This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Editor’s note: Katey McGrath, a public school parent who is quoted in this article, is also the chairwoman of the Notebook’s board of directors.
Mercedes White is not a morning person.
Her day begins amid a symphony of alarms, each set about 15 minutes apart in order to keep her on schedule. To make sure that White and her two children — 2-year-old Imir and 9-year-old Iman — make it out the door on time, White’s mother delivers daily phone calls.
On good days, they leave their row home in West Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood before 8 a.m., hustling over to Imir’s day care on 52nd Street. Then, the caravan continues 15 more minutes east to drop off Iman.
Waliyyuddin Abdullah’s morning journey starts inside a North Philadelphia row home flanked by vacant lots. While the television and the family parakeet trade chirps in the background, Abdullah herds his 1st grader, Florrie, toward a red SUV parked outside.
On the 15-minute ride southwest, father and daughter run through flashcards scribbled with words that Florrie is learning to read. Each time she completes 200 new cards, Abdullah buys her a present. Not the American Girl doll she wants, but “something reasonable.”
Eventually Abdullah and White converge at Samuel Powel Elementary, a K-4 school just north of Drexel University, where the schoolyard bubbles with happy kids and doting parents.
The first time Abdullah visited Powel, it was this early-morning tableau that won him over.
He saw the attentive parents in the courtyard. He noticed how, when the bell rang for lineup, every child dashed for their class’ assigned place in the courtyard.
“Neighborhood schools are good, but I wanted my children to be around students who are more focused on learning than they are on playing,” Abdullah said.