Until recently, Cheltenham-based Gospel of Grace Ministries garnered perhaps its greatest notoriety on the basketball court when a team of teenagers from the tiny Christian congregation’s high school qualified for the state playoffs last March.
The Philadelphia Inquirer even published an article about them.
But that was before Gospel of Grace relocated its high school across county lines into Fox Chase in August without notifying its new neighbors or local elected officials.
Dozens of neighbors showed up at the bi-monthly meeting of the Fox Chase Homeowners Association and Town Watch last Wednesday seeking answers about why and how they ended up with a high school in their midst. They lodged numerous complaints about the operation.
The school is housed in Fox Chase United Methodist Church at 201 Loney St., but Gospel of Grace and its school are not Methodist.
A woman who identified herself as a member of Fox Chase United explained during last Wednesday’s meeting that her congregation merged with a former Methodist congregation in Cheltenham a while back and acquired its church at 315 Central Ave. The Cheltenham church building remained idle until Gospel of Grace began leasing it from Fox Chase United for religious services and a school serving students at the elementary and secondary levels.
Leading up to the 2013-14 school year, enrollment exceeded a cap imposed on the school by authorities in Cheltenham Township, the woman said. So, rather than force Gospel of Grace to turn away students, Fox Chase United agreed to host 30 students in grades seven through 12 at the Loney Street site, with younger grades remaining on Central Avenue.
“We can have 200 legally (on Loney Street),” the Fox Chase United member said. “We only have 30.”
Neighbors are seeking a second opinion on that with help from the Homeowners Association and City Councilman Brian O’Neill. A couple of neighbors mentioned the new school at a Homeowners Association meeting in September. It was the first time that the association’s board had been notified of the school.
Neighbors gathered again on Nov. 10 at Fox Chase United to discuss their concerns with the pastor, then a third time at the Nov. 13, then again a third time at the Nov. 13 Homeowners Association meeting. Neighbors contend that the arrangement generates traffic problems, student safety problems and public safety problems for the area. They also don’t appreciate that nobody bothered to tell them beforehand that a school was opening.
“Transparency should be our guideline,” one man said at last Wednesday’s meeting.
Some neighbors called for a city zoning inspection of the property and a review of its zoning file.
An aide to state Rep. Kevin Boyle said that he attended the Nov. 10 meeting at Fox Chase United. Although Boyle has no official role in city zoning issues, he has received several calls from constituents about the school, according to the aide, Jeff Dempsey. Dempsey told meeting-goers that his understanding is that the city issued a zoning variance to Fox Chase United in the 1970s. O’Neill later told the Times that the variance was in 1976, but it had nothing to do with running a school. Further, the councilman said, churches are generally allowed to conduct educational programs on-site when they involve their own members. In this case, the students are members of a separate congregation that isn’t even based in Philadelphia. O’Neill and the Fox Chase Homeowners plan to send letters to the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspection to request a closer examination of the site.
In the meantime, the school is expected to continue conducting daily classes in Fox Chase. The basketball team uses Houseman Recreation Center in Summerdale for practices and games. The season officially began on Monday.
In other neighborhood news:
• American Legion Loudenslager Post 366 invites the public to a pancake breakfast on Sunday, Dec. 1, from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Admission costs $6 and includes a buffet of pancakes, eggs, sausage, juice and coffee.
• The annual Fox Chase-Rockledge Business Association Christmas Tree Lighting will be on Saturday, Dec. 7, from 2 to 5 p.m., at Lions Park, Oxford Avenue and Loney Street. Seasonal treats will be shared at this family event, which will include a visit from Santa Claus. ••