Thursday, May 12, 2011

Penn Alexander in Demand

This story, about Penn Alexander not necessarily being able to hold 1st grade spots for kids living inside its catchment area, is not exactly hot news, since that's been known for a long time now. But the fact that this has been formally acknowledged by the School District, and has led to a whole range of emotions by parents and parents-to-be, makes the announcement worthy of additional discussion.

First, some background: Penn has made a commitment of financial and human resources in this school since its inception in the late 1990’s, which, combined with the general improvement of the University City area, has created a K-8 school that is of excellent academic reputation. Naturally, this has drawn well-educated young families to the area, further enhancing the quality of the school, elevating real estate values, and increasing parents’ expectations and anxieties associated with getting their kids enrolled.

By state law, neighborhood schools must accept kids in their catchment areas starting in 1st grade. (Kindergarten is not required in Pennsylvania, so no such requirement applies.) As demand has increased, pre-registration for kindergarten has reached epic proportions, with vigilant parents camping out overnight to ensure a coveted slot. In the past, those who don’t arrive in time sent their kids elsewhere for kindergarten and returned a year later for 1st grade, at which point Penn Alexander almost always had space. But, as families have continued to pour into the area, it is 1st grade that has reached a point of overcrowding, thus forcing the school to step away from its implicit guarantee of a 1st grade slot.

It is my understanding that the school is under no obligation to provide such a guarantee, since all of its catchment area is coterminous with neighboring neighborhood schools. In other words, there are no houses within the catchment area that are not also within the catchment area of at least one other neighborhood school. Hence, by District policy, Penn Alexander need not promise a spot to all families within their catchment area, even starting in 1st grade, since families are free to enroll their children in whatever other neighborhood school within whose catchment area they reside. Of course, given Penn Alexander’s sterling reputation, it is by far the first choice for most all such families, with the consolation prize of a spot in another neighborhood school no consolation at all.

Closer to home (or, to be literal, within my home), what does this mean? It seems Jada, who is in kindergarten, is guaranteed a spot for the duration of her elementary school years, since she’s already enrolled in the school. And it seems Aaron, who starts kindergarten in 16 months, is not at all guaranteed a spot for any of his elementary school years: being a sibling carries no preference, and should we miss out on a kindergarten spot, it is unlikely there would be a spot for him starting in 1st grade (or even 2nd or 3rd or 4th grade). Given that there are scores of other parents just like me who are performing these mental calculations, and realizing that it is kindergarten or bust for Penn Alexander, you can be sure that when the next kindergarten pre-registration for Penn Alexander rolls around next January, I will not be alone when I am camping outside the front door the night before.

Obviously, since Jada has had such a transformative experience there, and since she will continue to attend there, we really want Aaron to go there as well. We’ve known for awhile now that that’s not a certainty, even though we reside within the catchment, live just two blocks away, and have a child enrolled there already. This news story only confirms that. (And ratchets up our anxiety just a hair.)
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