Dispatch From the Penn Alexander Parents Protest

With 78 students accepted through the lottery, only 10 kids didn't make the cut.

It’s 5:30 p.m. and a group of 50-odd parents are filing down the steps of Penn’s Houston Hall. “They’re agitating,” one young father says to another. “I think that’s a bad idea,” the other one replies. Neither budges.

Today’s protest—organized by aspiring and current Penn Alexander School parents unhappy with the lottery admissions process foisted upon them a month ago—was never going to be May ’68. But the rally’s occasionally tentative vibe wasn’t just a product of its respectable attendees, or their bundled-up children and their cute hand-drawn signs. Earlier today, parents received news that their rising kindergarteners either had or had not received admission to the prestigious K-8 school. Seventy-eight were admitted, and 10 were waitlisted. None, in this somewhat merciful system, get rejected. Put another way: For all the fire and brimstone emanating from the 3400 block of Spruce Street tonight, there were some pretty damn relieved parents in the crowd.

Eric Santoro addresses the crowd

Julie Bush, whose daughter Hannah was admitted to kindergarten today, and whose daughter Phoebe attends first grade at PAS, said that when she received her letter, she “literally broke down and cried.” Yet, she added, “there are a few people here that did not get in and I can see that they’ve been crying.”

Samantha and Bryce McNamee, whose four-year-old son Cole was waitlisted, were among them. “It’s just devastating for us,” Sam told me, holding a sign that read Broken Compact, Broken Families, Broken Community. “We don’t even know how we’re going to break the news to him. We haven’t told him.” Unwilling to move from West Philly, skeptical of other public schools, and doubtful Cole will get into a charter (they’re number 343 on the Independence Charter School waitlist) the McNamees are strongly considering homeschooling.

The only other waitlisted parent who identified himself publicly was Eric Santoro, who was seething when he addressed the crowd. “The lottery was supposed to promote fairness,” said Santoro, who along with his wife attended Penn Law School, and already has a child enrolled at PAS. “But singling out our children as a test case for the entire Philadelphia school district is the most unfair result of all. To the School District and the University of Pennsylvania, I implore you, let us help you find a way to enroll 10 more children at the Penn Alexander School.”

Getting those 10 kids in is what the rally was all about. Initially, 88 students applied for 72 slots. For reasons not given, the school district added six slots, leaving 10 students out. Thus the chant that echoed this evening again and again off the Houston Hall brownstone: “Ten More In. Ten More In.” (This seems a good place to remind you that nearly all these parents were here in solidarity with the rejected few, as their own kids had been accepted.) If all 10 were admitted, each kindergarten class could hold 22 students, above the 18 PAS prefers to enroll, but below the 30-child maximum ordained by the school district.

And in order for the district to up enrollment, Santoro and others believe, Penn will have to lobby them to do it. Which is why the meeting was held outside Houston Hall, where a set of university administrators were holding an open meeting with members of the Penn community. Whether they have already twisted PPSD’s arm to gain extra slots, or even have the political capital to do so, is an open question.

Bryce McNamee, for one, thinks Penn is happy with the current arrangement, as it may force parents to move westward, enroll their kids at Henry C. Lea public school, and increase property values on land the university already owns. “There’s a political agenda here,” he said. Another parent, who didn’t want to be identified, suggested the whole messy situation could provide Penn with a good opportunity to actually help fund poorer schools like Lea, rather than focusing exclusively on PAS.

Whether the PAS parents get through to Penn, however, remains unclear. By 6 p.m., the protest had shifted from the Spruce St. entrance of the building to the campus entrance, in order to catch, well, somebody from Penn on their way out. (When I asked Julie Bush if they were waiting for anyone in particular, she laughed, shaking her head.) At 6:15, University Provost Vincent Price walked out the door, past the shouting parents, and into another building. It was only after he had gone that anyone quite grasped who he was.