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.

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.