The announcement of a lottery system of registration at the Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia is causing many Penn faculty and their families to think twice about staying in the neighborhood.
The school — created in 1998 through a partnership between Penn and the School District of Philadelphia — is the first choice for many Penn faculty who live in the area and cannot afford or choose not to send their children to private school.
In past years, parents have lined up for days in the freezing cold to secure their children a spot in one of the four coveted PAS kindergarten classes. This year, however, a last-minute shift to a lottery has left many parents unsure about their children’s education.
Predrag Bakic, a research assistant professor in the Department of Radiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, said that he was prepared to “dedicate time to make sure that [his] son was enrolled,” but that when the announcement came that the school would no longer be registering children on a first-come, first-served basis, he was “very confused.”
“Realizing the idea that you have to gamble with your child’s education was very distressing,” Bakic said.
He added that he and his family were drawn to the neighborhood by “the atmosphere of University City having the best school, with Penn supporting mortgages in the area,” and that “suddenly you were left with no options overnight.”
Other parents felt like there had been a “bait and switch,” with the School District promising transparency while conducting a lottery behind closed doors.
Jessica Fishman, a researcher at the Medical School, and her husband Greg Bisson both work in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology. The family has one child in first grade at PAS, and is currently trying to register another for kindergarten.
Fishman cited the quality of a PAS education and the allure of Penn Home Ownership Services programs as the deciding factors in her family’s move to the neighborhood.
PHOS offers mortgage programs to eligible employees of the University as an incentive to settle in West Philadelphia and cites “improved street lighting, the Penn Alexander School [and] support of local child care centers” on its website as examples of Penn’s dedication to the community.
“Most important to Penn faculty and their families is the promise of a good education for their kids,” Fishman said, “and now that’s all threatened, because the partnership [with the School District] has not been maintained.”
On Tuesday, more than 100 parents representing 67 children eligible for the school sent a letter to Superintendent William Hite and Chief of Student Services Karyn Lynch, advocating that all 89 eligible students in the catchment zone be admitted to PAS.
The letter offered several solutions to the problem of over-enrollment that included “adding a class at PAS or relaxing the enrollment caps.”
According to Vice President for Penn’s Office of Government and Community Affairs Jeffrey Cooper, the original partnership provides that no more than 18 children shall be in any kindergarten classroom, and no more than 24 children shall be in any first through eighth grade classroom.
But the letter says that by adding a fifth kindergarten class or increasing the class sizes to 22 or 23 students, PAS could accommodate all the students within the catchment zone — the area within which students must live to be eligible to attend PAS.
Vice President for University Communications Stephen MacCarthy said that “the Penn Alexander School is a Philadelphia public school managed and operated by the Philadelphia School District,” and that Penn has no role in determining school policy.
However, the University has already changed the agreement once before with the addition of a fourth kindergarten class — for which it pays an additional $120,000 each year.
With the prospects of getting their children into PAS narrowed, many neighborhood parents have begun to shift their attention to other district schools, such as the Meredith School and the Lea Elementary School.
Lea is a pre-K through eighth-grade school within the neighborhood, but sits outside the catchment zone for PAS. According to the School District’s website, 90.4 percent of Lea students are “economically disadvantaged,” compared to 43.4 percent at PAS. In addition, 81 percent of students at Lea are black and only 1.8 percent are white, while 27.5 percent of students at PAS are black and 39.1 percent are white.
“Penn has significantly increased its efforts to support educational and programmatic efforts at the Lea School, which is only a few blocks from Penn Alexander,” MacCarthy said. “We are working with the School District, parents, and the community to make Lea an increasingly attractive option.”
But the School Performance Index accessible through the School District’s website ranks Lea lowest among schools in the district with similar demographics, with standardized test scores in math and reading roughly half those of students at PAS.
Hilary Bonta, a lecturer in the English Language Program in the School of Arts and Sciences, who has put two children through PAS, said, “Clearly Penn has a role and supports the school financially … but it’s a School District school.”
In her view, the School District faces a choice between putting money into those schools that are economically disadvantaged or serving those with middle-class students whose parents will leave the city if they can’t send their kids to the school.
“It’s sad because we’re a very close-knit group in this neighborhood,” Bonta said. “But if there aren’t viable alternatives, [Penn faculty] aren’t going to stay in the neighborhood.”
Bakic was optimistic about Penn’s role in diffusing the situation.
“The game is not over,” he said. “Depending on how Penn will play, we will wait and see what is happening.”