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That’s the charter spirit

(L to R) CNNÕ s Soledad OÕ Brien and First Philadelphia Charter School and Tacony Academy Charter School officials Gerald Santilli and Stacey Cruise who have formed a nonprofit called American Paradigm Schools.

Kevin Cook / for Times

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Gerald Santilli and Stacey Cruise are proud of what they created in 2002.

That year, the First Philadelphia Charter School for Literacy opened. Earlier this month, the school, at 4300 Tacony St., graduated its first class that completed kindergarten through eighth grade.

Its sister school, Tacony Academy Charter School, opened in 2009 at the former Orleans Technical Institute building in Rhawnhurst. It hopes to find a permanent location in Tacony.

According to Santilli and Cruise, the schools have compiled records of 97 percent attendance and 96.5 percent student retention and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores that are 18 percent higher in mathematics and nearly 27 percent higher in reading than comparable scores in Philadelphia public schools.

“We’re really pleased with the progress in nine years,” said Santilli, former executive director of financial services for the School District of Philadelphia.

At a gala affair held earlier this month at the Independence Visitors Center, Santilli and Cruise announced the formation of American Paradigm Schools, a non-profit educational management organization that is designed to improve education in struggling urban schools and districts across America and eliminate the achievement gap for children.

The models will be First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School (the 9-year-old school’s new name) and Tacony Academy Charter School, which have a combined enrollment of 1,300 from 32 Philadelphia ZIP codes. There’s a waiting list of more than 1,500.

“We’ve got a proven track record,” Santilli said. “We have two successful schools in the Northeast, and we’re looking to replicate the model.”

At the June 14 event, hosted by NBC 10’s Monique Braxton, the guest speakers were former school district CEO Paul Vallas and CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, who visited First Philadelphia earlier that day. An award was presented to Jeremy Nowak, president and CEO of the Reinvestment Fund, which has long helped charter schools obtain financing for their buildings.

First Philadelphia had humble beginnings, opening in three Northeast synagogues before finding a permanent home. It was financed through the credit cards of the founders.

Members of the recent eighth-grade graduating class will go to Central, the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush and several other high schools.

“It will be a K-to-12 school ultimately,” Santilli said of First Philadelphia.

First Philadelphia is looking at location options as it prepares to open a high school for 400 students.

Cruise is a former principal of the school, but she has been training the principals at First Philadelphia and Tacony Academy, with an eye toward forming the new non-profit.

“We’ve been transitioning and planning for two years,” Santilli said.

While literacy is the focus at First Philadelphia, science is preached at Tacony Academy. Located at 1330 Rhawn St., it educated pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade, along with ninth grade, this past school year. Next year, it’ll be open to kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as ninth and 10th grades.

The students generally come from the areas near Disston and Ethan Allen elementary schools. Santilli hopes to open a permanent location on vacant ground at Princeton Avenue near the Delaware River, but city officials initially balked at the proposal, wanting to keep the land open for future housing development.

“Hopefully, it will get resolved,” Santilli said. “We’ve committed to the district to be in the Tacony neighborhood.”

American Paradigm Schools will work with teachers, administrators, parents and school boards. The group believes all children are capable of learning.

“Over the years, we’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of students and closed the achievement gap and put students on the right track,” Cruise said.

Cruise is confident that the new non-profit will be successful.

“It will be an easy sell showing our two schools to other districts and families to show them what is possible,” she said. ••

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com

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