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Anxiety, anger for parents hoping to enroll children at Penn Alexander

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

For parents hoping to enroll their children in kindergarten at the coveted Penn Alexander Elementary School in West Philadelphia, it’s been a roller-coaster weekend.

Now many are hoping a Tuesday morning meeting with Superintendent William Hite will pave the way for a comprehensive solution that guarantees admission to the school to all children living within its attendance zone.

"I believe that everyone in the community wants that to happen and believes that is what’s fair," said Mariana Farach, the mother of a Penn Alexander first grader.

Farach also has a 5-year old daughter whom she hopes to enroll at the school.

She was ninth in the line that began forming outside Penn Alexander early on Friday morning — a full four days before kindergarten registration was set to officially open.

"I was relieved that my child would have a spot, and simultaneously I was disgusted that I had to do this and that it’s come to this to get an education for your child," Farach said.

Penn Alexander is one of the most highly sought-after neighborhood elementary schools in the city. Largely as the result of its affiliation with the University of Pennsylvania, it has a combination that most neighborhood schools in the city lack: extra money, small class sizes, a diverse student body and deeply engaged parents.

What Penn Alexander doesn’t have is enough seats for all the kids in the neighborhood.

For years, enrollment in the school has been on a first-come, first-served basis.

Farach was one of many parents who had begun plotting her strategy to secure a place at the front of the registration line far in advance. She was more than ready to spend all weekend outside in the cold to make sure that her daughter could go to the school where her son is already thriving.

"We all knew this was going to be a camp-out," she said. "My plan was to get in line, as they told me I had to do."

But around 6 p.m. Friday, District spokesman Fernando Gallard dropped a bombshell: Due to safety concerns, and in order to give all parents an equal opportunity to enroll at Penn Alexander, enrollment will now be done by a lottery.

By that time, the line had already grown to 72, well more than the 57 available spots.

Many parents in line were outraged by the announcement.

"Don’t you realize how ludicrous this is? C’mon. What if this was your child?" one person yelled at Gallard.

Many parents worried that they won’t know where their kindergartners are going next fall until April — if they’re lucky.

"We’re mad that you’re telling us now, after business hours, when we have all missed our opportunities for voluntary transfers, to apply to private school," one parent told Gallard. "April is too late. The timing is what is unacceptable."

Opinions are split on whether the District should honor its original policy and the line that had formed, or proceed with the lottery.

Farach said that might be the worst part of the whole mess.

"This is a wonderful neighborhood. These are people that come together, that embrace diversity, they embrace education," she said. "When this has happened, I’ve just seen a great division. It’s very sad, to just see a community start to fall apart."

This is the earliest that a line had formed under the first-come, first-served policy. Parents last year starting lining up 24 hours in advance and in 2011 they waited overnight. Thursday night, before the line formed, School Reform Commission members discussed the situation at their meeting after a prospective Penn Alexander parent told them he thought a lottery would be saner and more fair.

Tuesday’s meeting is scheduled for 11 a.m. in the school gymnasium.

"We will hear everybody’s side, and the District will get back to the parents with a position," Gallard said.

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