New Philadelphia Parents Face Our City’s Failing School System

As more 20- and 30-somethings decide to stay in the city to raise their children, Philly’s school problem isn’t just a big issue—it’s the only issue.

If you’re a parent, and you take your kid to play in one of those toddler soccer leagues at Sister Cities Park just off the Parkway, and you sometimes notice a mysterious brunette who doesn’t have a child on the team watching the game, and if that ever freaks you out, then I’m sorry. Because that woman is me—an upstanding, tax-paying non-weirdo, I swear—and I’m standing there because Sister Cities Park on soccer Saturdays is a very reassuring place for me, and for all the other would-be parents in Philadelphia.

That park is sort of magical, I think, representing the best of both worlds for a certain swath of Philadelphians: a lush arena that could be taken right out of anybody’s leafy, kid-filled suburban childhood, set in the heart of the diverse, very non-suburban Philadelphia we’ve chosen to call home.

Of course, Sister Cities is hardly the only place one can find the reassuring presence of so many young families integrating themselves into city life. There are strollers everywhere you look these days, in every park and parklet, sitting in most every restaurant. The Center City District reported that in Center City alone, there were more than 21,398 births in the past decade, averaging to more than 2,000 kids a year. In 1990, just 272 kids were born in Center City.

And the stuff that’s come with them! The amenities servicing all these Gen Xers and Yers and their hordes of little post-millennials—like Sister Cities Park, yes, and mommy groups, and new playgrounds and children’s stores—have made having a toddler in Philly actually … cool.

Thus it’s pretty easy to be sold on the city as a place to raise a young family. It’s what comes after that I worry about—that many city-dwellers of a certain age worry about. We’ve heard the stories. We’ve seen the kindergarten registrations that look like one of those YouTube clips of Black Friday. The almost daily headlines addressing Philadelphia’s troubled public-education system say it all: The kid-ification of Philly has yet to really extend to our schools.

And so it’s much easier right now to focus on peewee soccer than it is to dwell on that anxiety rumbling just below the surface, the angst that hits nearly every city parent sooner or later: What are we going to do about school?

Here is what that angst looks like:

One windy, freezing Friday in January, on the 42nd block of Locust Street, a group of roughly 80 parents lined up outside the lauded Penn Alexander public school. Registration wasn’t until Tuesday, and these intrepid moms and dads, armed with sleeping bags and folding chairs, were going to camp out for 96 hours on the sidewalk in sub-zero temperatures because there weren’t enough kindergarten spots for everyone in the catchment. And the registration process has always been first come, first served.

The line started Friday morning with the grandmother of a hopeful Penn Alexander attendee. In the neighborhood, there had been talk of pacts, agreements that nobody would start to line up too early. For the past few years, the queue started something like 24 hours before registration, not four days.

But where people’s children are involved, and where they have spent an extra $100,000 or so on a house in this particular catchment for the sake of this school, and where four days is nothing compared to the next nine years of your kid’s education … well, of course a parent is going to stake out a spot in line. And of course that incredulous message—The line has started! The line has started!—would spread from one parent’s phone to another that Friday, spurring even the most measured parents into action. One dad leapt from the dentist’s chair, apologizing. What choice did he have? He had a four-year-old who needed to go to school in the fall.

Penn Alexander, which enrolls kids from kindergarten through eighth grade, is widely considered to be among the best schools in the city. It’s one of only two elementary schools in Philadelphia to get a GreatSchools rating of nine out of 10, based on standardized state test results. It’s also a partnership school with the University of Pennsylvania, which built and donated a beautiful state-of-the-art building. Kindergarten classes are limited to just 18 kids, and Penn commits an extra $1,300 to each student and sends its own education majors over as student teachers. And the school is diverse, with about 50 percent black kids, 30 percent white and 13 percent Asian.

There are other public schools in the area, but nobody lines up for them. Among them is Lea, which is one of 65 elementary schools in Philadelphia to get a GreatSchools rating of two out of 10, but which nevertheless boasts some glowing reviews from parents. Lea’s building is older, its population is 81 percent African-American, and most of the kids come from homes with below-area-average incomes. But Lea has an active parent group, and a principal who is, by all accounts, very good. A group called the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, or WPCNS, has designated the improvement of Lea as its main focus right now, and the school has gotten additional support from the neighborhood.

One mom in the Penn-Alexander line, who asked to remain nameless, told me her husband helped out with the Gardening Day for Lea. “We want all the schools here to be good. We have a commitment to this community, and it is in everyone’s best interest for all of our schools to be great. I wish I felt that right at this moment we could send our kids to Lea and get as good an education as possible, but right now, that’s not the case. And that’s why I’m here, in this line.”

The line lasted for several hours that freezing Friday before the school district finally decided something had to be done. The parents were told, to their dismay, that they should go home, that kindergarten registration would be handled via “a more efficient and less challenging” lottery in April.

“I personally think it’s ridiculous that we were waiting in line four days ahead of registration,” admits the mom I met in the Penn Alexander line. This is a few days later, post-lottery-announcement. “But there are obviously a lot of factors figuring into why this happened, and the bottom line is, the vast majority of us waiting in the line have a deep commitment to this community, our neighborhood school, and above all, our children.”

The real letdown of the lottery, she says, was the district’s timing: It’s now past deadline for many private-school applications and public-school transfer requests. Luckily, her family had already applied to private schools, in case camping out at Penn Alexander didn’t work out.

School anxiety isn’t limited to West Philly. It spreads all over this city, in every place youngish middle-class families are choosing to live. And Penn Alexander isn’t the only “good school”; a handful of charters and publics are recognized as such, too—schools like Meredith, McCall, Greenfield. But only a handful. Fact is, there are far more Leas than Penn Alexanders.

“You hit a point in your life, and then it’s all you hear anyone talk about,” says my friend Katie, a business owner who lives in Graduate Hospital with her almost-two-year-old. “Unless you live in a couple of very specific areas, there’s so much uncertainty in this process, you have to form Plan A and Plan B—and then plans C, D, E and F.” There are charter applications, there are public-school transfers one can apply for and lotteries one can hope to win, there are a few decent parochial schools still hanging on, and there are one or two Friends schools with tuitions that aren’t yet in the five-digit range. But still, if Plan F doesn’t work? “I try not to worry about that,” she says. “Yet.”

It’s noteworthy that the worry we’re talking about here is a problem of a certain demographic of parent, not every parent. If you’re very rich, you have every choice, and no anxiety. If you’re poor, or at least not quite middle-class, then your anxiety comes from having no choice. Your kid’s school might even be closing now, because it’s underpopulated or falling apart. It’s hard to argue that there’s any anxiety worse than that.

But the angst of the particular city p­arent we’re talking about here is nevertheless important, because it is increasingly a defining characteristic of Philadelphia, as more and more 20- and 30-somethings decide to stay in the city. These parents—and future parents—have a multitude of w­orries about schools. They worry about below-national-average test scores. They worry because their neighbors don’t seem to
send their kids to the neighborhood school. They worry because the school isn’t as racially or economically or socially diverse as they’d like a city school to be.

And so the angst of this city-dweller is also the angst of the entire city, because—as the Center City District noted in its annual report in 2011—the best hope of keeping Philly relevant over the next decade is to hold onto these young, college-educated professionals as they have kids—and the only way to do that is with “competitive and responsive schools.”

Yet how—and if—the city will ever do that remains painfully unclear, given that the school district is beyond broke, facing a possible $1.1 billion deficit over the next five years. Even the planned school closures, aimed at narrowing the deficit, seem unlikely to improve the remaining schools.

“It’s like the city is saying ‘Screw you’ to us,” says one South Philly mom, who applied for two public-school transfers, two charter schools and one private school, because she didn’t think the local public school was strong enough. (Her daughter now attends a charter.) “Look, we’ve bought two houses now. We’ve paid the wage tax, and I don’t even mind. We love it here. We’re committed to it. But it’s just like the city has given up. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Come back to Philly … when your kids are 18.’”

Even the most committed relationships have their breaking point.

Amara Rockar thinks people should stop freaking out. The president of the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools lives in West Philly’s Harrington district, but who can say what the lay of the land will look like by the time her child (who’s due to make her entrance into the world this month) is ready for kindergarten? Regardless, she’s a true and devoted believer in the concept of the neighborhood school, period. She’s taken inspiration from Jacqueline Edelberg, the now-famous Chicago mom and writer who rallied her neighborhood to turn around her own kid’s failing school. Rockar, a quiet, thoughtful 27-year-old, thinks the first step to such transformations involves people “not freaking out, but really getting to know the neighborhood school instead.” She admits to having a different perception about Lea before volunteering in its library. Rockar was deeply impressed with the teachers and students she met.

WPCNS has, over the past couple years, supported Lea in making significant improvements, including redesigning the outdoor space and entranceway; instituting an after-school music program; and adding air conditioning in the kindergarten classrooms. “We all share a vision of a neighborhood strengthened by its elementary school and an elementary school strengthened by its neighborhood,” the group’s mission statement says. “We are also brought together by our core belief that public education is a social justice issue.”

Talking about social justice seems a requisite for living in West Philly; nearly everyone I spoke to for this story brought the concept up, just as they did the idea that a strong neighborhood needs a strong school. It’s a pretty difficult premise to disagree with, especially for the type of family you find in these growing, changing parts of our city—the type of family that’s committed to living in a diverse city environment, that believes in public school, that wants to be a part of grassroots change, that truly loves the idea of social justice … right up until the point, anyway, where they feel like they’re martyring their child for their beliefs.

As one dad noted, “Social justice goes down the tubes, even for lefties, once it’s about your kid.” He’s outside the Penn Alexander catchment, and is looking into private-school options for his child. He says he’d consider leaving the city, if it came to that. Another dad—this one a Penn Alexander parent—tells me wistfully that he knows even Penn Alexander is only a Band-Aid to a problem, not a solution: “It’s not a model to address inequality.” If he had his way, he says, we’d go back to the school model of the 1950s, where all schools were basically fine, and your neighborhood school was your school.

“If only all the families who lived around Lea sent their kids to Lea, then Lea would feel and be different,” says Michael Froehlich, president of the Cedar Park Neighbors association. “But that’s the question: How does this neighborhood of families decide that they’re going to commit to Lea?” He admits that Lea is just one of the options he’s considering for his four-year-old, Zora.

“Although I have to say this,” he says. “When I moved into my house, it was clear to me that I’d do whatever it took not to send Zora to Lea. A lot has changed for me over the past four years.” Lea on paper wasn’t like the Lea he experienced. “I’ve been to the school. The teachers were wonderful.”

The hopeful news to me—if not ri­sing quite to the level of Sister Cities Park
reassurance—is that involved parents and groups like WPCNS are becoming more and more the norm outside of West Philly; the DIY trend of neighborhood improvement is beginning to seep its way into neighborhood schools. Rockar can rattle off at least a half-dozen places around the city, from Fairmount to Graduate Hospital, where similar groups have formed.

“People forget that it took a group of motivated parents to make Meredith Meredith and McCall McCall,” she says. Outside of hoping to replicate the essentially un-replicable model of Penn Alexander, “How else can we really make schools what we want them to be?”

And that is probably the number one question for us city-dwelling parents and future parents to tackle—if we decide to stick around and tackle it, anyway.

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