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Anxiety, anger for parents hoping to enroll children at Penn Alexander

By Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner on Jan 21, 2013 07:51 PM
Photo: Charlotte Pope

For parents hoping to enroll their children in kindergarten at the coveted Penn Alexander Elementary School in West Philadelphia, it's been a roller-coaster weekend.

Now many are hoping a Tuesday morning meeting with Superintendent William Hite will pave the way for a comprehensive solution that guarantees admission to the school to all children living within its attendance zone.

"I believe that everyone in the community wants that to happen and believes that is what's fair," said Mariana Farach, the mother of a Penn Alexander first grader.

Farach also has a 5-year old daughter whom she hopes to enroll at the school.

She was ninth in the line that began forming outside Penn Alexander early on Friday morning -- a full four days before kindergarten registration was set to officially open.

"I was relieved that my child would have a spot, and simultaneously I was disgusted that I had to do this and that it's come to this to get an education for your child," Farach said.

Penn Alexander is one of the most highly sought-after neighborhood elementary schools in the city. Largely as the result of its affiliation with the University of Pennsylvania, it has a combination that most neighborhood schools in the city lack: extra money, small class sizes, a diverse student body and deeply engaged parents.

What Penn Alexander doesn't have is enough seats for all the kids in the neighborhood.

For years, enrollment in the school has been on a first-come, first-served basis.

Farach was one of many parents who had begun plotting her strategy to secure a place at the front of the registration line far in advance. She was more than ready to spend all weekend outside in the cold to make sure that her daughter could go to the school where her son is already thriving.

"We all knew this was going to be a camp-out," she said. "My plan was to get in line, as they told me I had to do."

But around 6 p.m. Friday, District spokesman Fernando Gallard dropped a bombshell: Due to safety concerns, and in order to give all parents an equal opportunity to enroll at Penn Alexander, enrollment will now be done by a lottery.

By that time, the line had already grown to 72, well more than the 57 available spots.

Many parents in line were outraged by the announcement.

"Don't you realize how ludicrous this is? C'mon. What if this was your child?" one person yelled at Gallard.

Many parents worried that they won't know where their kindergartners are going next fall until April -- if they're lucky.

"We're mad that you're telling us now, after business hours, when we have all missed our opportunities for voluntary transfers, to apply to private school," one parent told Gallard. "April is too late. The timing is what is unacceptable."

Opinions are split on whether the District should honor its original policy and the line that had formed, or proceed with the lottery.  

Farach said that might be the worst part of the whole mess.

"This is a wonderful neighborhood. These are people that come together, that embrace diversity, they embrace education," she said.  "When this has happened, I've just seen a great division. It's very sad, to just see a community start to fall apart."

This is the earliest that a line had formed under the first-come, first-served policy. Parents last year starting lining up 24 hours in advance and in 2011 they waited overnight. Thursday night, before the line formed, School Reform Commission members discussed the situation at their meeting after a prospective Penn Alexander parent told them he thought a lottery would be saner and more fair.

Tuesday's meeting is scheduled for 11 a.m. in the school gymnasium.

"We will hear everybody's side, and the District will get back to the parents with a position," Gallard said.

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Comments (18)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 21, 2013 7:19 pm
the lottery, for district or charters, is a way of penalizing proactive parents. it's the governments way of leveling the playing field. this just gives people a reason to leave town.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 22, 2013 8:23 am
Is your commitment to the community solely because of PAS? We lived in University City as renters for almost 4 years while my husband finished school at Temple. Then we decided that despite the proximity to some great art initiatives, and the "carrot" of PAS (about to open) we did not appreciate being run over by Penn students barely out of high school in their fancy cars while we crossed a street with our kid in a stroller. You may be finding out why so many residents in the age groups from 35 to 44 left Philadelphia County between 2000 and 2010: a total of 31,587. In addition it would appear that they took their kids ages 5 to 14, a total of 43,370 with them. If you are smart enough to leave now (which we are "late in the day" realizing we should have) you have interest rates on your side. The City could care less if you go because they benefit from real estate turnover (a high transfer tax rate), and it looks like there are "hipsters" (ages 20 to 29, increase of 50,365 between 2000 and 2010) waiting in line to take your place. If you are smart enough to realize this, you will see that as your income slowly rises, the amount you are paying in wage tax will equal and might even exceed the greater amount you would be paying in real estate tax outside the City (more likely now with the move to increase real estate tax/AVI in the City). You will be also be charged 2% less tax for major purchases (such as appliance replacement), something that is not trivial at all. None of our neighbor's 4 grown children (all with good solid Catholic school educations) have chosen to live in the City - for good reasons, none of them involving racism, it would appear.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 22, 2013 2:39 pm
Uh, the suburban house equivalent to the PAS catchment houses have real estate taxes well into the five figures. Add on additional costs and time costs of commuting and 2nd car ownership (3rd car by high school). If the jobs are still located with Philly, you get hit with the wage tax, only slightly lower. For someone that loves to crunch numbers, you sure missed a lot. It may make sense for some, not for others, as always.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 22, 2013 3:45 pm
I've seen some pretty nice and equally if not more spacious homes than are at UC with taxes still in the 4 figures, say $5000. Many have a nice yard, and better maintenance cost (not so old as UC). Our rowhome has 1300 sq ft w/no yard and only street parking. It has $2,000 (soon to increase) tax. Wage tax is 4% (our job moved out of the City years ago). If your family income is $85,000, that's $3400; so total equals $5,400 in real estate plus wage taxes. More if you make more, and more with upcoming AVI. NJ residents even get to deduct the wage tax they pay if their job is in Philly. So that's just it, many of the jobs have moved. In Philly's 2035 plan, it says that (as of its writing) proportionately more jobs had been lost than people, then it states this was just the opposite case in the counties surrounding Philly. If you want to start your own business, Philly definitely makes it harder with its BPT, NPT, GRT that have to be paid a year in advance. In addition (enforced with the State's Recovery (sales) tax) you pay 2% extra sales tax. Not a big deal until you get to a major appliance or electronic device. As you say, it all depends on your priorities. Our commute would be shorter, and we would not need that second car; (we have a motorcycle and the kids have to work for theirs). I suspect that the job growth outside the City is a major reason that 35 to 44 year olds with school age children have been moving out in such significant numbers. What good are art and cultural resources when you don't have the time to enjoy them (plan on an hour or more commute on SEPTA even in well served areas)? If you are paying the same total in taxes, why not have better space and, oh yes, less school choice :)?
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 22, 2013 10:34 pm
Ms. Cheng, You make valid points. It's important to consider that in the next 50 years, as the supply of oil diminishes, living in the suburbs will become more and more expensive. While many of the suburbs of Philadelphia have been around for 100 or more years and are walkable, the newer, postwar suburbs and newer portions of older suburbs often require people to be car-dependent. People should be able to WALK places instead of having to be so reliant on vehicles. When prices reach $4 a gallon, people start fussing. The days of cheap gas are in the past. Wealthier people will be able to afford being car-dependent, but people with more modest incomes will find themselves in a bind as the cost of gas rises. Kids should be able to walk to school instead of having to take a bus through a bunch of cul-de-sacs and sprawl to go to school. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 23, 2013 2:25 am
The public ed establishment can't improve low performing schools, so they try to destroy high performing schools. This perverse notion of "social equity" is always the first priority of the Ed PhD hacks who run urban disctricts. Educating kids is a distant second place. And the results are easy to predict. Parents with the means to opt-out of this idiocy do so. You don't need to be some retrograde conservative to be skeptical of Ed PhD's generally and the PSD in particular. Trusting the PSD ed hacks is like trusting a serial drunk with mutliple DWI's to drive your kid to school. The drunk claims to be sober, turned over a new leaf, but is it really worth the risk when there are alternatives? At least now charters allow many people who otherwise wouldn't have the means to flee to also escape.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 21, 2013 8:13 pm
There's a lot of anxiety for parents whose children are attending schools that are slated to close also. Penn Alexander parents are not the only ones experiencing anxiety.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 21, 2013 8:36 pm
Amen! Where is their private audience with the district high ups?
Submitted by Gen (not verified) on January 21, 2013 10:30 pm
The larger question is: IS PENN ALEXANDER ACTUALLY FULL? I believe that if something isn't broke, we shouldn't try to fix it, but kindergarten classes of 18 when other schools just blocks away with a much higher population of high needs students sit in classes of 30. Also, how does PA get off scott free with the closure of Wilson. I think we need to be realistic here--the district must find a way for all of the kids in the catchment EVEN if that means an additional class (that U of Penn could pay for). Kudos to Hite for trying to make the situation fair.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 21, 2013 10:22 pm
a government fairness, which means not fair at all.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 21, 2013 11:45 pm
Change the catchment boundaries. Expand Wilson's catchment to include at least to Baltimore Ave. Univ. of Penn can expand its support for Wilson and Lea. Univ of PA is a non-profit - it should give more toward what its tax exempt property costs the city. Penn Alexander also should expand class size. Dr. Hite says class size doesn't matter - why does it only matter at Penn Alexander?
Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on January 21, 2013 10:57 pm
One of the things PAS parents (in catchment) need to ask Dr. Hite and the Office of School Selection is this: IF there is even ONE non-catchment area kid sitting in Penn Alexander (any grade) on an EH-36 (voluntary transfer) WHY would in catchment kids get turned away? The SDP policy on transfers states that they are only valid "if the receiving school has room." This favoritism of select people getting in from outside the catchment has got to be exposed (if it exists as many say it does).
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 22, 2013 7:00 am
PAS has never been eligible for EH-36. This was one of the many things "special" about PAS during it's creation. When the school was brand new and classes tiny, out of boundary students were not allowed to transfer in. The out-of-catchment students that are there are either out-of-catchment former Head Start students in the kindergarten who cannot continue to 1st grade, the children and grandchildren of the school's teachers - an accommodation that has been done away with as a result of community lobbying causing tension among the teachers - and, if you believe the rumors, the children of the highly-connected admitted by the principal on a discretionary basis including the children of high ups at Penn, the CEO of Thorton's granddaughter and Councilwoman Blackwell's pastor's son.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 22, 2013 10:57 pm
If Penn is contributing so much money to PAS, is there some sort of condition that higher ups at Penn be able to get there kids into the school? Are these higher ups and their children who attend Penn residents of Philadelphia?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 22, 2013 6:04 am
All kids should have the same chance to get into PAS, whether or not they're lucky enough to have an older sibling already there.
Submitted by Pubulis (not verified) on January 22, 2013 10:47 am
Something had be done about those pesky overachieving white and Asian parents. Otherwise the school would have been taken over by involved striving parents. Can't have that in Philly.
Submitted by Kofu (not verified) on January 22, 2013 11:00 am
A cap on number of kids per classroom was part of the agreement Penn made (political arm-twisting) with the school district. It was originally the Sadie Alexander school, but then Penn had to get their name on it too. The catchment area was drawn to include at least a small slice of each of a number of community associations, but the strongest advocate for a "walk-to-school" area was Spruce Hill, closest to Penn and entirely within the catchment. Poorer neighborhoods just a few blocks north were excluded. The real-estate people jumped in, selling houses "in the catchment area" at inflated prices. With the number of fancy strollers in the area in recent years, it's surprising it didn't come to this before. Now the chickens come home to roost.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 22, 2013 6:50 pm
The name has always been The Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School. The nickname evolved over time as the name is obviously unwieldy. The nickname was not influenced by Penn, but by the school community.

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