Schools a key to keeping young families in Philadelphia
In some parts of Philadelphia, it's hard to turn around without toppling over a toddler. They swarm playgrounds in Fairmount, Bella Vista, University City, and other burgeoning neighborhoods. Their strollers tangle sidewalk traffic. Their parents tote them to museums and music classes, trying to make sure that little Aiden and Alix get a jump start on the arts.
In some parts of Philadelphia, it's hard to turn around without toppling over a toddler.
They swarm playgrounds in Fairmount, Bella Vista, University City, and other burgeoning neighborhoods. Their strollers tangle sidewalk traffic. Their parents tote them to museums and music classes, trying to make sure that little Aiden and Alix get a jump start on the arts.
Yet many of these young families, whose presence adds to the vibrancy and economic health of the city, are anxiously debating whether or not to stay.
Their issue: the public schools.
"It's really daunting and overwhelming," Joanne Jordan, mother of 3-year-old McLean Hudson, said of the choices she faces - taking a chance on the local elementary school, coming up with money for private school, hoping for a slot in a charter, or simply moving to the suburbs.
The Center City parent's concerns were ratcheted up this spring by the draconian budget cuts and financial brinkmanship that threatened full-day kindergarten in the Philadelphia School District and still threatens class size, extracurricular offerings, summer school, and security, among other educational mainstays.
"It hurts the city when people with means leave because they are taking their purchasing power and tax dollars. We want our middle class to remain in the city," said Phil Goldsmith, former city managing director.
The problem is decades old - the city shrank by 60,000 people in the last 20 years - but different this time around.
Now, more parents are trying to stay by fighting to improve their public school.
In the last decade, the number of children under age 5 jumped in some neighborhoods, according to new Census Bureau data. In Center City East, preschoolers doubled, to 871. In Center City West and Bella Vista, they climbed more than 45 percent.
Real estate developer Carl Dranoff said fewer of his tenants leave the city when they have children.
"This generation, popularly known as echo boomers, are way, way more city-oriented than my generation was," said Dranoff, who raised his daughter in the city. "They like the restaurants, the museums, the pedestrian environment."
Jordan is not sure which way to go. Her son's local school would be Greenfield, which many parents regard as good. But the headlines worry her.
She knows getting into some charter schools, through lottery, is a long shot. Private school might leave McLean with a sense of entitlement. And there is the cost.
"I feel like we're sort of between a rock and a hard place, and a decision needs to be made," said Jordan, cofounder of a public relations firm.
In the Fairmount area, where children under 5 grew 27 percent in the last decade, parents are rallying to improve their local school.
They have formed preschool playgroups, based on the year the children will enter kindergarten. The idea is for families to get to know one another and feel more confident about sending their children to Bache-Martin Elementary, said Jen MacNeill and Carolyne Dilgard-Clark, whose children will attend the school this fall.
"My friends who live in the suburbs think you can't really last in the city that long if you care about education for your child, but the district has more than 200 schools, and there are good ones that nobody points to," said Dilgard-Clark, a lawyer at Dechert L.L.P.
A large school, Bache-Martin once accepted half its students from across the city - and tardiness and absenteeism were a problem. But then MacNeill, who heads the Home and School Association, and principal Yvette Duperon started recruiting more neighborhood families.
Now, about 90 percent of the school's kindergartners live in the catchment area, MacNeill said.
At such schools as Greenfield in Center City West, Meredith in Queen Village, and McCall in Society Hill, parents have organized to volunteer and raise money for things such as libraries and playgrounds.
In the Graduate Hospital area, the South of South Street Neighborhood Association for three years has held informational nights for parents. The first year, about six people came. This month, at least 30 showed up, many with babies in tow, to hear speakers from four neighborhood and charter schools.
Jennifer Shur and Christopher Stromberg live in the catchment for Edwin M. Stanton, at 17th and Christian Streets, but have different views on the school, where 82 percent of fourth graders passed state math tests and 67 percent passed reading tests in 2009-10 - better than the district average but slightly below the state norm.
Shur does not see Stanton as an option for her two daughters. "The test scores are horrible," she said, "and it's not diverse at all."
Stromberg, who like Shur is white, has not ruled out Stanton for his two young sons. He hopes to get them into Greenfield or Independence Charter, but he liked what he saw at a Stanton open house.
"The principal seemed like she was very professional and very experienced and energetic," Stromberg said. "The most impressive thing about the program was art and music."
He believes a committed group of parents could make a difference at the school, which is 89 percent African American. "There won't be diversity unless somebody steps up," he said.
Peter Erdely, a lawyer and father of two Meredith students, said the school has transformed Bella Vista and Queen Village into a haven for middle-class families.
"If you hurt Meredith, you will rip the heart out of this neighborhood," he said. "It's the primary driver of economic and social development in this part of Philadelphia because education-minded, working, taxpaying, civic-minded parents move here or don't leave here because of Meredith. It sounds very suburban, but here we are."
At Meredith, enrollment has increased nearly 10 percent since 2007, and at McCall, 19 percent. Both are at or near capacity, in a district with nearly 70,000 empty desks.
Such success can complicate the lives of families.
In University City, many parents paid a premium of $100,000 for homes in the catchment for Penn Alexander, a public school supported by the University of Pennsylvania.
This spring, those parents learned the school is so crowded their children might not get in.
Now some are turning their attention to other elementary schools in West Philadelphia.
Having more public schools that are perceived as a good option is crucial to building on the city's upswing, said Paul Levy, head of the Center City District, who runs a website, KidsinCenterCity.com, to help parents with choices.
More engaged middle-class families are "good for the School District and good for the city," he said. "They vote. They support those services that work for them."
Many parents, unhappy with their local school, try to enroll their child at another one through the district's Voluntary Transfer Program.
That is what Kay Montgomery of Port Richmond did for her oldest, Marlee. After charting data such as test scores and violence reports on a poster board, she became impressed by the performance and diversity at Greenfield and got a spot for Marlee there.
"It's like a mini-United Nations," Montgomery said.
Long a destination for the youngest students, Greenfield's challenge is keeping them beyond fourth grade.
That is when it loses 20 percent to 30 percent of its students to Masterman or the Girard Academic Music Program, both selective public schools.
With the departure of these high achievers, others leave, too - the "Masterman brain drain," some call it.
Dan Lazar, finishing his second year as Greenfield's principal, said, "Part of my mission is to create a community where kids want to stay through eighth grade."
Christine Carlson, who has been outspoken about the district's budget crisis, said she hopes to keep her two children at Greenfield through eighth grade - unlike many of her friends, who have left for the suburbs.
"I'd say about half the moms you get to know at the playground or at Rittenhouse Square leave before their kids even start school," she said.
One friend who left is Miriam Wright. She grew up in University City and was living in Southwest Center City when she got pregnant with her second child.
Her local school was Chester A. Arthur, but she did not know anyone who sent their children there. Friends told her she could transfer to Greenfield, but getting in was not a sure thing and she wondered what she would do after fourth grade.
She and her husband, who both work at the University of Pennsylvania, moved to Wallingford in 2005, shortly before she gave birth.
The family, she said, feels comfortable in Wallingford, where her daughters are not the only African American children in their classrooms.
"We left the city for a few reasons, education being one of them, but there were also quality-of-life issues," such as people littering, she said.
"But we loved living in the city, and we love where we live now."
Chat with activist Greenfield School parent Christine Carlson and Len Lipkin, who blogged about his search for schools for his children, at 11 a.m. Thursday at www.philly.com/education