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In South Philadelphia, a public school revival pushes against its limits

newsworks
  • l andrew jackson elementary
    Emma Lee/WHYY

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On a rain-drenched Friday in late March, about 75 people pack into a cinder block room at South Philadelphia's Hawthorne Recreation Center just north of Washington Avenue.

The rhythmic blare of a nearby Mexican dance class bleeds through the walls. Along the room's perimeter women saddled with baby bjorns rock infants to sleep.

If ever a scene captured the new face of South Philadelphia this might be it: a room full of young, mostly white professionals chatting over the muffled hum of Latin folk music.

The topic this evening is overcrowding at nearby Andrew Jackson School, a K-8 school about five blocks south that serves parts of Bella Vista and East Passyunk. Before the meeting starts I sidle up to Stephen Dunne, a lawyer who recently bought a house across the street from the school.

"Oh it's an incredible turnout," he said with an eager smile. "You'd think this was a private school. It's a public school in Philadelphia."

Dunne and his wife picked their house because of its proximity to Jackson, one of four or five public elementary schools they considered viable. That dynamic isn't new — there's long been a select band of schools deemed good enough by the city's middle class.

What is new is Jackson's presence among that group.

Less than a decade ago, Jackson sat half empty--just another three-story reminder of the city's crumbling public school system. Today it can barely contain the 567 children scurrying through its corridors.

In fact, all over South Philadelphia — from Front Street to Broad, from South Street to Snyder — public school enrollments are swelling. The extent and consistency of the trend reaffirms that the urban revival begun in Center City a couple decades prior has advanced well past downtown. Jackson's overcrowding problem is, at least in part, the latest high-tide mark from a wave that seems to advance further south every year.

But the Jackson story is not merely the story of middle-class return. It is also the tale of an immigrant influx that has breathed life into so many corners of the city. It is the story of a cook from Puebla, a first-grader from Mexico City, a stay-at-home mom from Acapulco.

At Jackson, the twin trends of gentrification and immigration have collided in happy harmony. And they have left the School District of Philadelphia with a rare and enviable problem: after years of managing decline the district must consider how it will manage real and sustained pockets of growth. Moreover, it must consider how to manage that growth without alienating the newcomers that have fueled the resurgence or marginalizing those who kept so many of these schools alive.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

 

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