This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On an unseasonably warm Tuesday earlier this month, about a dozen real estate agents gathered for an open house tour. But instead of looking at for-sale properties, this group was headed to tour neighborhood schools.
This was the second annual public school River Wards Realtor Tour organized by the “Friends of” groups for Adaire, H.A. Brown, Hackett, Moffett and Kearny Elementary schools. The purpose of the tour is to introduce real estate agents, who are the first point of contact with a neighborhood for many families, to the available public schools and give them information that they can pass on to their clients.
“The idea was to bring Realtors out to all these schools, let them see the great things that are happening there for themselves, and then that becomes part of their sales pitch to the clients,” said Laura Tepper, an organizer of the tour, whose son is in kindergarten at Hackett Elementary. In a city where District news of low-performing schools, persistent budget issues, and teachers’ lack of a contract seems to be the norm, it is easy to believe that nothing positive is happening inside these schools. But Tepper and her fellow organizers believe that media coverage does not give an accurate representation of the positive work that is going on. “There is just too big of a … paper trail on what is wrong with the schools, and I think all of us are just interested in sort of changing the conversation a little bit and maybe adding a counterweight about what is good about the Philadelphia schools and why you should be considering them,” said Meenal Lele, another organizer and a member of the Friends of Moffett. One of the goals of the “Friends of” movement is to encourage families who may have considered another form of education, whether it be charter, private or parochial schools, to consider enrolling in their neighborhood school. To do that, they want to get people in the door and show them why their schools are worth attending. And with more young middle-class families staying in the city, families who have young children or who are expecting children and are looking for a place to put down roots are a key demographic to convince. “We knew, as members of these ‘Friends of’ groups, that great things were happening at the elementary schools, but we felt like that news wasn’t getting out enough and that one of the best ways for that news to be distributed was through the very people who were helping others to move into the neighborhood,” said Tepper. Lele agreed. “Realtors, by the nature of their jobs, speak to a lot of people, especially prospective buyers, and we thought, well, that’s a great place to start changing that conversation.” David Feldman, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Welker, said that he often gets questions about the schools when showing houses to families. He said that certain neighborhood schools have caught the attention of families, but that it is limited to a handful throughout the city. One of the schools that has come up on his clients’ radar recently is Adaire, largely because of its location near Frankford and Girard Avenues. These streets have become popular neighborhoods and major commercial corridors over the last several years. But he was surprised to see that all five of the schools on the tour had impressive options to offer students. “One thing I learned was that it’s not just Adaire or Moffett. That really all of these schools –even the ones that are further up from Center City – there are equally good things going on, which I wasn’t aware of,” he said. Sasha Best, a parent at Adaire and another organizer of the tour, said afterward that she thought this year’s tour built on last year’s success. “Similar to last year, many of the Realtors were extremely impressed with each school and commented on how much the schools looked and felt like the schools they went to as kids. This is so important, because to update the narrative, all the stakeholders need to have a normalized view of our schools – not just the historically recent and negative view that has been so pervasive,” she said. Feldman said that for real estate agents, the tours can help them speak with some authority about not only what is going on in the schools, but also how to get in touch with the principal and how the school functions as a part of the larger community. He says he often serves as the first source of information. “Some clients say, ‘we have kids, and we are starting to look, and we like Fishtown, but what do the schools look like up there?’” This tour of the River Wards schools has made him better able to answer that question. The first Realtor tour of this type, in 2014, was organized for Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy and Jenks Elementary Schools in Northwest Philadelphia by Katey McGrath, a parent at Jenks Elementary, a Realtor herself and co-chair of the Notebook board. The concept has spread throughout the city. This is the second year of the River Wards tour, and "Friends of" groups in South Philadelphia have also started tours of their own (one for schools east of Broad Street last February and one more recently for schools west of Broad). In Northwest Philadelphia, the neighborhoods have been historically wealthier than the rest of the city, so although gentrification is not as much of an issue, the tour was still trying to persuade a younger generation of homebuyers to consider public schools rather than defaulting to private school option. But the other neighborhoods where these tours are taking place have certainly become “hot” in recent years for middle-class millennial parents who believe in fighting for better public schools as a social cause, as well as for their own children. For these families, Lele said, “everyone, intellectually, wants to be in the camp that supports public education. Everyone understands that as a net social good. But nobody wants to be the only person sending their kid to that school. And so, the more people do it, the more people do it.” And this domino effect seems to be happening. Not only are parents and members of “Friends" groups spreading the word through monthly happy hours and community engagement with the principals, Lele said, but a shift also is visible in how new residents are seeing the schools. Tepper said that even since the last real estate agent tour, she has seen more real estate listings that specifically mention her neighborhood school, Hackett, as a selling point. Another way to measure changing perceptions is through community investment, and both Tepper and Lele have seen more local businesses, including many real estate agencies, donating money and sponsoring projects at local elementary schools. For example, branches of Coldwell Banker and Philly Home Girls, as well as other local businesses, have helped sponsor everything from renovating the auditorium at Adaire to funding local schools’ paper needs through an initiative called Philly Paper Jam. But although the increases in donations and sponsorship dollars are certainly a benefit, the real point of the tours is to try to make sure new families are supporting local schools and, by extension, supporting the community where they want to live. “People who have always been in this community have always really prided themselves on Moffett," Lele said. "There are families who have been there for generations who have gone to Moffett, and there are people who went there who are really excited to send their kids to Moffett. I want those to count because those people exist, right, and are already going.” For her, it is about spreading that enthusiasm to newcomers who may have been tainted against public schools before they arrive. “I think a lot of what the Realtor tours focus on is making sure that the new people who are moving into this community aren’t looking over it, you know, and thereby dropping the enrollment,” she said. “The fact that your school is in your community is something that I just don’t understand how people don’t value anymore. That you can walk to it, your kids’ friends from school are in the houses around you, those families are two blocks away … I think that’s immensely valuable,” Lele said.