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At Penn Alexander, admissions policy remains uncertain

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

by Charlotte Pope

More than 100 parents and community members from the Penn Alexander catchment area came to a special meeting Tuesday with Superintendent William Hite and other District officials. Participants were split as to the best policy for getting into the high-achieving school’s coveted kindergarten class.

After about 70 parents formed a line in the freezing cold Friday — four days before the registration was due to open — the District announced it was changing the first-come, first-serve system to a lottery, causing a firestorm of protest.

Concerns that lining up in advance for registration was inequitable were raised during a School Reform Commission meeting last week.

Although the lottery plan is not being withdrawn, Hite said the District would listen to other alternatives.

“I commit that we intend to continue working on this process with you in order to have a better system moving forward,” Hite said.

Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student services, said she would like to meet with a group of community representatives to figure out what the best admissions policy for the school would be. She hopes to have consulted with that group by next Tuesday.

At the meeting, parents voiced various concerns: With the lack of attractive school choices, and considering the planned closure of nearby schools, where would parents send their children? Is it fair to change the policy at the last minute, when admissions deadlines for parochial and private schools have passed? And what about the effects of sending siblings to different schools?

The room was mainly divided between two factions: those who want to honor the list of people who, as in previous years, lined up to register and those who questioned the equity of that process, wanting instead to institute an enrollment lottery system.

Karen Breese, a parent of a 2nd grader at Penn Alexander who has another child due to enter kindergarten, was one of many who were concerned with the prospect of having to split her children between two schools.

“I am here because I want my daughter in kindergarten, I want my neighbor’s daughter in kindergarten, and I want my friends’ sons and daughters in kindergarten,” Breese said. “I think it’s really important that we start taking a close look at what’s going on here and make space for all of the kids. Breaking up families is just not acceptable.”

Trey Popp, another parent hoping to enroll his child in the school’s kindergarten class, spoke of the possibility of replicating the high-performing school. Hite has said that replicating successful programs and schools would be a priority for the District.

“I think that a separate branch could be part of the solution, to at least piggyback on the name and reputation of a school everybody admires, and try to enlist participation and support for an offshoot or an ally or a sister school,” said Popp. He added that the problem with many of Philadelphia’s schools is that their poor reputation is an albatross that drives people away. “There’s got to be a way around that,” he said.

Most in the room applauded the idea of finding a way to enroll all of the students in the Penn Alexander catchment — even if it meant that the school would have to increase class sizes.

“There is a lot more information that we need before we can actually make a set of recommendations,” Hite said.

This information, he said, includes how many rising kindergartners live in the Penn Alexander catchment area and are eligible for admittance.

Reached after the meeting, District spokesperson Fernando Gallard said officials told the parents "they would take their comments and feedback into consideration and get back to them as soon as we can."

Asked whether the policy might change from the lottery announced on Friday. Gallard said, "There could be a change."

Photo credit (second photo): Charlotte Pope

Superintendent William Hite and Chief of Student Services Karyn Lynch speak to parents about the kindergarten registration policy at the Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia.

Charlotte Pope is an intern at the Notebook.

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