December 2 — 4:00 pm, 2004

Effort seeks to position Center City schools to compete for students

You’re a Center City resident with a comfortable lifestyle and a big decision in your future: Send your school-aged child to the neighborhood public school, pay the hefty price for a private school, or to just leave the city for the sprawling house and less-troubled school system of the suburbs.

Well, your first step might be to the admissions counselor of those Center City public schools, where you can take a tour of the facilities and sit and chat about the new, standardized curriculum.

“The possibilities are so endless,” breathed Alice Heller, Director of the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Charter and EMO Schools, who now holds the additional position of Center City Network Administrator.

Called the Center City Schools Initiative, the effort was first announced in February and is a School District partnership with the Center City District (CCD) and the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. (CPDC), seeking ways to retain downtown’s base of professional and “knowledge-based” residents.

And indeed, the CCD was established through 2,000 property owners as a special services improvement district with a $13.5 million annual budget, while the CPDC is a membership organization of more than 100 leading businesses based in or serving Center City.

The effort currently highlights the District’s 11 elementary schools in the Center City catchment area – now being defined as river to river and Poplar Street to Washington Avenue.

Since September, the initiative has primarily focused on marketing the schools – including a high-tech Web site (www.centercityschools.com) that thus far has cost $100,000; postcards sent to Center City parents about the Web site; and a focus on more personalized promotion of each school’s offerings.

The site also provides information on a total of 44 public, private, parochial and charter schools in Center City, including the District’s middle and high schools.

The effort is certain to draw questions about the targeting of public school resources to a neighborhood generally less neglected than many others.

But Heller was quick to note, “There is no expectation for the District at this time to put in any extra dollars that are not already earmarked for the schools.” She did add that the District will dedicate a “small staff” to the effort, which she will head.

For the admissions counselor, a Center City District report stated, “If this cannot be financed by the School District, the Center City District is prepared to assist in securing funding.”

One sticky point in the initiative can be found in that report, “Growing Smarter: The Role of Center City’s Public Schools in Enhancing the Competitiveness of Philadelphia.”

It reads, “Parents living in the Center City Network can choose either to send their children to their local neighborhood school, or they can apply to any public elementary school within the boundaries of this downtown zone. Beginning September 2005, once neighborhood enrollment is satisfied, transfer requests from within the Center City Network will be given priority over requests from other areas in Philadelphia.”

Heller commented, “That has not been spelled out yet. . . You need to be very careful to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt any of the schools and is equitable and fair. We need to research it and come up with a plan . . . This can’t be a blanket kind of thing.”

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