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Possible changes from facilities plan in University City

By thenotebook on Oct 19, 2011 05:15 PM

by Patrick Kerkstra for PlanPhilly


They were only 142 words, comprising just one proposal among 84 others on the leaked Philadelphia School District’s facilities closings list published last spring by the Public School Notebook.

The gist was simple: close Alexander Wilson Elementary, move the students to Lea Elementary, and, to relieve overcrowding, consider redrawing the boundary for the University of Pennsylvania-sponsored Penn Alexander Elementary School.

They were recommendations. Nothing was final. But those 142 words were enough to sharply slow sales of single-family homes in an increasingly exclusive section of University City, re-ignite a decade-old debate about gentrification and lead some residents to question if they wanted to stay in the city at all.

Powered by the runaway success of the 10-year-old Penn Alexander School, the residential neighborhoods west of Penn are in the midst of one of the most pronounced economic and demographic shifts now occurring anywhere in Philadelphia, a fact that is dramatically underscored by newly available Census data.

The community is one of several in the city where a small but growing group of middle and upper middle class parents – many of whom are white – are hoping to stay in Philadelphia, and send their children to public schools, instead of fleeing for the suburbs or paying private school tuition as was virtually automatic in earlier years.

Some powerful people and institutions, such as the Center City District, have started to contend that improving low-performing public schools in relatively well-off and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods - from Passyunk Square, to Fairmount, to University City - is vital for the future of Philadelphia, as it is perhaps the most effective way to keep middle and upper-middle class families in the city.

“This is not an either/or choice for the School District: it can serve families whose only choice is the public school, while simultaneously craft policies to attract families with the means for mobility, but who want to stay,” read a highly-publicized report published by the Center City District last month.

Full disclosure: my family is one of those that could leave, but wants to stay. My wife and I moved from Center City to West Philadelphia and bought a home just outside the coveted Penn Alexander enrollment zone in 2006. We have a two-year-old son who  we’d planned to enroll in public school. Now, we’re not so sure.

Uncertainy and opportunity

The talk of closings and mergers and new catchments has sown confusion and threatened to blunt not just Penn Alexander’s impact, but also nascent efforts to make low-performing West Philadelphia schools like Lea Elementary into appealing options for parents with the financial freedom to send their children elsewhere.

At the same time, the uncertainty over the future of some facilities and churn in the school district’s leadership may have opened a window for stronger and more formal ties between West Philadelphia’s public schools and its powerful universities.

“My wish would be that Penn, Drexel, and the University of the Sciences come together and say; ‘we’ve had some pretty remarkable success in improving the fate of the communities around us, and if we’re really committed to the urban world, we’re going to have to reach further,’” said Penn Professor James H. Lytle, who coordinates the university’s relationship with the School District.  “Now is kind of an ideal time for the three universities in the University City area to collaborate in working with the whole set of schools.”

The disruption in West Philadelphia’s elementary schools showcases what awaits communities across the city, as the School District of Philadelphia enacts its Facilities Master Plan: a long-in-the-works rightsizing of district properties that will likely lead to dozens of school closings, mergers, and a host of other changes that seem certain to have major impacts on both the city’s physical landscape and the daily lives of many residents.

District officials say they will present specific recommendations to the School Reform Commission and the public at large by the end of the month or early November. Schools won’t start closing until 2012 at the earliest, and the district does not anticipate finishing its work – which means eliminating 34,000 empty classroom seats - until 2014.

Meanwhile, the nervous parents of University City feel as though they’re being kept in the dark. They want a process that gives them meaningful input into what happens to their community’s schools. At minimum, they say, they need some definitive answers.

“I think there’s a lot of tension. People have a lot of questions. You could almost call it hysteria,” said University City resident Jon Gabrielle Hermann, the former executive director of Campus Philly, a non-profit that encourages college students to connect with the city of Philadelphia. “Can I send my kid to Penn Alexander? What if I can’t? Does that mean charter schools? Lea? Do I need to start researching the suburbs?”

The Penn Alexander Effect

To understand how something as arcane as a school facilities plan could create hysteria, you have to go back to 2001, when the district opened the Penn Alexander School at 43d and Locust in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania.

It was hardly the first public school to have a formal relationship with a local university. But from the beginning, Penn Alexander was different. It was built on Penn property. Penn helped select its principal, and supplies student teachers and training for the school faculty. Each year, Penn contributes $1,330 per student. And, critically, the school was constructed not just to educate local children, but also to serve as a tool for urban renewal.

By the mid-1990s, Penn had realized that its fate was tied to that of West Philadelphia, and the university was spending a fortune in its effort to make the local community safe and attractive enough so that more students, professors and staff would feel comfortable living close to campus.

But for all the investments – a business district, a huge security force, extensive capital development – the lack of a strong local public school was a deal breaker for a lot of Penn-affiliated parents with young children.

The two schools that then served the handsome residential neighborhoods west of Penn were Wilson and Lea. Some locals wanted the university to put its efforts into improving those schools, which were low-performing institutions where the vast majority of students were economically disadvantaged African Americans.

Instead, the university and school district chose to build Penn Alexander from the ground up, designing it to be the sort of public school Penn professors would happily send their children to. The school’s enrollment borders - or catchment - were plucked from the areas formerly served by Lea and Wilson. As it happened, the catchment included many blocks that were already far whiter and wealthier than the rest of West Philadelphia.

In September, 2001, the school opened to kindergartners and first graders. By 2004, it was serving grades K-8. Within two years, Penn Alexander students were testing proficient on state exams at a rate twice that of the district average, and out-of-state delegations were stopping by to take notes on building a successful urban school.

By then the great Penn Alexander property rush was well underway. Together, Penn and the district had created the most rare and desirable amenity in the Philadelphia real estate market: a high quality public school. Philadelphians with means and children (or even prospective children) began snapping up homes in the catchment at a furious pace, including many with no Penn affiliation whatsoever.

Realtors took to marketing the catchment on for sale signs and websites (such as www.catchmentrealestate.com). Soon, catchment home buyers were paying a Penn Alexander Premium estimated by realtors to be $50,000 to $100,000 above and beyond the market price for an identical home located just outside the school zone.

Indeed, between 1998 and 2011, property values of single family homes in the school’s catchment increased by a staggering 211 percent. That appreciation rate was three times the city average, and more than double the increase of Center City and the University City neighborhoods located outside the catchment.

And then, abruptly, the boom came to a screeching halt.

A community disrupted

On May 11, the West Philly Local reported that Penn Alexander’s lower grades were full-to-bursting with students, and that the school district had decided it would have to start turning away students, including some who live in the catchment. A month and a half later, the Notebook published the district’s leaked school facilities plan, which advised officials to “consider redrawing boundaries for Penn Alexander School.”

The news spread quickly across the neighborhood like the worst sort of gossip, by text message, at the Clark Park playground and over community list-serves. Some celebrated the popping of the “Penn Alexander bubble,” but most considered the news a terrible development.

"The Penn Alexander School over the last 10 years has been a powerful engine for neighborhood renewal,” said Mark Wagenveld, president of the Spruce Hill Civic Association (full disclosure: Wagenveld was my editor at the Inquirer 10 years ago). “With the enrollment cap, suddenly there’s a gnawing feeling that attendance at PAS is not guaranteed, and that’s going to set us back.”

Veteran real estate agent Melani Lamond, who lives just inside the catchment, said that only six properties had entered into an agreement of sale since the news broke in May that enrollment was capped, well below the typical pace even in a bad national real estate market. Well-priced, attractive homes within the catchment are languishing on the market or being taken off the listings by their owners, a scenario which Lamond described as highly unusual.

She chalks up the chill in the market to the sense of uncertainty about enrollment, and indeed that might be what most bothers parents in the catchment as well.

“First and foremost we would like the process of registration to be as transparent as possible. People do not know what the scope of the problem is, who is going to get priority for slots,” said Michael Shashaty, a leader of a new parent organization in the catchment called Advocates for Great Elementary Education, or AGREE.

AGREE has mounted a petition drive and letter-writing campaign urging the school, the District and Penn to find room for all students living in the catchment to enroll at Penn Alexander. A good place to start, members say, would be with a little more information.

“I think if there were enhanced communication between the school and the parents and neighborhood, and potentially with some kind of written policy people could refer to, that would be the first step to diminishing the stress level of the community and then it would give us a starting point from which we could say ‘is there a problem?’ And if there is, ‘how do we fix the problem?’” Shashaty said.

AGREE has met with a number of Penn officials, and while the university has been short on answers it appears to be sensitive to concerns of parents within the catchment. There are signs the university is working on some sort of fix.

But Penn does not want to be seen as dictating enrollment policy to the district, particularly not at a time when – with a new superintendent and a remade School Reform Commission – there may be an opportunity for the university to become more deeply involved in West Philadelphia schools beyond Penn Alexander, such as Lea and Wilson if it remains open.

Certainly there is no shortage of senior district leaders with Penn connections. Incoming SRC Chair Pedro Ramos was chief of staff to former Penn President Judith Rodin, who pushed for Penn Alexander. Fellow SRC newcomer Wendell Pritchett, a West Philadelphia resident, is a former Penn law professor. Mayor Nutter’s newest appointee, novelist Lorene Cary, is a Penn creative writing lecturer. Interim Superintendent Leroy Nunery is a former Penn vice president, as was district CFO Michael Masch.

“Penn created this situation to some degree, because it created Penn Alexander. That’s had implications the university probably hadn’t thought all the way through, and the school has been dramatically more successful than anyone had imagined,” said Lytle, the coordinator between Penn and the School District. “So now what?”

Thus far, the District has been short on answers.

Penn Alexander’s principal and the assistant superintendent who oversees the school said through a district spokesperson they were too busy to be interviewed. In a statement, district spokesman Fernando Gallard said “currently there are no plans to amend the enrollment guidelines.”

For many within the catchment, though, the status quo is unacceptable. Currently, enrollment is available to local residents on a first come, first served basis. That policy has already led to the spectacle of parents camping out overnight next to the school (in nine-degree weather this past January) to secure a spot in the limited-space kindergarten classrooms. Until last spring, those that missed out on kindergarten still were more or less sure to get in for first grade. The fear now is that, with that assurance gone, the line will form far earlier.

But it is not clear what the alternatives are. AGREE opposes both a lottery and a redrawing of the catchment. Some parents have suggested trailers or a new wing. Others, larger class sizes.

The District’s statement addressed none of that. It did say, though, that the District would be evaluating “equitable access to educational options” as part of its Facilities Master Plan.

“The District will be reviewing catchment areas, demographics, projected demand and academic quality as part of the planning effort,” the statement said. “We believe that the District’s ongoing relationship with Penn can help in exploring a range of options for supporting schools in West Philadelphia, and addressing equitable access.”

A quality public education, but for who?

Though it is not entirely clear what the district means by “addressing equitable access,” there is little disputing the fact that Penn Alexander has, over time, come to serve more and more white and Asian students and fewer African American ones.

A PlanPhilly analysis of 2000 and 2010 Census data – which looked at data down to the block level, enabling a close match with the catchment area  – found that the African American population within the Penn Alexander catchment declined by 52 percent in just 10 years, even as the white and Asian populations increased by 27 percent and 56 percent, respectively. (Note: the Census has not released block or tract level data for income or other non-racial indicators of community change).

Middle-class African Americans have been leaving Philadelphia in large numbers in recent years for a variety of reasons. But the decline in the Black population within the catchment is so sharp that it is hard not to conclude that higher property values, fueled in large part by Penn Alexander, have displaced some lower-income African Americans.

The figures are unlikely to surprise longtime African American residents, some of whom see the high-performing elementary school as part of a highly coordinated Penn strategy to exercise its influence over large sections of West Philadelphia, sometimes at the expense of Black residents.

“Penn’s plan has worked brilliantly. They created PAS for the purpose of educating professors’ children, and it’s done that. The problem is it displaced a lot of people, people who didn’t own homes or couldn’t pay the higher taxes,” said Rev. Charles McNeil, a pastor at Transfiguration Baptist Church in Mantua and a resident of the 400 block of S. 48th Street, just outside the catchment.

The Census figures tell another story as well: the Penn Alexander enrollment problem may not be as huge as many catchment parents fear. Despite anecdotal accounts of an epic Penn Alexander-fueled baby boom, there were, in fact, slightly fewer children 17-and under in the catchment in 2009 then there were when the last Census was taken in 1999: 1,306 in 1999 compared to 1,211 now. Nor is there a glut of younger children. The Census counted 512 children under five years old in 1999, compared to 489 in 2009.

And according to the school district, of the 658 K-8 district students who live in the catchment, 577 are already at Penn Alexander.

What has changed dramatically is the racial composition of children within the catchment. As of 2009, there were 101 percent more white children in the Penn Alexander zone then there were 10 years earlier, and 61 percent fewer African American children. The figures are particularly stark amongst the youngest children, suggesting that over time Penn Alexander’s student body will grow increasingly white and Asian as older African American students graduate.

An alternative to Penn Alexander

That profound demographic shift was no doubt on the minds of the leaders of the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools when they wrote the organization’s mission statement: “We are aware of well-meaning but ultimately paternalistic efforts to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ neighborhood schools – that is, to remake them into a middle-class vision of ‘good schools’ and to fill them with middle class kids. We want to be very explicit about the fact that that is NOT the intention of WPCNS.”


Disclaimers aside, WPCNS is plainly working hard to “improve” Henry C. Lea, which sits across the street from the old West Philadelphia High building. The group’s members have secured pro bono design consultancy for the school from the Community Design Collaborative, acquired air conditioners for the kindergarten classrooms, collected supplies, organized book drives, and so on.

The school could use all the help it can get. Lea, at Locust and 47th, is just four blocks due west of Penn Alexander, but the academic, demographic and economic gulf between the neighboring schools is vast.

Where Penn Alexander’s student body is a diverse mix of about one third African American students, one third white students and a wide array of other ethnic groups comprising the other third, Lea is 87 percent African American. Fully 90 percent of Lea students are classified by the district as economically disadvantaged, compared to 47 percent at Penn Alexander. And PAS students are more than twice as likely as Lea students to pass state proficiency exams.

Which makes it all the more unusual that the 200-plus members of WPCNS, many of whom are middle or even upper middle class, are so intent on getting involved in Lea and maybe, just maybe, sending their own children there.

That’s right. As of now, few if any WPCNS members have children enrolled at Lea. Some have children a year or two away from kindergarten. Others, like WPCNS Chair Amara Rockar, do not yet have kids.

“I’m a very anxious person,” Rockar said, when asked why she was working to improve a neighborhood school before she had children to send there.

Rockar and other WPCNS members say they’ve been inspired by the work of Jacqueline Edelberg, the author of How to Walk to School: A Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance. The book tells the story of how Edelberg, a Chicago mother, helped convince her community to take a “leap of faith” and commit their time and, eventually, their children, to a long struggling neighborhood school.

The neighborhood Lea draws from has changed considerably in the last 10 years, if not quite so dramatically as Penn Alexander’s. The African American population in Lea’s catchment has declined by 28 percent, and the white population has swelled by 68 percent.

Much of that is attributable to newcomers like myself and my wife: people who could not afford to live in the catchment, but were drawn to the neighborhood’s handsome homes, tree-lined streets, and a distinctive community feel unlike any other in Philadelphia, born in large part from the neighborhood’s really remarkable diversity . When we moved here in 2006, we were naïve enough to think perhaps the PAS catchment would expand to include our house. When it became clear that wouldn’t happen, we began planning a move into the Penn Alexander catchment. Until recently, we were barely aware of Lea, much less considered it an option for our son.

The trouble with that, as Rockar pointed out in one of many online public discussions on Penn Alexander overcrowding in recent months, is that pretty much all parents “with the funds, savvy and/or connections” consider only a small handful of public elementary schools across the city acceptable for their children.

“For the continued growth of our city and strength of our neighborhood, this is clearly unsustainable,” Rockar wrote. She then invited those on the listserv “terrified” about the lack of public school options to volunteer for a morning in a Lea kindergarten room.

Lea’s capable principal, Dr. Lisa Bell-Chiles, welcomes the new-found interest in the school, though she seems slightly bemused by it all.

“I’m meeting a lot of new parents, who are thinking of enrolling their children. It’s interesting. Some of them have children that are not ready for kindergarten yet, and maybe they won’t be for two or three years, but they’re still coming in,” Bell-Chiles said. “They’re quite welcome. I think some were surprised by what they saw here. We are an Empowerment School, but we push our children to achieve, the curriculum is not dumbed down.”

Seeing Lea’s kindergarten classroom in person was enough to convince David Hincher and his wife Mara that they could send their daughter to Lea in two years time and be confident she’d receive a good education. It was not a decision they reached easily.

“Our household become kind of a warzone on the issue of education,” said David Hincher, an architect at Kieran Timberlake, as his daughter played with other WPCNS kids at a local park during one of the group’s weekly meetings, which double as playdates.

He values public education as an essential civic building block, and was adamant that their children go to their neighborhood public school. Mara, though, was not willing to compromise on the quality of her daughter’s education to meet some sort of high-minded ideal. After seeing Lea for themselves, they think they won’t have to.

Still, it’s unclear how many WPCNS parents will follow through and actually enroll their children in the school. Much, it seems, will hinge on how many parents are willing to take the initial “leap of faith.” Too few, and the entire effort could evaporate overnight.

The questions about Wilson, a K-6 school, and its potential closure only add to the uncertainty. While Wilson has an academic record and students with economic problems that roughly match those at Lea, Wilson lacks Lea’s active Home and School Association and increasingly robust community engagement. Some WPNCS parents fear combining the two schools would only further entrench Lea’s poverty and poor student performance.

But Bell-Chiles says Lea has the space for Wilson’s 231 students, and PlanPhilly’s analysis of the Census data confirms that the District – which must scale back its underused facilities to save on operating costs – has good reason to target West Philadelphia. The 17 and under population in the Lea and Wilson catchments is down by 36 percent over the past 10 years. The falloff is particularly sharp in the Wilson area: 46 percent.

Still, West Philadelphia education advocates, including those at Penn, hope Wilson doesn’t close.

“I think it’d be a mistake to close Wilson. It could be part of the answer here,” Lytle said, referring to the overcrowding at Penn Alexander and the ever-louder middle and upper middle class clamor for quality public education in West Philadelphia.

Whether or not that happens depends partly on what the district decides to do with its facilities. Perhaps more important, Lytle said, is the sustained interest and activism of the community.

“Parents can help drive this agenda,” Lytle said. “I think there’s the prospect for some kind of responsiveness here from the university and the district.”

This story is a product of a reporting partnership on the District’s facilities master plan between PlanPhilly and the the Notebook. The project is funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation.

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Comments (68)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 5:06 pm

A long article-------Code----Move the white kids away from the black kids. Expand the Penn jurisdiction means only and exactly that. The landed gentry have landed and we're not allowed in that crowd.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 6:36 pm

Interesting that the only schools discussed are Wilson and Lea. Huey, Harrington, etc. are nearby. But, these schools aren't within the 52nd street boundary that Penn subsidizes for employee housing.

Fundamentally, Penn Alexander further exasperates the inequity in the School District. A few students get an education with all the perks (orchestra, new building, technology, etc, etc) while too many others get the crumbs.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 7:45 pm

At least Penn Alex hasn't been converted to a charter school. It remains public in part because Penn wants it to be. They fought for West Philly to stay public and had a partnership there, too, but Ackerman ruined it.

I did live and work near Penn Alex and while I have very mixed feelings about it, you can't say it is just professors' kids. The boundaries in the neighborhood between "campus area" and "West Philly" are stark and sudden, and Penn Alex took kids from both sides. Should all schools get this support? Of course. But it isn't realistic and I would rather have a dozen really, really good schools in the SDP than NONE.

There were some majorly unfair lines drawn for their catchment, however. A coworker's son was not allowed to go to Penn Alex regardless of living for decades within sight of the building, because that particular property was not in the catchment.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 10:08 pm

Do you know you just made a case for both sides of the same argument?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 10:57 pm

Yes. Hence "very mixed feelings." It doesn't have to be a kneejerk reaction.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 2:14 pm

And thing that might have been the above posters point--categorically demonizing or glorifying Penn Alexander are both very unthoughtful perspectives.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 7:42 pm

I give up--what are you talking about ??

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 11:40 pm

Penn created the school to create a "buffer" from the "stark" conditions beyond the catchment. Penn Alex. doesn't include students who can't afford to live within its boundaries. (Unless, someone knows someone and there are students at Penn Alex. who are connected to people who are or were "higher ups" at 440... start with a former CAO...)

Penn Alex. has the luxury of students with parents with more formal education which means more social/political capital. Regardless of their current income or ethnic background, they know how the educational system works. If there are only 12 "good" schools in Philly, what happens to the students at the other 238 (or so) schools? Penn should not be able to subsidize Penn Alex. ($1300+ per student - that is $260,000 more per class with a class of only 20 students!). That is a huge difference in funding alone. (This does not include the "in kind" from Penn from grants, maintenance, teacher professional development, etc., etc.)

Schools like Penn Alex. perpetuated the educational segregation and inequitable educational preparation in the SDP. When a few students have everything and others have little, those who receive little will not even get the "crumbs" of educational opportunity.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 6:57 am

But what is your solution? Get real for a minute. Do you want to force a private entity to give $1300 per student for the whole district, or do you want to tell them they can't give money to a public school? We should be finding partners like this for more schools, not less.

Having parents involved in the SDP who would otherwise never think about sending their students to an SDP school can be a good thing if we stop telling them they aren't "really" part of the district. Why are we trying to alienate people who are trying to make their school better? Because we're mad that they can't magically make every school better? They aren't taking district resources like Promise schools do, and if anything they are creating more jobs with the extra funds, unlike charter conversions.

If that money went as a donation to the district, we all know not a classroom in the city would have seen the difference. Some schools have more and others have less. I work in a school that has much less. But I don't blame the schools that have more for getting what they can where they can, because that's what I do for my students as well.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 9:40 am

Penn should at least spread the wealth. Let Penn give all elementary schools within 3 - 4 miles of the school, West Philly and Univ. City HS $1300 more per pupil, all the in-kind support, etc. That would at least move beyond the "cocoon" created at Penn Alexander. The SDP can complain all it wants about the inequity between Philly and Lower Merion. It is hallow when they allow so much inequity within their own boundaries.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 11:12 am

Penn has long been rumored/at times even public about efforts to partner with the District on University City HS. The District hasn't been very receptive. Dr. Ackerman, in particular, was extremely cold toward Penn. Penn can't fund the whole SDP, but they would welcome more extensive inclusion in providing resources, support for the schools in West Philly. But I think Penn is more focused on the educational aspects, and less on back-room political deals, so they've been mostly excluded from the SDP's plans over the past few years.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 1:30 pm

You realize UCHS was initially built as a school for the children of Penn professors, right? And then Penn abandoned it? I'm not saying the district should shut out Penn entirely but keep the history in mind.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 2:22 pm

That's a pretty serious oversimplification of the history UCHS. ("For Penn professors" is not accurate -- it's built for 3000 students. Penn a total of just over 4,000 faculty. The school age children of "Penn professors" would account for a small fraction of that capacity). It may be true that part of the motivation was to provide a school that faculty would be interested in sending their children to. But if that was the only thing Penn was trying to do, it could just have opened a private school. Many other universities have done that.

UCHS has an incredibly complex history, including being built for a fairly specific (and probably ill-advised) model of extremely differentiated education that was never actually implemented.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 20, 2011 3:41 pm

UCHS was originally designed for the innovative "open classroom" methodology and independent study. It was intended to be a magnet school attracting top students from across the city. The local community protested and it was turned into a neighborhood school.

It was always a crazy school but it was so much fun to work there back in the day. We had a Great group of teachers and Great administrators. We dealt with just about anything and everything that could possibly happen in a school.

That's why we called it Uni -- it just had an ethos all its own. You could never really understand unless you worked there.

Submitted by Phantom Poster (not verified) on October 20, 2011 9:29 pm

For a couple of years in the 90's, Uni was an incredible turnaround story. Staff was empowered to be creative in their use of time and materials, and could focus on what was in their student's best interests. Uni demonstrated what could happen in a comprehensive high school graced with visionary leadership. Unfortunately, today you'd have to be a charter to get that kind of flexibility, as top-down, ego-driven management will never let go.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 9:01 am

Don't give Penn too much credit - $1,330 per student for 20 students is $26,600. The funding difference and in-kind is huge but not quarter million dollar per class huge.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 1:53 pm

you know, especially because Penn doesn't pay any property tax on zillions of dollars worth of land...It could afford to give 1300 to every public school student in the whole City, not just West Philly.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 2:42 pm

I would venture to guess that, in net, Penn probably contributes far more overall value to the City of Philadelphia than the property tax revenue that would be paid that land weren't occupied by several science labs, hospitals, a major university that has nationwide appeal, etc. Penn is the 5th largest employer in the state of PA, and the 2nd largest private one, after Wal-Mart. Unlike Wal-Mart, Penn is an educational institution, providing education, several hospitals, several museums, and several cultural facilities.

When evaluating the impact of large institutions, it's very important to look at the whole picture, not just piece of the puzzle.

Could Penn do more to pay for every student in Philly? Probably. But so could a vast number of other entities, including large businesses that locate themselves in the suburbs and thus contribute very little to the funding of Philly schools, but end up employing many the top graduates of the SDP while making money selling their products and services to the citizens of Philly.

I'm not saying Penn is perfect. But if you are looking toward an institution that isn't putting much into the community and is getting a lot out of it, Penn is not the best target of that accusation.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 25, 2011 11:13 am

$26,000, not $260,000.

Submitted by Christopher M. Petersen (not verified) on October 20, 2011 11:18 am

Thank you for this comment. I have very mixed feelings myself, over a very complicated matter. It's brings up urban development as a whole, not just education.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 9:47 pm

Also, if PAS is full the students get sent to the next closest school depending on where they live. In no case would that be Huey and Harrington because those aren't close to the PAS catchment though they are technically nearby (but about a mile away from PAS).

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 11:58 pm

Yes, but they are within walking distance. Is the Penn line so entrenched that only schools within "ear shot" of Penn count?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 7:02 am

The three schools mentioned are intertwined because the PAS catchment was carved out of the catchments for Lea and Wilson with the stated goal of reducing overcrowding at those schools. Now that the lower grades of PAS are full, students per district policy get referred to the next closest school which would generally be either Lea or Wilson. All three schools were mentioned in the draft facilities report in a way that would impact the others. It's not that Huey and Harrington don't "count" (what school doesn't count?) or some kind of Penn line, it's just they aren't connected to the above issues.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 10:40 pm

That's what I said in the post above yours---but you said it better.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 7:48 pm

Philadelphia has some huge inequity problems. However, without school like Penn Alexander, many of those families would not consider raising children in Philadelphia, or at least sending them to public schools. In that case -- nobody wins. And it's not just racial. There is quite a bit of black flight to the suburbs, too.

Without quality educational options near Penn, faculty and staff wouldn't live there. They'd live in the suburbs, and their tax dollars, day-to-day spending (i.e. food, household goods, etc.) would be done in suburbs.

However, I think there might be some good from this. Now that Penn Alexander has laid the foundation for a relatively mixed community in both racial and economic terms (obviously it's not perfect, but it's one of the more ethnically and economically diverse areas I've lived), as Penn Alexander fills up, it might start causing people to seriously consider surrounding schools and making an investment in them, rather than writing them off.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 8:45 pm

Not really that "interesting" that the author only discusses PAS, Wilson, and Lea, as those are the three schools mentioned in the school-closure report that prompted the article. Focus does not equal conspiracy.

Also, the community rallying around Lea has nothing to do with Penn. WPCNS is an all-volunteer, genuinely grassroots organization working to connect the existing community with the existing student population, not to change either one. If you really care about reducing educational inequity in West Philly, give them a hand. Their website offers lots of volunteer opportunities:
https://sites.google.com/site/westphillyschools/

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2011 10:54 pm

The only one seeing conspiracy seems to be you, skippy. Get a grip.

Submitted by Other Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 7:19 am

Obviously you did not read the first paranoid comment to this article.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 8:34 am

Wrong again, Skippy. I read it and agree with it, so should you. That, though, is not the definition of conspiracy though I can imagine you believe it to be one. It is, though, an open secret that everybody is in on that Penn wants to have it's own school for the Penn Staff to help lure and keep professors there. They've been trying that for years and EVERYBODY with open eyes, knows it.

Submitted by Other Anon. not the orig. Anon. you weirdly called skippy (not verified) on October 20, 2011 11:08 am

Um, instead of arguing semantics and "open secret" vs. "conspiracy," let's take it back to the community members who are bringing more support to a neighborhood school that doesn't have the benefit of additional funding from Penn. That's what's remarkable and worthy of discussion.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 20, 2011 9:16 am

 Informative article and insightful analysis.   Penn has a huge endowment, pays no taxes and has urban renewalized poor people out of the area for decades.   The whole development of Penn Alexander is a classic case of institutional racism.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 11:31 am

Amen... from someone who lives beyond Penn's 52nd street DMZ.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 12:47 pm

Well, many other large universities facing the Issue that Penn had (i.e. faculty/staff recruitment problems due to lack of quality educational opportunities for children) take a different angle: build a private school, give free tuition to faculty children, and then charge anyone else $25,000 a year to attend. No worries about enrollment problems, dealing with a School District, etc.

While I don't disagree that Penn (or large universities in general) aren't perfect citizens, what are they supposed to do? Penn (and similarly situation universities) face serious issues with faculty and student recruitment when they are in neighborhoods that have real (or perceived) issues with crime, lack of resources, etc. So they have choice to make. One is to literally put up a wall around the campus to keep out "undesirable" elements. Other universities run their own private schools and literally own a large number of houses just for faculty/staff use near campus. Other have moved parts of their operations (especially science labs) to the suburbs. Compared to many similarly situated Penn has been remarkably cooperative with the surrounding area and invested far more in developing the entire community, not just the university. In many places, the dividing line between "university" area and "neighborhood" is extremely stark. In University City/West Philadelphia, it's actually far more blended than most. Having lived near two other private urban universities and spend time on the campus of two others, and Penn is by far more integrated in the community than the others.

Penn can't correct decades of deeply complex societal racism, classism and discrimination, but both compared to many other giant private employers and even compared to other large, private, research universities, Penn is very community-focused. If all they wanted to do was create an isolated school for their faculty, they could just do that -- build a private school, and charge tuition to any non-faculty children. Instead, they've tried to partner with the public school district to create something that is open and available.

When looking to make major improvement in the overall educational situation in Philadelphia, I think that it would be wise to look at the schools that have high demand (Penn Alexander, Mastery, etc.) and see what they are doing that is drawing parents to send their children there, and meaningfully reflect on what is happening in those places that is working. If Penn is running a school that has high demand, why not invite them to help with more schools?

Also, without a certain mass of middle class families, it's basically impossible for a school District to succeed, for any number of reasons. And middle class families are not going to live in a place where the schools have a reputation for being very mediocre. No matter how much they theoretically believe in public education, when it comes to their OWN children, the vast majority of parents will try to find the best school they can afford, either through relocating or enrolling in a private school. I know there are bright spots in the SDP, but, by and large, it's not a very good school system. And it's not just white families that leave. It's anyone that can afford to do it--regardless of race.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 7:11 pm

Finally, you add something from the heart.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 11:37 am

Okay,Goober, Keep your head in the sand.

Submitted by Maurice (not verified) on October 20, 2011 11:41 am

There is a lot of comment by many who either don't have kids in the schools in question, or participate in them. I, as a parent who choose to send his son to Lea, have some direct knowledge of what the school is about. I also am aware of the controversy, and obstacles concerning the other schools in the West Philadelphia area. Myself, a Penn Partner, and Lea Teacher, met with the Penn Museum, and negotiated a partnership for all the immediate area West Philadelphia schools. We queried the Penn Museum representatives about the possiblility of lowering the family membership for those who attend the schools in the museum's zone, and they responded with an approval of this special introductory program. They have also provided, via a grant, free trips for the area students. This is not a Penn Alexander initiative, but something instituted by a partner, teacher, and parent at Lea, for the entire student population of West Philly. This is proof that persons from Penn, care more than many know, about the other schools in the area. PAS is not the fault of the parents, teachers or students who go there, so the conversation should be on how we replicate the successes of PAS in the other schools. I have not decided to wallow in sorry, and am very happy with the education my son has gotten at Lea. (attended there for three years) I choose instead to help increase the enrichment programs, and support the teachers. All of this has been possible via collaboration with community partners like, WPCNS, Garden Court Community Association, Walnut Hill Community Association, and The Enterprise Center. We now have a gLea club with choral, and music theory instruction, will have orcherstra in January, (strings - cello, violin, viola, bass), Visual Arts Team, students and teachers who work on beautifying the school, USTA Quick Start tennis, a garden for the last 11 years, (grapes, raspberries, strawberries, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, carrots), which is now registered as a Muhammad Ali Peace Garden, were visited by Sharon Katz South African singer, and the kids were appointed members of her peace train, the Mural Arts Program will be redoing the mural in our school yard utilizing a urban version of the peace train theme, . I can go on infanitum, but surfice to say, Lea has a lot going on, and all of these enrichment programs have no district funding. They are created, funded, facilitated and adminstered by caring community members. I partner with teachers from Wilson, Comegys, WPHS and staff at UCHS, even though my son does not go to these schools. Coming together is the only way to change many of these present realities. When the community stops looking at others for the reason they do not have, then they will have time to seek what is missing. If not know when, if not you who?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 11:41 am

Lea and Wilson are (or were) also "Penn-partnership" schools, yet of course the level of investment is much lower. Parents at Wilson are interested in saving it, but they are so thoroughly disenchanted with the school administration that they are unwilling to cooperate with them. The school administrators themselves have expressed little interest in saving it - parents who attended Back to School Night hoping to hear a plan for saving the school - or even a mention of its possible closing, were disappointed.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 2:25 pm

That is sad to hear about Wilson but from what I've heard about the principal there it's not surprising. I hope she stays the heck away from other schools in West Philly if Wilson closes!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 2:25 pm

Lea and Wilson had Penn as an Education Management Organization (EMO) until June of this year when the district ended all EMOs. Penn was receiving $500 per student at Lea and Wilson from the School District for the service. Many in the community incorrectly thought Penn was giving $500 per student at Lea and Wilson.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 3:01 pm

Doesn't the principal of Wilson send her child to Penn Alexander?

It's no wonder that parents don't have much confidence in Wilson's administration.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 3:55 pm

Hadn't heard that. There is someone by the same name as the Wilson principal living the area but the house isn't in the PAS catchment...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 11:41 pm

Seriously, would you want to go to a school where your mother is the principal? Recess would be hell! Wilson has always been a great little community school. I used to know many of the teachers there and they were all highly qualified with masters degrees. Scores don't reflect the quality of the education. Its more a reflection of a small cultural and economically challenged niche that doesn't quite yet embrace the value of an education. Adding more diversity, without taking over the community, could help everyone involved. Take a chance, enroll your child, get involved, and save your neighborhood school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2011 11:41 am

I agree with a lot of what you say but Wilson has been under the grip of a tyrannical principal for a few years now. Parents and community members have reached out to get involved and gotten stonewalled.

Also, the Wilson principal should not be able to have her daughter enrolled at PAS if they don't live in the catchment.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2011 6:06 pm

Absolutely. I have seen it many times. Parents try to get involved and are either rebuffed or bled dry. So tyrannical yet so inefficient.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 1:55 pm

My son graduated from Wilson with the current principal. he now attends SLA and quite frankly, they prepared him well. I was a parent who supported the school while under the direction of the current principal. my issue is that these post don't tell the truth. Wilson has made AYP for six out of the seven years this principal has been at the helm and before that... Never. The parents who say the principal is a tyrant are the same ones who were asked for a criminal background check and refused because of their past. I ask, would you want a parent vinteer in your Childs school who has a criminal history? The principal is excellent (the data proves it). Do you want a friendly principal who can't do the job or one who takes a school with that population of students and who has consistently, proven her worth? Just imagine if she has middle and upper middle class students? She would have a blue ribbon school. Check your data before you post. Please!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 2:06 pm

The principal has shut out volunteers with background checks (all $55 worth of them) on file. Penn GSE clearly taught her well.

Oh and by the way, all the schools that made AYP last year are now under suspicion of cheating. Can't wait to see Wilson's "threat levels" on the state audit!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 3:09 pm

Are you really that angry at the principal or is it something else? Your comments are extremely personal. If your kid goes to Wilson, what has she done to get you this upset? BTW... No cheating at this school. Ask the staff and the kids. If everyone associated with the school hates her so much as you indicate (no pne likes a tyrant), they shouldn't have a problem snitching. Where's your proof? Don't say things about ppl's character without proof. That's just out right slander and the mark of a Hater!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 8:23 am

"Take a chance, enroll your child, get involved, and save your neighborhood school."

Are you serious? A child's education is too important to "take a chance" with. We're not talking about trying a new food here. You only get one childhood education. We shouldn't experiment on our neighborhood children.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 2:58 pm

Oh don't kid yourself, you're taking a chance on ANY school, public, private or charter.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 23, 2011 10:57 am

There are kids who graduate Lea and Wilson and go to the best high schools in the city. If you are an involved parent and give your children the right foundation for learning, your children will thrive... just that simple. Also, there are some really brilliant teachers at all three schools - Lea, Wilson and PAS. I'd wager there are some mediocre teachers at PAS as well, but they don't make or break our kids. Parents are a child's first teacher.

BTW... I would not be complaining about teachers at PAS sending their kids to PAS. Whoever is doing that should think about how hard teachers work, how much time is spent grading papers and preparing lessons, how much of their own money they spend on their classrooms. Allowing them to send their kids to the school where they teach is the LEAST we can do for them. Having to make arrangements for their own kids to be dropped off at another school so that they can get to their own school on time may be the difference between whether or not they can teach at all. Do we really want to go back to a place in time before teachers unions, when teachers could not have families of their own?

Principals from other schools and other connected folks are a different story altogether.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 3:27 pm

Fantastic article Patrick. Yours is the most comprehensive piece written about this situation to date.

I wonder if you discovered any evidence of children who do not live in "the catchment" attending Penn Alexander.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 5:09 pm

My son is in third grade at PAS. I've taken him to more than one playdate and found that not all of his classmates live in the catchment. There are ways around the system.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 5:23 pm

Yes. There are parents who work for the School District - have connections to people in power positions downtown, principals, etc. - who have their children at PAS. It is unfair but, just like parents with political connections get their kids into Masterman and Central, the same happens with PAS, Meredith, Greenfield, etc.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 6:12 pm

Why do you even ask or care??? I bet I know !!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 8:58 am

Several children of PAS employees also send their kids to PAS despite the fact that they don't live in the catchment. Those kids do just fine at recess.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 12:16 pm

The teachers' kids don't below at Penn Alexander if they don't live in the catchment. (I don't know many teachers who could afford "the catchment" unless they have a wealthy spouse.) Again, there are people with connections to 440 N. Broad who have their kids at PAS. I'd love to have my kids there but I can't afford the "catchment," nor the adjacent area (e.g. Lea, Wilson). I also am not connected enough to get my kid into the school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 6:00 pm

Is it standard school district policy that kids can attend the school where their parents work?

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 6:09 pm

Its up to the principal. Principals have the final say in who is let into a school if they don't live in the catchment or meet the requirements for a magnet school. So, I'd ask the principal why there are students at PAS who don't live in the catchment.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2011 11:51 pm

Really? Wow. I can't believe that Penn would allow this. Giving the principal the power to turn away children in the catchment while welcoming those from connected families. Sounds ripe for a discrimination lawsuit.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 23, 2011 7:00 am

This is the norm in the SDP - it isn't Penn. How do you think students get into Meredith, McCall, Greenfield, Powell, etc. who don't live in the catchment? Yes, there is a "voluntary transfer" process but VERY few students get in through the "legal" channel. (The Notebook has published this information.) It is who you know. Who you know is how Philadelphia functions. This is also true in the SDP. Who you know often also influences who gets principal positions. Leaders in the SDP put their friends in leadership positions. This is one reason so many schools have problems. Too many principals get positions based on sorority / fraternity / family / friendship rather than ability, accomplishments, etc.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2011 9:17 am

Supposedly - and this is based on second-hand knowledge - the PAS administrators conducted an audit last spring to confirm whether students actually lived in the catchment. They found a number of students did not live in the catchment, and those students were told not to return. (By anecdote, the story was that parents who didn't want to live in the catchment would buy a house/condo and then rent it out to a student but keep one of the utility bills in their own name so that they could claim to be residents of the catchment.)

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2011 10:03 am

I know of parents connected to powers that be at 440 N. Broad who have their children in the school - including starting in kindergarden. They don't live near the "catchment." So much for the audit.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on October 22, 2011 11:18 am

This truly needs to be addressed. Even legal EH-36 transfers are supposed to be granted "as space allows" according to the SDP's own policy. If even ONE catchment area kid is turned away, there should be no EH-36s or other transfers allowed (because space is not available). Catchment area parents need to get pro-active on this issue if they are turned away.
If it were me, I would inform the principal I was contacting the region, then 440, with the info that catchment kids are being turned away while non-catchment kids take a seat. I do not believe this has happened yet, but it sounds like it will, and parents need to be ready.

http://webgui.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/s/student-placement/programs--serv...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 4:16 pm

Anybody who really thinks this isn't about race and class, is just ignoring the facts for whatever reason. It's not even close.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 4:44 pm

OK, so if it is? Where do we go as a community from here? How do we go about ensuring that a child of any race or socioeconomic status has a great elementary education? Too frequently people in this neighborhood throw up their hands and exclaim "race and class" as a conversation end-er, instead of the start to much more difficult and important conversations, ones that must followed by actions.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 6:32 pm

I am not from that community but I know money and politics and that's what this is all about. Until people of color--and I am NOT one, organize and vote, the politicians will continue to marginalize them or carpetbaggers and race baiters like Evans, Williams and Kenny Gamble will run their shell games while screaming about the race card. In short, nothing will stop the haves until the people of color's numbers increase and they vote in elections. Their throwing their hands up is no surprise after 400 years of being battered from pillar to post. What I have always said is that when the people of color have the upper hand, will they be as coldblooded and abusive as their white counterparts have been to them.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2011 9:27 am

I was actually talking about people being reluctant to put themselves in an environment where they might have to recognize their own privilege.

Did you not go to any SRC meetings during Ackermania? There are already plenty of "leaders" in the community going on about 400 years of oppression. And you know what? They get grants and contracts and don't do jack for their communities. So much talking and so little doing.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2011 4:59 pm

We purhcased a home in the PAS cathment in 98, sold it in 99 because we realized two things. 1. The extra funding with the types of families the PAS kids live in makes PAS a higher performer. 2. Living within the PAS boundary is mostly what the PAS cathment parents do. It is not really diverse in view or economics. There is little difference than leaving for the suburbs excpet the guise of being city folks.

Crime within the PAS cathment is high, say what you want, it is reality because those outside of the cathcment knows the catchment people have it better. That would anger me as well.

So we've moved. We miss our friends in PAS cathchment but wish them well.

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