How to Find the Best Philadelphia School for Your Child
The Best Suburban Towns for City Families
Sometimes, it just comes down to this. Here’s a city parent’s guide to schooling (and living) in the ’burbs.
Q. I want the simplicity of a good suburban school district. Does that mean I’m doomed to tract homes and Applebee’s?
Let’s be real — there’s no way to replicate city life in the ’burbs. But there is a middle ground between Brewerytown and Broomall. There are plenty of towns outside Philly’s city limits where the schools are good and you can still walk to a local market, take public transit, and live in a (relatively) diverse neighborhood.
Both these Delco towns have exceptional public schools, convenient regional rail access to Center City, and a tasteful older housing stock. But it’s their compact walkability — there are sidewalks, and lots of them — that sets them apart from many suburbs. There’s a bit of a West Philly vibe to each (sans the anarchist collectives). The 101 trolley rolls down Media’s restaurant-lined State Street, Swarthmore’s had a co-op since 1937, and the college lends the community a crunchy, professorial quality that’s uncommon in ’Burbland. Oh, and it’s free-range-kid heaven. Says realtor Jeanne Maillet, “In Swarthmore, kids really do a have a ton of independence and mobility.”
Ambler’s delightful downtown and solidly middle-class nature will ease the transition to the ’burbs for former city residents allergic to places like Gladwyne or Devon. Homes are affordable, the schools are highly rated, and Center City is just over half an hour away on the Lansdale/Doylestown regional rail line. The town has a tight-knit feel to it. Allison Wolf, a realtor specializing in Ambler properties, says Philadelphians appreciate lot sizes in the compact borough; they’re “generally smaller than in your typical suburban neighborhood, yet certainly larger than in most areas of the city,” she says. “The space is just right in terms of spreading out yet still being close to and knowing your neighbors.”
Philadelphians with school-age kids have been decamping to Narberth for generations, and for obvious reasons. Few other towns in the ’burbs better replicate the chatty, front-stoop quality of city living than sociable Narberth. The borough’s classic downtown (sensing a theme yet?) is a zippy 18-minute express-train ride from Suburban Station — which is a good thing, because street parking there is a South Philly-style challenge. Narberth is part of the Lower Merion School District, so its schools are as good as it gets. And while there’s plenty of money in the borough, Narberth manages to be on the Main Line without feeling completely of the Main Line. Bonus perk for city expats? Narberth’s park is a surprisingly good spot to watch pickup basketball.
The old mill town at the intersection of the Blue Route and the Schuylkill Expressway has for years been a top destination for young professionals drawn to its location, the abundance of office jobs, riverfront apartments and a solid restaurant scene. But Conshy — which feels like a less-dense Manayunk — also makes a lot of sense for Philly families looking for good schools in a quasi-urban environment. Downtown is a glorious 14-mile bike ride away, all of it along the Schuylkill River Trail (or take regional rail). As for the schools, Conshohocken is part of the excellent Colonial School District.
Wait — hear us out! True, Cherry Hill epitomizes the car-centrism of suburbia, and it’s literally the place where the suburban mall was born. But Cherry Hill is rapidly evolving into a demographically diverse suburb, a huge plus for many city parents. The schools are good, if not stellar. And hey, who needs co-ops when you’ve got a Wegmans?
Why I Left for … the ’Burbs
Patrick Kerkstra, Philly Mag deputy editor, is dad to Clark, six, and Audrey, three. They live in Wallingford, and Clark attends Wallingford Elementary School.
Every parent who decides to leave the city for the promise of a quality public education in the suburbs has his breaking point. Mine came in a short, soul-crushing phone call with a senior administrator in the School District of Philadelphia.
This was in the summer of 2013. Remember that one? It was the first year of what’s become a deeply disturbing warm-weather ritual: Would there be enough money to open schools in the fall? How many layoffs? Just how huge would classes be?
That last question was particularly worrisome to my wife and me. Our son had a debilitating speech impediment. How, we wondered, could a teacher with 40 kindergartners and no backup possibly take the time to work with him?
I put that and other questions to an official in the district’s central special education office. She listened politely, then said, “If you can afford to move, you should.” My wife later heard much the same from our son’s IEP case manager.
For us, West Philadelphia was the perfect compromise between the din of Center City and the blandness of the ’burbs. I’d always thought we’d live there pretty much forever. Our kids’ daycare was right next to Penn Alexander, the vaunted public school that partners with the University of Pennsylvania. We walked the kids there and back, and figured we’d do the same when they got a bit older. That was the dream, anyway.
Alas, our house was just outside Penn Alexander’s catchment. We’d spent the prior six months trying to buy into the catchment but kept coming up short. We were starting to get desperate. Catchment homes were expensive, and even if you bought one, there was no guarantee of admission. The over-enrolled school had just switched to a lottery. Other parents we knew were committed to enrolling their kids in nearby Lea Elementary. Lea has a lot going for it, like engaged parents and new involvement by Penn. But it’s still struggling academically, and didn’t seem like a good option given our son’s challenges. Private school? A non-starter. Even if we could afford the tuition, it seemed dubious that the city’s ultra-selective private schools would admit a student with special needs.
And then the phone call. Afterward, I took a walk. For city parents with means and mobility, picking a school is a playlist of guilt, confusion and resentment — on auto-repeat. I grew up in Oakland, went to school in L.A., and had called Philly home since ’99. Living in cities, writing about cities — for me, that was more than mere preference; it was who I was. Leaving the city felt like a betrayal, like quitting on a life’s project. But some projects matter more than others. And between Harrisburg’s suicidal defunding of city schools and that phone call, the confusion was gone.
We picked a rambling old home in a sleepy town near Media. It’s a block away from a SEPTA regional rail stop, and across the street from a stellar elementary school.
Regrets? Oh, we’ve got a few. But our school choice isn’t one of them.
There were 18 students in my son’s kindergarten class. His fabulous teacher — and her full-time assistant — showered him with attention, and he needed it. He got in-school speech therapy. He got in-school occupational therapy. There’s a librarian in the library, a nurse in the infirmary, and a receptionist in the front office. In other words, it’s what all public schools should be.
Two years later, our son’s speech problem is all but gone. And our big old fear — that he would struggle with literacy, which is common for kids with speech problems — is a distant memory.
How much of this would have happened at a city elementary school? Some, no doubt. Perhaps all. But that was an experiment we ultimately weren’t willing to try.
Published as “A City Parent’s Guide to Schools” in the October 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.