Most of the moms and dads who organized the River Wards Public School Realtor tour won’t see their kids join a kindergarten class for a few years, but they couldn’t contain their enthusiasm for promoting their neighborhood schools.
That’s why the parents reached out to Center City Realtors to give agents an up-close look at what the parents feel is the strength of the developing neighborhoods of Fishtown, Kensington, and Northern Liberties – the public schools.
“We see so much negative publicity about the schools in the media,” said Kate Hughes, a Friends of Adaire School member and tour organizer.
“We wanted to create an alternate narrative among the Realtors. So many of them haven’t been in our schools to see the great things going on there.”
About 20 real estate agents attended the tour on Oct. 28, winding their way through hallways and classrooms and meeting officials at Brown, Hackett, Adaire, and Moffet Elementary Schools. These schools are often overlooked when families are considering moving to this area of Philadelphia.
“Public schools are a major driver in a family’s choice of neighborhood,” said Johnny McDonald, an agent with Space & Co. development, a sponsor of the tour.
“I don’t think it matters if you are new to the neighborhood or you’ve been there for multiple generations. Naturally parents want the best they can provide for their kids, and elementary schools are the foundation.”
The schools are ethnically diverse. Though academic proficiency rates don't compare with most suburban districts, they rank above average for the city.
Deirdre Affel, a veteran agent with Coldwell Banker, welcomed the chance to explore the education options in a section of Philadelphia just a few miles from her Market Street office.
“I’m glad such a dynamic group of parents is getting involved,” Affel said. “I haven’t been in a Philadelphia public school in years.”
And that is just what the tour organizers sought to remedy, showing off the best aspects of neighborhood schools that are often overlooked.
The tour kicked off at H.A. Brown Academics Plus Elementary, a K-8 school a few blocks south of rough-and-tumble Kensington Avenue. Brown principal Connie Carnivale touted the student government, day programs, Chromebook carts, and Smart Tables in each kindergarten class.
“Our vision is opportunity and choices,” Carnivale said, noting that 93 percent of her 8th-graders were accepted to multiple selective high schools.
“I feel that our students should have the same opportunities and experiences that I had in public education,” Carnivale said.
At Horatio B. Hackett Elementary, just south of Brown Elementary, teacher leader Teesa Donnelly told the realtors, “We like to think we’re one of the best-kept little secrets in the District.”
The K-5 school, which also serves students with multiple disabilities, has partnerships with the Philadelphia Reads tutoring program, Rock to the Future, where kids learn electric guitar, and the Philadelphia Art Museum, where student art often adorns the walls. Donnelly got to brag about her school in the newly reopened school library, which is staffed by parent volunteers.
“This is nice because a lot of schools had to let their librarians go,” Donnelly said. “It’s sad, but they are often the first to go [because of budget cuts].”
Anna Jenkins, principal at Alexander Adaire School in Fishtown, led the way through the hallways where walls are decorated with a crazy-quilt pattern of student art. The K-8 school has just 15 kindergarten students per class. Adaire is looking forward to a revitalized playground and sports area project coming this summer. With an enrollment of about 350 students, Jenkins said her emphasis at Adaire is on creating small class sizes.
“It’s really worth your money,” she said. “It’s worth it in the classroom.”
Some of that money was dedicated to the new $50,000 computer lab with Apple computers. Another lab is on its way.
Adaire parent Joe McAteer was on hand to tell the real estate agents that although his family lived outside the school’s catchment area, he applied to have his daughter enrolled after a not-so-great kindergarten year at a parochial school.
“So many parents are scared of their local school,” McAteer said. “You hear so much negativity about what’s going on. But once you step inside, that negativity is gone. The teachers don’t have it, the kids don’t have it. What’s happening inside this school is amazing.”
The last stop on the tour featured John Moffet Elementary, where Friends of Moffet founder Meenal Lele, a week from her due date with her second child, spoke about the changing dynamics of the neighborhood.
In just the few years she has lived in a home near the Fishtown school, she said, she has seen used car lots give way to new home construction.
“The neighborhood has seen way more build,” Lele said. “We’ve seen like 50 homes go up. And everyone I’ve met is a really young family.”
Moffet principal Carmen Navarro said her school is a place where teachers go with the intention to retire there, which results in very low turnover. Navarro said that her music teacher has been there 29 years and that several other teachers and staff members have been there at least 25 years. The stability, she said, helps the school promote “kindness, gentleness, and peace,” cornerstones of the school’s mission.
Moffet places a strong emphasis on music education through its partnerships with the Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture drumming program and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which sends musicians each week to interact with the students.
“The performers come to us, so the students have the opportunity to be exposed to classical music,” Lele said.
At the conclusion of the tour, Affel, the Coldwell Banker agent, said that getting a look inside the schools was an eye-opening experience and something she could use in her professional practice as an agent.
“I was really impressed,” Affel said. “It’s encouraging to know that when you are selling houses to people in these neighborhoods they won’t have to move when they start families. I don’t think any private school has anything on what we’ve seen today.”
Space & Co.’s McDonald said that many potential home buyers and realtors may view the neighborhood schools in a poor light based on the District’s reputation and test scores. But they tell only part of the story.
“But people only hear the bad, the failures, and corruption that plagues the District,” McDonald said. “Today illustrated that once you walk through the doors, you easily see the passion and commitment of the educators and staff. This was surprising, refreshing and inspiring.”
Logan Mabe, a longtime journalist who worked at the Tampa Times, is now a graduate student at Temple University pursuing a master's degree in urban education.