It’s an oppressively hot summer morning in the offices of Henry C. Lea Elementary at 47th and Locust streets in West Philly. Principal Lisa Bell-Chiles is the only soul in there, in the whole school it seems, save for a few kids who show up sporadically for summer school.x She’s sorting the mail herself, one of the many duties she’s added to her plate since the statewide school budget cuts passed in July, and she decided to put limited dollars directly toward her students instead of funding administrative jobs. “I’m gonna be doing a whole lot more of this since they cut the budget and I’m left without any go-to people,” she says. “I have to be the principal and the assistant principal. I have to do a little of everything.”
But this could be just the beginning of Bell-Chiles’ increased workload if proposed changes to city schools outlined in a leaked confidential School District report are approved. As West Philly continues to lose the numbers game with 80 percent of its public school students scoring below grade level in reading or math, and parents continue the everlasting struggle to send their kids to good neighborhood schools, many are focusing their hopes and energy on Henry C. Lea Elementary as a model of a neighborhood school making itself over from the inside out.
The report, leaked June 25 by educational watchdog the Public School Notebook, announced that the School District is considering a plan that would close Alexander Wilson School (1300 S. 46th St.) and redraw catchments—strictly bounded geographic regions that correspond to privileged enrollment at a specific school—for Lea and possibly even for Penn Alexander School (4209 Spruce St.) though it does not elaborate on how those catchments would be redrawn. The report suggests moving the 226 students who attend Wilson to Lea, which the District claims is “operating at under 50 percent capacity.”
School District spokeswoman Elizabeth Childs stresses that the recommendations are “not final” until the School Reform Commission reviews them in October, then makes a vote in January 2012. “[The document released by the Notebook] was a working document for discussion purposes only,” she says. “It’s been reviewed by many people since then, and the formal recommendations will be made in October.”
Meanwhile, parents are scrambling to find a place for their kids.
Bruce Andersen, a former resident of the Wilson catchment area who decided to relocate his family to Maryland mostly because of his unhappiness with the Philadelphia School District, says he’s not surprised Wilson is slated for closure. “I found the facilities to be OK, but I was concerned because my son would have been one of the only Caucasian kids at the school,” he says of Wilson, which, according to the District, is 93.5 percent black and 85.7 percent “economically disadvantaged.” The catchment for the school, though, is 26 percent white, according to census data, meaning white and more affluent families are choosing to send their kids elsewhere.
“I believe in public education … we send our children to an integrated school now, but the vibe I got when I went to Wilson was that a lot of the kids were struggling and that the school was struggling,” he adds. “I didn’t want to sacrifice my son to my belief in public education.”
Amy D’Antonio, a resident of University City who lives just 10 feet outside the catchment for the coveted Penn Alexander School, had a similar experience. When her son came of school age, she decided she couldn’t send him to Wilson though it’s technically her neighborhood school. “All of my son’s friends went to Penn Alexander,” she says. “Nobody we knew was sending their kids to Wilson.” D’Antonio says she tried to get her son into a charter school or any of the top ranking city public elementary schools but received zero approvals. “I got on the phone with a school official and asked, “What do I do if I have zero approvals?” I was told ‘Go to your neighborhood school or move.’ We cried, we panicked, we prepared to move.”
D’Antonio ultimately placed her son in a top ranking Center City public school through sheer determination. “I went to the school. I schmoozed. I used my contacts,” she says. “My experience navigating complicated organizations as well as my contacts were vital to knowing that I had to get him on the lists. At the open house for my son’s school, visiting parents were advised about the process of getting on the list, but the information is not readily available outside the school communities themselves. It’s not, for example, on the [Philadelphia School District] website.”
“It’s more than a full-time job for a parent just to a find a mediocre school in this city,” D’Antonio continues. And it’s even harder in West Philly, which is one of the most educationally challenged communities in the U.S., according to the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children. Only 5 percent of residents over 25 have a college degree, and nearly one quarter of adults cannot read or write at an elementary school level. Compare this with 2000 Census data indicating that the West Philadelphia neighborhoods of University City and Powelton Village have college degree rates of between 48 to 57 percent, and what you have is a major contradiction.
In an effort to make the process less difficult for parents, D’Antonio joined the West Philadelphia Coalition for Neighborhood Schools (WPCNS), which reached out to neighborhood elementary schools and offered support. Lea’s principal, Bell-Chiles, was the most responsive, and a partnership was born. WPCNS hopes Lea will become a thriving neighborhood school to rival Penn Alexander, and believes that parent involvement and advocacy is the No. 1 key to influencing the success of a school.
The WPCNS Steering Committee writes, “We are aware of well-meaning but ultimately paternalistic efforts to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ neighborhood schools—that is, to remake them into a middle-class vision of ‘good schools’ and to fill them with middle-class kids. We want to be very explicit about the fact that that is NOT the intention of WPCNS … For Lea Elementary, our current focus, those kids and parents are mostly African-American and mostly earning below area-average incomes. If WPCNS manages to achieve all our hopes and dreams for Lea, most of its families will still be African-American and will still be working and lower-middle class.”
The group says it’s taking steps to overcome the racially charged climate by implementing a variety of initiatives, including bringing in interpreters to translate the school newsletter into French for West-African born Francophone families, working with Mural Arts to beautify its walls, setting up a volunteer librarian system though WePAC, hiring a community design collaborative to implement ways to “green” the school, organizing panels on how kids walking to school is beneficial to a neighborhood, and doing heavy outreach to ask all Lea parents to stay at the school and become more involved. And it has implemented these initiatives completely without district funding, but with money from grants written by school community supporters including Lea’s Home and School association President, Maurice Jones, whose son entered Lea for kindergarten in 2009.
“I brought [my son to Lea] because of a excellent first-grade teacher I heard about named Marie Clarke,” wrote Jones. “I saw that the teachers were as good or better than teachers I have seen at other high performing schools, so I kept him [at Lea]. I decided to help fill the missing pieces that would make it listed as a great school again.”
“At our kindergarten open house, we had 60 adults come to … tour the school, and have a ‘meet and greet’ with the principal,” continues Jones. “This is unheard of at a school listed as economically disadvantaged like Lea … It takes a great leap of faith when there is a stigma applied to a neighborhood school which continues on without any factual data. When the parents came in … they developed a renewed understanding at what goes on at Lea. So opinion has changed, and Lea has become an option, instead of an avoidance due to ignorance.”
Indeed, many more parents have been turning to Lea elementary since Penn Alexander School announced this past May that the school is at enrollment capacity through the third grade and can no longer accept new students, even those who live within its catchment area. In light of the University of Pennsylvania’s June 16 agreement to continue to provide a contribution of $1,330 per child per year to Penn Alexander School for the next 10 years, it seems that the gap between PAS and other West Philly public schools will only continue to grow and that PAS may not be a viable option for many students coming of school age in the West Philadelphia area any time soon.
J. Mike Lyons, a St. Joseph’s journalism professor who runs the community news blog West Philly Local, echoes those sentiments, saying that the success of Penn Alexander “sometimes overshadows what happens at other schools in the neighborhood. The fact is that many of these schools, while having individual successes, are struggling overall.”
“I wish in some ways that Penn Alexander had not built a new school building, but rather worked better with the schools the neighborhood already had,” adds Andersen. “It’s a shame.”
With Penn Alexander at capacity, if the District’s proposed changes do pass, even more parents may be looking at Lea. But even that might not be a viable option for some, as even the District acknowledges the catchment system’s limitations. “Enrollment depends on a school’s capacity,” spokesperson Childs says. “There’s no guarantee a child will be accepted to a particular school, whether it be their neighborhood school or not.”