Chartering a New School for the Falls

Is East Falls ready for a charter elementary school? The founders of Design Lab High School see a need and offer a solution.

East Falls has a school problem — something like 90% of the families here send their kids to private school. Otherwise, they leave for the burbs before kindergarten. Our neighborhood public school, for whatever reason(s), is simply not a viable option for most parents.

Cristina Alvarez faced these issues in the 80/90’s when she & her husband raised their three kids here (they lived in the Hohenadel mansion!). As chief executive officer of Design Lab High School in Delaware, she’s now hoping to bring a high-quality, tuition-free charter elementary school here to teach innovative thinking & problem-solving to grades k thru 8.

Cristina and her partner, Dr.Martin Rayala, based their learning model on “design thinking” —  teaching kids to work things out rather than memorize answers or formulas. The world moves so fast these days, kids need to learn how to think creatively and collaborate with others to succeed.

“By the time a student is a senior, technology she used as a freshman is often no longer relevant,” Cristina told the group at EFF’s October meeting. Design Lab High School focuses on teaching processes and principals that can be applied to any subject to find solutions for any problem.

If that sounds a little out there, welcome to the harsh realities of our educational system. According to XQ Super School’s live broadcast across four networks last year, the US is falling behind on graduation rates and key subjects. We’re 31st in Math, 20th in language, and 19th in science compared to our global counterparts.

In 2015, Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, announced a contest: $10 million each to ten different high schools who could demonstrate the best model for innovative learning.

Image: EducationNext

10,000’s of schools across the country applied for the XQ Super School Challenge, including Design Lab – which was one of the winners, announced on a National television event featuring names like Justin Timberlake, Kelly Clarkson, James Corden, Tom Hanks… A whole lot of singing/dancing numbers… I’m not really sure what’s going on to be honest, but a big deal is being made, for sure. That video, right?

After Design Lab’s big win, the school attracted the attention of venture philanthropists, who gave them more millions to replicate their school somewhere else. Not just a high school, either, they were given carte blanche to create an elementary or middle school, if they preferred. And they were encouraged to adapt their school for needs of parents, and the whole community.

When provided the opportunity to start up any kind of school, anywhere she wanted, Cristina remembered the challenges she faced schooling her children in East Falls and realized she had the solution, and a means to implement it. Now all she needs is community support, and her plan for a new elementary school here can begin to take root.

Some questions from the audience:

How big a school?

About 450 students — they want to be small enough to provide a lot of personal attention. To get an idea of the kind of school Cristina has in mind, check out Independence Charter downtown. Design learning will be a big focus, but also languages.

How will you get enough students?

They’ll follow the standard strategy: start small and build up. The proposed school will initially serve kindergarteners thru 2nd grade, then add a grade every year to reach 8th.

Will the school be just for local kids or will it be open enrollment from anywhere?

Charter schools in Philly work by the lottery system that’s open to all kids across the city. But for practical reasons, parents of school-age kids typically apply only to schools in their area. She envisions a neighborhood school.

Do you have a location picked out yet?

Not specifically, but Cristina’s looking for somewhere safely reached by foot and car. They’ll probably need maybe 30,000 sq ft of space. (Unlike public schools, Charters need to pay for their own rent/buildings.)

FYI: East Falls is the only area Design Lab’s currently considering, but focus groups on parents in Manayunk, Roxborough, and Mt Airy also show a great need for a safe, rigorous, and creative elementary school. (They have until mid-January 2018 to formally decide on a neighborhood, not necessarily an address.)

What about traffic?

The school will grow gradually, and they’ll figure things out. Most concerns neighbors worry about never actually happen, anyway.

How will you be funded?

They’ve got “replication funds” to seed & support the school for three years, so they’re writing grants, pursing sponsors, etc.and also will likely also depend on a degree of fundraising. If Mrs. Steve Jobs announces a new contest for innovative elementary schools, they’d jump on it. ?

What happens next?

Cristina wants to hear from us! How can she create a new elementary school to serve East Falls families best? Email your thoughts, ideas, questions – whatever! – to Cristina at or call/text her at 215-820-7547. She’s seeking community educators and influencers for feedback and help reaching as many neighbors as possible.

How does this affect Mifflin?

No one actually asked this at the meeting, but of course we’re all wondering. Charters vs publics is a tetchy debate, with passionate detractors & advocates on both sides of the issue. East Falls Local even featured a Germantown public school teacher’s insider reporting from the last days of Wister Elementary – and we’re still not exactly sure what happened, or how charters were to blame.

Experts & Opinions Wanted! Email editorial submissions to No word count limits but we do require links to data for any claims that aren’t common knowledge.

No stats? No problem – comment with abandon in the field below or on East Falls Local’s rants page on Facebook.

PS: Here we go again? In 2015, String Theory Charter School approached the neighborhood about opening a location off Scotts Lane, but then backed out before the community could vote. Soon after, named String Theory in their expose on misuse of taxpayer funds in our charter school system. <shrug>

PPS: But wait, there’s more! Another charter school has plans for the neighborhood now, too: Philadelphia Hebrew Public has asked the city to open a K – 8th in the Falls Center.



  1. I am an East Falls resident as well as an educator at Thomas Mifflin. I can confidently say that we do a bit more than just memorize answers and formulas in my classroom. Problem solving and collaboration are skills my students use on a daily basis. Great things are already happening at a school in East Falls.

  2. Hi There,

    Is this charter school still moving forward? How do we get more involved here? We love East Falls, but need a good school to stay.

    Any new information I can read about on this topic?


    • Hi there Philip thanks for your comment! You can follow Philadelphia Hebrew on facebook for updates including timelines for enrollment and opening. Hope that helps!

  3. A little late to the game here, and I hope this particular charter school idea is dead. Why? STEMD. Right there in the big red circle in the figure above. Who is taking liberty here? Science, Technology Engineering Media and Design?

    STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering & MATH, not Media.,_technology,_engineering,_and_mathematics On the face of it, a proposal which substitutes Media for Math has an enormous amount of explaining to do. To think one can do design, (other than fine arts work), engineering design without a strong math foundation simply is not living in the real world.

    Frankly, I think public schools should go back to teaching number bases at a much earlier age, with particular emphasis on base 2, and reinforcements built across large parts of the curriculum. A new parallel music curriculum based on math, programming, and logic should be introduced at an early age.
    I have no idea how schooling is structured these days, but in my day we had a good part of the STEM foundational materials from elementary school.
    FIX public schools for ALL. Charter schools for the lucky and privileged is just, well, it goes against the notions of equal opportunity in the most insidious way.

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