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Put out over city school's success

Not all families lured to Penn Alexander get in.

At home near Penn Alexander, Laura Line watches daughter Josie, whose father waited in line overnight to enroll her in the partnership school. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
At home near Penn Alexander, Laura Line watches daughter Josie, whose father waited in line overnight to enroll her in the partnership school. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)Read more

The call came in the 1 a.m. darkness of a bitter-cold morning in January.

As Laura Line, mother of two little ones, slept next to her husband in their University City home, a neighbor was alerting parents. Already, 20 people were bundled up outside the neighborhood's Penn Alexander Elementary School, hoping to get their children into kindergarten this fall.

Roughly 50 slots were available, first come, first served.

Ever since Penn Alexander opened in the troubled Philadelphia School District in 2001, parents have flocked to its doors.

They're drawn to the high expectations of its partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, its modern facility, small classes, diverse student body, and high test scores, turning the enrollment process into a frenetic race.

To secure a spot for 4-year-old daughter, Josie, Line's husband jumped out of bed and dressed in layers, battle-tested from attending Eagles games. He then walked five blocks and got in line.

By daybreak, more than 75 parents were outside, and all the slots were filled.

Josie got in. She was No. 22. For Line, the moment was bittersweet.

"We moved to this neighborhood particularly to send our kids to a good public school," she said. "We also want equitable education that's shared - not people who know to text each other at 1 a.m. That's not public education. The neighborhood needs to have all four of its schools be strong, quality schools. There's certainly demand."

Some see Penn Alexander, which goes through eighth grade, as a model for public education: a quality neighborhood school that draws homeowners and stabilizes a community.

Year after year, it has maintained waiting lists, with the number of students rising from 475 in 2004, when it became a full K-8, to 587 this school year.

In the fall, with kindergarten through third grade filled, the School District for the first time had to reroute neighborhood children to other schools.

"It's unfortunate because it's a really good school," district spokeswoman Shana Kemp said. "But we have to ensure that it doesn't become overcrowded."

Henry C. Lea Elementary sits at 47th and Locust Streets, just a 10-minute walk away. But some parents don't perceive the school - an old building with a barren play lot and low test scores - as an option.

Others, including Erin McLeary, have organized community groups, switching their focus from Penn Alexander to the neighborhood's educational alternatives.

"Lea is a solid school, but it's lacking resources," said McLeary, mother of two preschoolers, who moved into the Lea attendance area three years ago for graduate school.

With Penn Alexander's enrollment cap, McLeary hopes "something positive" will happen for Lea, where 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

"Maybe parents with resources and energy can work together," she said, "to bring some of the great things over at Penn Alexander to Lea."

Penn Alexander, named for Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first African American woman to enroll in Penn's Law School, in 1924, is on the 4200 block of Spruce Street. Students in the attendance boundary are given priority for admission.

In the school's early days, which began with kindergarten and first grade, most students were African American. During the last decade, as the school expanded, the area experienced an influx of white, Latino, and Asian families, while the number of African American residents fell by more than half, remaking the racial makeup of the school.

About 20 percent of students are from families affiliated with Penn, according to the district. And 47 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Many parents moved into that part of University City specifically for the school, often paying a premium for their homes. Now, some realize that admission to Penn Alexander is not guaranteed.

"It's three years down the road for us," said David Riley, 40, who has a 2-year-old daughter, "but we want to know that this school is a possibility."

Four years ago, when his wife got a job at Drexel University, the couple looked at houses outside the attendance area. "They were $100,000 less and equally nice," Riley said. "We might have made different decisions if we had known it wouldn't be."

Penn contributes $1,330 a year for each student, helping Penn Alexander give students what they may not find in other schools: art, music, and technology programs. The university's Graduate School of Education provides teacher training and curriculum help. The support has also helped keep the student-teacher ratio low.

But this school year, each of the three kindergartens has one teacher and 20 students - above the school's cap of 18. And almost every other classroom in grades one to eight is over the district's target of 24 students.

"The principal was trying to address some requests from parents and expand a bit," said Kemp, "but the classes can't go much beyond this."

Beth Menasion was dismayed last fall to find her son in a first grade with 33 students, until the district hired a second teacher.

"Most people who have been in the neighborhood for a while, we kind of realized this would happen," Menasion said of the enrollment pressure. A community survey years back predicted as much.

"It's understandable," said Menasion, who also has a 3-year-old son. "But there are people who thought, 'They can't exclude my child.' "

The school's partnership with Penn, which the School Reform Commission last week renewed with another 10-year contract, is working - if judged by state tests. More than 80 percent of Penn Alexander students perform at or above grade level in math and reading, far above the district average and that of Lea Elementary.

"The kids at Lea can have a top-notch education," said McLeary, who cofounded the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools last year. "And we know they can, because it's going on at Penn Alexander."

Maurice Jones, who lives outside the neighborhood, said he specifically had chosen Lea for his son, now in second grade.

"There are a lot of things that are good here," said Jones, a marketing consultant who heads Lea's Home and School Association. He pointed to new computers, a tennis program, and four winners at a science fair. He's trying to bring in an orchestra program and get parents to pledge time at school.

"We are the difference between whether schools have or don't have."

Line, too, has organized a parents' group. One concern: kindergarten. The district has proposed cutting full-day kindergarten, sending working parents like Line into a logistical panic.

Last week, Line requested the 8:30-to-11:30 a.m. class for Josie over the one starting at 12:09 p.m. It seemed more manageable, she said. She'll know next month if she gets her choice.

Line would have considered a private full-day kindergarten over half-day at Penn Alexander, but feels stuck.

"We don't want to lose our first-grade spot."