Questions and complaints surround Gospel of Grace School

  • Some Fox Chase residents, such as Barbara Wentling (pictured), question the origin of the recently opened school and why neighbors were not formally notified.

  • New to the neighborhood: Gospel of Grace School, at Loney and Fillmore streets, operates inside Fox Chase United Methodist Church. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

Is the Gos­pel of Grace School one with the Fox Chase United Meth­od­ist Church, or are they two sep­ar­ate en­tit­ies?

That seems to be the key ques­tion in a months-long dis­agree­ment, a tem­pest in a teapot, in­volving the 118-year-old church, the 30-stu­dent sec­ond­ary school it re­cently opened and at least a hand­ful of neigh­bors who don’t like the new activ­ity in their midst.

When the Fox Chase Homeown­ers As­so­ci­ation holds its bi-monthly meet­ing to­night at the Amer­ic­an Le­gion Post 366 hall at 7976 Ox­ford Ave., the Gos­pel of Grace School is ex­pec­ted to be a top­ic of dis­cus­sion — as it has been for the last two homeown­ers as­so­ci­ation meet­ings in Septem­ber and Novem­ber.

Some neigh­bors have routinely com­plained that the new school has in­tro­duced nuis­ance is­sues and po­ten­tial pub­lic safety prob­lems to the area sur­round­ing Fox Chase United, at Lo­ney and Fill­more streets. But their linger­ing ques­tions also delve in­to the realms of prop­erty rights and zon­ing.

How did the school get there? Who ap­proved it? How big might it get? How long will it be there? And why wer­en’t they con­sul­ted be­fore Fox Chase United opened its doors to stu­dents?

In fact, the city is still sort­ing out the leg­al­ity of it all. 

A spokes­wo­man for Phil­adelphia’s De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tion told the North­east Times via email that the city agency re­ceived a com­plaint about the site and twice de­ployed in­spect­ors.

In­spect­ors did not cite the church for vi­ol­at­ing city codes, be­liev­ing that the church was with­in its rights to open a school and that the fa­cil­ity meets all fire code and safety re­quire­ments. Gen­er­ally, any church is al­lowed to open a school as an “ac­cess­ory use” on its prop­erty provid­ing the school meets two cri­ter­ia.

Firstly, the church must be “an op­er­at­or of the school (i.e., the school is not leased to an out­side op­er­at­or),” ac­cord­ing to the L&I spokes­wo­man, Re­becca Swan­son. Secondly, the size of the school may not ex­ceed the size of the church.

If both cri­ter­ia are sat­is­fied, the church is not re­quired to ob­tain spe­cial per­mits from the city or to no­ti­fy the city, the neigh­bors or loc­al au­thor­it­ies.

Ac­cord­ing to Swan­son, the in­spect­ors in­quired about the op­er­at­or of the school “and were in­formed that the pas­tor of the church was the prin­cip­al of the school.” However, L&I con­tin­ues to in­vest­ig­ate “wheth­er the pas­tor serves as the prin­cip­al or op­er­at­or of the school,” Swan­son wrote.

Wheth­er Fox Chase United ac­tu­ally op­er­ates the school re­mains a mat­ter of de­bate. The Rev. Bon­nie Kar­en Mul­len-Holtz has been pas­tor of the church for about two years. Pas­tor Charles M. Kel­ley is the school prin­cip­al. Ac­cord­ing to Kel­ley, Fox Chase United was not in the pic­ture for the 1997 found­ing of Gos­pel of Grace School. The school is non-de­nom­in­a­tion­al Chris­ti­an with a cur­riculum based on stand­ards es­tab­lished by Bob Jones Uni­versity, a Chris­ti­an lib­er­al arts in­sti­tu­tion in South Car­o­lina. Gos­pel of Grace op­er­ated at the Beth­any Baptist Church at 460 Rhawn St. for many years be­fore learn­ing of avail­able space at the former Ox­ford Circle Jew­ish Com­munity Cen­ter, 1001 Un­ruh Ave. The school spent three years on Un­ruh and grew to about 180 stu­dents in kinder­garten through 12th grade. But of­fi­cials de­cided to move again in 2010 due to prob­lems with the fa­cil­ity, Kel­ley said.

At the time, Fox Chase United was in­ter­ested in mak­ing use of the former Chel­ten­ham United Meth­od­ist Church that it had ac­quired through a mer­ger of con­greg­a­tions. Gos­pel of Grace downs­ized en­roll­ment and began leas­ing the Mont­gomery County site, at 315 Cent­ral Ave., with the in­ten­tion of pur­chas­ing it.

Today, Gos­pel of Grace has 147 stu­dents, about 120 of whom study at the former Chel­ten­ham United. Town­ship of­fi­cials there have capped en­roll­ment at 130, Kel­ley said. The school serves stu­dents in kinder­garten through sixth grade there, with the older stu­dents based in Fox Chase.

Neigh­bors in Fox Chase have nu­mer­ous com­plaints. Five area res­id­ents met with the Times on Dec. 12 to item­ize their is­sues. Gen­er­ally, they claim the school is re­spons­ible for in­creased noise, lit­ter and park­ing con­ges­tion in the area. Kel­ley said that most of the stu­dents take pub­lic trans­port­a­tion to school, while one ar­rives in a yel­low “mini-bus” and three drive to school. Neigh­bors claim they have seen nine school-re­lated vehicles parked on the street.

In ad­di­tion, one neigh­bor says she found a stu­dent in her garden chan­ging his shirt one day, while an­oth­er neigh­bor claims that a tardy stu­dent parked in her drive­way. Some­times, neigh­bors said, vehicles will double park out­side the school to drop off or pick up stu­dents.

Kel­ley said he has con­veyed these con­cerns to the school and asked that stu­dents be con­sid­er­ate of neigh­bors. The com­mand­er of the loc­al po­lice dis­trict, Capt. Frank Palumbo, told the Times that he plans to meet with church and school of­fi­cials to re­solve any prob­lems oc­cur­ring out­side the grounds.

Gos­pel of Grace has re­gistered both the Fox Chase and Chel­ten­ham loc­a­tions with the Pennsylvania De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion. The prin­cip­al seeks to achieve a total en­roll­ment of about 155 for the two sites mov­ing for­ward.

Mul­len-Holtz, the church pas­tor, sits on the school’s board, while Kel­ley sits on the church’s board. Fox Chase United and Gos­pel of Grace have con­duc­ted at least two com­bined ser­vices.

“We don’t want it big­ger. We want to give the highest qual­ity edu­ca­tion,” Kel­ley said. “Our goal is not to have a very, very large school.” ••

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