For one mother, Philadelphia’s portfolio of school options brings opportunity and heartache.
by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner
As usual, Karen Lewis is trying to manage a dozen things at once.
And as usual, Lewis’s son, 8-year-old Cooper Harbol, is the focus of her efforts.
While Lewis cleans the kitchen and scrambles to find her shoes, Cooper gets lost in the elaborate toy world he has constructed on the coffee table. He’s oblivious to his mother’s pleas to brush his teeth.
“Cooper, put down the Lego, please,” says Lewis. “Today’s the first day of school. At least we can show up at a reasonable time.”
Third grade was supposed to be a fresh start for Cooper. But Lewis is exhausted before the year has even begun.
For the past six months, Lewis, 45 and divorced, has been navigating Philadelphia’s changing school-choice landscape. Dissatisfied with the neighborhood public school Cooper attended since kindergarten, Lewis set out to find something better. Her search has been fueled by anger and guilt.
Listen to Benjamin Herold's radio report
“I had put my kid in a situation where he absolutely hated going to school,” she says. “I thought I had taken away his opportunity to be successful.”
In Pennsylvania and across the nation, reformers and politicians have been responding to parents like Lewis by expanding charter schools and pushing for publicly funded vouchers. Empower parents by giving them more school options, they argue, and fewer children will be trapped in failing schools.
But for the time being, at least, the practical realities of school choice in Philadelphia are far messier than that.
In Lewis’s case, the District-run school she has grown to hate, John Moffet Elementary in Kensington, isn’t failing. It’s one of the top elementary schools in the city.
And Lewis’s search for a new school has left her feeling bitter, not empowered.
The vision of a coordinated “portfolio” of accessible, high-quality schools in every Philadelphia neighborhood remains far off. Despite Lewis’s master’s degree and professional background, she has struggled to negotiate the city’s confusing patchwork of roughly 500 District, charter, and private schools.
While driving Cooper to his new school, her frustrations pour out.
“I’m so angry, and so annoyed, it’s not funny.”
'100 percent wrong’
Karen Lewis says she’s a big believer in public education.
But it’s a terrible feeling, she says, to also believe you are putting your child in harm’s way every morning.
During Cooper’s second week of kindergarten at Moffet, says Lewis, staff at an afterschool program briefly couldn’t locate her son, then blamed her for the mix-up.
Things went downhill from there.
“It felt crazy,” she says.
“My expectation was that kids were going to be treated with respect, that they would be engaged in learning and having fun, that it would be an experience like I had in the suburbs.
“I was 100 percent wrong.”
Raised in Chester County, Lewis grew up comfortably middle class.
By her late 20’s, she had an MBA from Kutztown University. Ten years later, she was married, working as a business consultant and living well in Las Vegas.
In 2008, says Lewis, she earned $130,000.
Last year, she says, she made $24,000.
The financial downturn was gradual. She stopped consulting to be around more for Cooper, then lost her accounting job.
By that point, Lewis and her son had moved back to Philadelphia, into a small row home in a gentrifying part of the city’s Kensington neighborhood.
Lewis had picked the house in part because it was close to a good school.
She loved that Moffet was just three blocks away. She was pleased with its high test scores and racial diversity, as well as the positive reviews on parenting blogs.
“They talked about it as a neighborhood secret,” says Lewis.
It’s true – other parents tend to love Moffet.
Every school has its challenges, says Laura Aboud, the mother of two Moffet students. But Moffet’s tend to be minor.
“You may not be able to get exactly what you want for your child in every instance,” says Aboud. “But I wouldn’t have [my children] anywhere else.”
By the time Cooper was in first grade, though, Lewis couldn’t tolerate things other parents shrugged off.
She still couldn’t believe that as a kindergartener, Cooper got detention for being late.
She was outraged after witnessing school staff smoking in the school’s front entrance as children filed in.
At one point, she says, she was barred from volunteering.
“I’m the type that asks questions when things don’t make sense, and they didn’t really want that,” says Lewis.
The final straw, says Lewis, was when children were denied lunch and bathroom trips as a form of discipline.
By that point, it was a fight to get Cooper out the door every morning. He said he wanted to drop out of elementary school.