The first parents got in line well before the sun rose on Jan. 27. By 4:15, four people were waiting to register their children for one of the 90 coveted spots in kindergarten classes at Greenfield Elementary in Center City.
By 7 a.m., it was close to 50. Parents were eventually issued numbers based on their position in line and assigned times to come back to complete registration paperwork.
“It was mass panic for no reason,"one parent said. “We’re not promoting free for everyone with public school if this is how we’re going to roll.”
Another was incredulous that there is no sibling preference or ability to complete paperwork online, and upset there was no lottery at Greenfield.
“You needed a network to get the inside information about the line, and flexibility with work to be able to stand out there, and then to come back later in the day to register,” the parent said.
The line was more evidence of the growing demand for spots in some Philadelphia public schools and a significant long-term change in public perception of the Philadelphia School District among middle-class families.
“Ten years ago, 20 years ago, some people wouldn’t even consider sending their kids to Philadelphia public schools,” said one Greenfield parent, who like many, declined to be identified, citing fears of blowback on their family. “This is a revolution in terms of demand and appeal.”
The appeal, the parent said, lies in the reputation of a group of “good” schools, which generally educate more white students and fewer low-income students than the rest of the district. Greenfield, for instance, is a National Blue Ribbon award winner, a place where parents aim to raise $125,000 per year to fund enrichment programs, grants for teachers, and other extras. Nearly 60% of its students are white, and just 20% live in poverty, setting it apart from the majority of Philadelphia public schools, which educate mostly poor students of color.
For several years running, parents at Penn Alexander — the West Philadelphia neighborhood K-8 school enriched by extra funding from the University of Pennsylvania — camped out for days before kindergarten registration, renting RVs and erecting temporary structures with space heaters. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. halted that lineup in 2013, saying it promoted inequity and disadvantaged low-income parents who could not afford to make such arrangements.
Officials said at the time that lotteries would be employed in every school where demand outstripped supply, and in 2017, another well-regarded elementary school adopted a lottery: Meredith, in Queen Village.
Though more and more families in the Greenfield catchment, or attendance zone, have been choosing the school, the district has not opted for a lottery there because demographic predictions indicated that every eligible kindergartner would get a seat in the school, said Karyn Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services.
Ninety children were registered on Monday, Lynch said, and any subsequent children would be put on a waiting list. But given the typical rates of attrition, Lynch said she expects every in-catchment child will be able to attend the K-8, which enrolls about 622 kids, in September.
Lynch said the district has been slower to move to lotteries lately because of the panic that typically ensues when that word is uttered: “It indicates some will get in, and some will not.”
But some parents who waited in line said the panic was greater — and the inequity starker — because no lottery was employed.
Several years ago, there was no urgency to sign up children for kindergarten the day registration opened; the school’s seats were never filled with in-catchment kids. In 2014-15, for example, just 250 students who lived in Greenfield’s neighborhood attended the school at 22nd and Chestnut Streets, between Rittenhouse Square and the Waterfront; 330 came from other parts of the city, admitted through the district’s voluntary transfer process.
That has changed dramatically. Every kindergarten seat is expected to be filled this year with children from the neighborhood, where home prices — $519,278 in the 19103 zip code, according to Zillow — are nearly triple the city average and Realtors advertise homes “in the Greenfield school catchment … one of the most coveted in the city.” (Average income in the school’s zip code is $78,638, 93% higher than the city’s average, according to the Census.)
The run-up to registration day was tense, some parents said, with some gamesmanship. People traded texts: When are you planning on arriving? Do you think that’s early enough? Parents worried about landing on a waiting list and ultimately having their children steered to other schools. They worried about the Philadelphia School District’s lack of sibling preference, meaning families could end up having children in two different schools that start at the same time.
“If it’s an allocation of taxpayer resources and educational opportunity, it can’t be about who’s willing to get out there first — this is not concert tickets," said the parent who described a revolution in terms of demand for some public schools. “It shouldn’t be a function of who has the financial and physical wherewithal.”
Lynch, of the School District, said it was possible that if many more children were registered for Greenfield’s kindergarten class, the district could try to find space to accommodate another kindergarten class.
The district recently launched a citywide planning process that will examine every school’s enrollment and demographic trends, possibly resulting in catchment changes, new schools, or school closures. That process, Lynch said, should result in smooth enrollment processes going forward.