Imagine walking downtown in freezing weather to a first-come, first-let-in party to learn that people would be allowed in (or not) by random chance.
Now, replace the party with a prominent school — and the potential for a hook-up with the fate of your child’s education — and you’ll find yourself in the position of the parents who lined up outside Penn Alexander School to register their pre-kindergarteners for next year.
On Jan. 18, Penn Alexander announced to the parents lined up outisde the school on 42nd and Spruce that the school would be switching to a lottery system to decide admission.
The move invoked ire from the parents, many of whom wish Penn Alexander would expand in order to accept everyone in its “catchment zone” — the area from which the school draws students.
We somewhat agree with their sentiments — a lottery system is imprudent. But so is a stand-in-line-all-night-so-your-child-can-maybe-go-here system.
It makes little financial or strategic sense to expand. Penn already spends $1,300 per Penn Alexander student, making further expansion rash. That approach is also no better than a temporary — and undersized — Band-Aid. Just last year, Penn spent over $100,000 to add another kindergarten class.
Penn Alexander’s teachers and students also benefit from relatively small class sizes. While a take-all method seems idealistic, it’s also impractical.
Our question (and suggestion): why not initiate a merit-based admissions system?
Private schools already do this. So do prestigious public schools like Philly’s Masterman and Central. Merit-based is fairer than random chance or seeing whose parents were able to get off work early on Jan. 18.
That said, meritocracy isn’t a perfect system. After all, it’s not a simple task to determine which 5-year olds are most qualified.
But empirically, it has yielded overall success, and other countries, like Singapore, start testing kids at even younger ages. Furthermore, smarter kids generally mean a richer academic experience, the school’s foremost stated goal.
At the end of the day, we don’t believe there’s a comparison between merit-based and less organized approaches. Merit-based isn’t flawless, but much like Winston Churchill said of democracy, it’s the worst system except for all the others that have been tried.
However, changing the admissions process isn’t the only change required. In addition, we believe Penn Alexander’s catchment zone should be expanded.
Inadvertently, Penn Alexander has predominantly become a school for people of affluence.
This is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Penn Alexander is founded, housing prices go up, people flock to the catchment zone, further raising housing costs and so on.
We don’t believe this reflects the mission of a school intended to “serve the children of the city,” or one wedged between Penn’s campus and the rest of West Philadelphia. While Penn has promoted gentrification, its goal has never been to gentrify a student body.
Combining a wider catchment zone with a commitment to meritocracy would ensure that Penn Alexander is comprised of the most promising young minds and that the opportunities Penn Alexander provides are opened to more disadvantaged children as well.
Further, such a system would benefit the surrounding community. As kids in the current catchment zone go to nearby elementary schools such as Lea and Wilson instead, the quality of those schools will be raised.
There is a strong correlation between the quality of schools and the socio-economic backgrounds of those who attend them.
Not only will parents who clearly care about their children’s education demand that Philadelphia improve local schools, they will have the means to fund such improvements. At the end of the day, all nearby schools may benefit.
In advocating for a merit-based system, we think most of the Penn community would prefer to rely on its merit rather than random chance and we hope Penn Alexander officials will take a bold chance and commit to such a system.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll flip a coin to decide…