urban school sites.”
Finding appropriate school buildings is “one of the biggest challenges in Philadelphia and nationally for charter schools,” Mannella said. “That’s why you find so many charter schools opening in old storefronts or converted out of office space.”
KIPP – which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program – opened a middle school in North Philadelphia in 2003 and another in West Philly in 2009.
Then last fall, it opened its first elementary and first high school, on separate floors in the building at 12th and Vine.
Mannella said one reason why KIPP Philadelphia may be the first school to open in a Canyon/Agassi-financed building is that Glenn Pierce, president of the Los Angeles-based fund, is originally from Nicetown.
Mannella declined to give the exact location of the building because the contract isn’t signed yet, but he said that once KIPP moves to the building it will add a grade a year until it serves kindergarten through fourth grade.
He said that at first KIPP will pay rent for the building, but he expects to have the option to purchase in a few years.
Agassi, who was out of the country and not available for comment, operates the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education and the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas.
“It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life but also quite a frustrating one,” Agassi told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. “I have 650 kids in school and 1,500 on the waiting list.”