This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Parents of students enrolled in Nebinger Elementary School in South Philadelphia are upset that they will not be able to automatically enroll their younger children in kindergarten in the fall because Nebinger has been designated as an overflow school for students squeezed out of nearby Meredith.
A statement being circulated on social media by the Nebinger PTA said that the District “rescinded registration” for more than a dozen siblings of current students whose families live “out of catchment,” meaning that they don’t live in the school’s designated feeder area. More than half of Nebinger’s students are in this category.
The letter calls the situation a “disgrace” and accuses the District of favoring the more affluent parents from Meredith over the families who are already a part of the Nebinger community.
“While we have sympathy for families in the Meredith catchment that Meredith cannot accommodate, this overcrowding is not Nebinger’s problem,” said the PTA’s letter.
Nebinger PTA secretary Michele Ditto estimated that “less than 20” families are affected. Many of the children in question had already met their teachers and seen their classrooms, she said. Despite this, the families received letters dated June 10, nearly a week after school closed, telling them their children did not have seats in the school after all.
Based on what they felt were assurances, some of these families turned down spots in other kindergartens, Ditto said.
District officials disputed the PTA’s characterization of events. They said that the situation grows out of a decision made in the 2017-18 school year that designated Nebinger to take the kindergarten “overflow” from Meredith, a highly popular school in Queen Village that was rapidly reaching its capacity.
When that policy was implemented, Nebinger was taken off the school selection list for kindergarten, said Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student support services. (In that first year, out-of-catchment siblings could apply, but none were accepted due to capacity.)
As a result of that policy, for the past two years, “no out-of-catchment students could choose Nebinger” for kindergarten, Lynch said. There are no exceptions for families who have other students at the school.
However, she added, this year, the District is willing to accommodate as many out-of-catchment families with older students in the school as possible if kindergarten spaces remain after all the Nebinger and Meredith students are enrolled.
“This is a difficult situation, we acknowledge that,” Lynch said. Although the District is not changing its policy, “we’re also saying that we recognize there’s a group of parents who have siblings in the school, and we’ll try to do every single thing to accommodate as many as we can. But the commitment for the last three years has been to enroll Nebinger [catchment] kindergarteners and Meredith kindergarteners in the school.”
One immigrant parent wrote a handwritten letter that says in part: “For many years we look forward for our fourth daughter entering kindergarten at Nebinger. The past half year we prepare. … All of a sudden I receive a letter from the school district saying they cannot approve of her enrollment at Nebinger. This is very much shocking and making me so unease. How am I to explain the news to my daughters?”
Before the new policy was implemented, Nebinger proved popular with out-of-catchment families. Today, 55 percent of its students live outside its feeder area.
Ditto, the PTA secretary, said that communication this spring left something to be desired regarding the out-of-catchment families who thought they had registered for kindergarten early and were even brought to meet teachers. Lynch said the District was looking into why parents were left with this impression, given that only the central office can certify registration.
But in general, Ditto said, “our fundamental issue with this is you’re treating one group of children with more preference than another group. The Meredith students are not in our catchment as well. The problem is that the parents received letters yesterday after school closed for the year, and it doesn’t reopen in two months. So they don’t know what to do.”
Meredith, at Fifth and Fitzwater, and Nebinger, at Sixth and Carpenter, are blocks away from each other in the gentrifying Queen Village-Bella Vista neighborhoods of South Philadelphia.
Housing prices have skyrocketed in the Meredith catchment area, and over the past decade, its student population has grown more white and more affluent. Now, enrollment is 65 percent white and 25 percent economically disadvantaged in a District where just 15 percent of students are white and more than 70 percent are economically disadvantaged.
Nebinger, which includes a Philadelphia Housing Authority project in its catchment, has a student body that is much more diverse and low-income. It has also recently become more popular, with enrollment increasing by more than 100 students to 468 since 2016, in part due to robust programs in autism support, intensive learning support, and English as a second language.
Meredith, with nearly 500 students, has exceeded its building capacity. It has 60 kindergarten spaces in two classrooms, and Nebinger has 90 in three classrooms. Right now, based on early kindergarten registration numbers, 43 in-catchment Nebinger students have registered, and there are 37 Meredith students who were not chosen in that school’s kindergarten lottery, Lynch said.
Those numbers are still fluid. The District embarked on a publicity campaign to get more families to register their children early for kindergarten, and there is a more than 10 percent increase compared to this point last year, Lynch said. But typically, families register for kindergarten up until right before school is scheduled to start.
Given the numbers so far, chances are that some of the Nebinger sibling families will be accommodated.
At the last Board of Education meeting, Nebinger parents expressed concerns that Meredith overflow students would result in the loss of rooms in their school used for art and music. They were told that this wouldn’t happen.
“While the District assured those in attendance that Nebinger would keep these classrooms, we have since been informed that they are privileging out-of-catchment Meredith families over our community’s younger siblings. This is unfair and unjust,” said the letter from the Nebinger PTA.
“All of our current families belong in Nebinger, including younger siblings, regardless of their home catchments. These are passionate and invested members of our community and represent the diversity of our school.”
Kindergarten is not mandated in Pennsylvania, so school districts are not required to offer it – which is why some Meredith catchment parents are not accommodated there.
In 1st grade, which is mandated, all students in a catchment area must be enrolled, although there have been cases in the past where upper-grade students in overcrowded schools have been transported to nearby schools that have room. Overall, the controversy is a result of the increased demand for neighborhood schools in rapidly gentrifying South Philadelphia.
The District has embarked on a “comprehensive planning review” process that over a four-year period will look at demographic trends across the city and assess its facility usage and future needs. Some areas of Philadelphia are experiencing overcrowding, while others are losing population and have schools that are half-empty.
This review process could result in the building of new schools, school closures, and changing catchment areas – all causes of stress and angst for families and other stakeholders. Boundary changes have an impact on real estate values; school closures are still feared in struggling neighborhoods where schools serve as anchors.
South Philadelphia is one of the first neighborhoods to be studied, but this process won’t address the immediate problem.
Ditto and Lynch agreed on one thing: that increased demand for District schools is a positive development.
“This is the result of several schools becoming more popular because of their educational attainment,” Lynch said.
Ditto said that “this is a good problem to have. It’s wonderful to be a part of the Nebinger community; we’re glad the people from the Meredith community can see this.”