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.

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.