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After long search for new school for son, Philly mom happy but making big sacrifices

Photo: Jessica Kourkounis for NewsWorks

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

Driving her son Cooper to his first day of third grade, Karen Lewis wasn’t happy.

"I’m so angry, and so annoyed, it’s not funny," she said that day.

At the time, Lewis had just finished a six-month long search for a new school. After struggling to navigate the city’s patchwork system of roughly 500 District, charter, and private schools, she was exhausted.

Her story, which appeared on NewsWorks and in the Public School Notebook, reflected the experience of many city parents desperate to find the right school for their kids.

Three months later, Lewis is in a better place.

"I feel at peace," she said. "I feel like my child is learning and that he is going to become the child that he should be."

Cooper now attends Greene Street Friends, a private Quaker school in the city’s Germantown section. He previously attended John Moffet Elementary, a District-managed neighborhood school in Kensington. Lewis says the difference is striking.

"I can see him working at his potential. I can see him being pushed," she said. "He’s learning how to be a student."

Making her school choice work has not been easy for Lewis, though. Greene Street costs about $13,000 a year. Lewis said she’s given up her health insurance and fallen behind on her mortgage in order to pay the tuition.

"Education is so important that I’m putting it as a top priority," she said. "Everything else, I’m sort of balancing and working out and renegotiating."

For the last year, city education leaders have been working to increase collaboration among the city’s various school systems. The goal is to make it easier for parents like Lewis to find a "high-performing seat" for their children. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded the city a $2.5 million grant to further those efforts.

But looking across the city’s education landscape, Lewis remains discouraged, especially with the Philadelphia School District’s plan to close 37 schools.

"I don’t think the [School Reform Commission] or the District really understands how difficult it is to shuttle a kid from one school to another," Lewis said. "To have that forced on you, it’s just a nightmare."

Since her story originally appeared in print, online and on the radio, Lewis says, she’s gotten a lot of feedback. A few anonymous online commenters questioned her choice — and her parenting. But for the most part, Lewis says Philadelphians have backed her up and thanked her for speaking out about a common struggle.

"It’s confirmed my belief that there are a lot of parents who really do care," she said.

Lewis said she feels less alone now and more secure in her conviction to do whatever is necessary to secure the best education possible for Cooper.

"I’m a good mom, and I love my son," she said. "I know I made the right choice for him. Without a question."

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