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Admission to coveted Penn Alexander now by lottery

Photo: Dale Mezzacappa

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

After dozens of parents had already camped out in the freezing cold for the better part of a day outside the Penn Alexander school, District officials decided to change the process and conduct a lottery to determine who would get a coveted spot in September’s kindergarten class.

"We’re making the change for equity and safety," said Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student services. She said that a lottery would "bring fairness to the process," and that officials had "great concern about people remaining outside for three days in cold weather."

By Friday afternoon, 68 people were lined up outside the school in freezing weather, hoping for one of the 72 kindergarten seats. The first parent arrived early Friday morning, setting off a scramble. Registration starts Tuesday morning and was on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Penn Alexander — the result of a partnership among the School District, the University of Pennsylvania, and the teachers’ union, which began in 1999 — is not big enough to accommodate all the families in its catchment area.

Penn contributes an extra $1,300 per student and works closely with the school on innovative teaching strategies. It has extended its partnership with the school through 2021.

It is a diverse, high-achieving school in the midst of a District beset by segregation, low achievement, and financial instability and is a draw for families willing and able to pay up to $100,000 extra per house to live in its feeder area.

The stakes are getting higher. A year ago, the line didn’t start until Sunday.

Parent David Lapp had suggested in testimony at the School Reform Commission meeting Thursday night that the process is inequitable, favoring families with the time and resources to show up. What about single parents who work two jobs? Or the disabled? Chances are they can’t spare the time for this ritual, he said.

But Lapp didn’t expect the line to start before the long holiday weekend even began.

It turned out that Superintendent William Hite and Lynch, both new to the District this year, were listening.

"We feel we’re listening to parents and being responsive to issues parents are bringing to our attention," Lynch said. "People have suggested a lottery to us. We’re moving in this direction after a good deal of consideration and feel this will add equity to the process."

Parents who live in the catchment area will have until April 1 to fill out the registration paperwork. They will hear who is admitted sometime after that.

The Penn Alexander lottery will be a pilot that may be applied to other sought-after schools next year, Lynch said.

The parents and their stand-ins came prepared for the long haul with chairs, blankets, computers, food and lots of coffee. One family parked a mobile home next to their spot in line. Brett Feldman brought his buddy Bud Brusco to build a full-fledged temporary shelter, complete with heat.

"We’re ready," Feldman said.

Several of the parents questioned before the District decided to change the process said they thought that a lottery would be fair.

"I think a lottery would be more equitable," said a parent near the beginning of the line who identified himself only as Michael. "I have such mixed feelings and not just one opinion. … It’s complicated. A lottery would be more fair, all things considered."

At 3 p.m., Anne Dorn was number 67. She wasn’t very hopeful. Her daughter is in 2nd grade in the school, but there is no sibling preference. Parents with multiple children have to repeat the process.

She noted that students with IEPs (special education) and coming from Head Start have preference. "And what if there are twins?" she noted. "But at least I’ll get on the waiting list for first grade."

Hetty Wong and Joseph Chui sat bundled up, eating their takeout food. They have a daughter who went through 4th grade at the school before going to Masterman, and another daughter in 2nd grade. "The alternative would be a lottery" in which all eligible parents entered and names were picked by lot, Wong said. "Or making the school bigger."

Officials were on their way just after 6 p.m. to personally distribute letters to the assembled group explaining the new process and telling them to go home.

(Check back for updates.)

Update (6:47 p.m.) Parents are intending to stay camped out until registration day on Tuesday, according to Inquirer reporter Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman

Parents say they intend on staying camped out by the school till Tuesday, which is registration day.

— Sulaiman AbdurRahman (@sabdurr) January 18, 2013

Update (8:05 p.m.) Gallard said that "it was very difficult handling the angry parents" as they reacted to the announcement of the lottery. Lapp, who was in line, said that "it’s unfortunate that they didn’t get around to making the decision until after the line had already formed. I hope some constructive, positive change can come from this less-than-ideal situation."

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