West Philadelphia: Neighboring schools feature vast differences

This story package was written and edited for my Philadelphia Neighborhoods class at Temple University and is published on its website.

By Candice Monhollan, Audra Neff-Williams and Mike Polinsky

Penn Alexander is one of the most sought-after schools in Philadelphia. (Candice Monhollan)

Penn Alexander is one of the most sought-after schools in Philadelphia. (Candice Monhollan)

Though located along the same street and just five blocks separate them, Penn Alexander and Henry C. Lea elementary schools in West Philadelphia couldn’t be more different.

Penn Alexander opened in 2001 and its boundaries were carved out of Lea and Wilson schools to help ease the overcrowding.

Now, the crowding is formed around Penn Alexander as parents line around the block in an attempt to enroll their children into the school which is ranked top in the Philadelphia School District, according to the 2010 School Performance Index.

Unfortunately, not everyone makes it in as the school has a capped limit on how many students they enroll every year.

“There are parents at Penn Alexander now who might have had to send their child to Lea for kindergarten or first grade until the space opened up,” said Amara Rockar, board president of the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools. “They returned when space opened up because that was their neighborhood school [and] the school they moved into the neighborhood for.”

Amy Neukrug, a resident of the 200 block of St. Marks Square, had her daughter attend the first kindergarten class at Penn Alexander and has seen the influx of children to the neighborhood that flood the school.

“This little block alone, which has 25 houses, went from five kids on the block to now 37 kids,” Neukrug said. “Families are moving in.”

Rockar said of the parents she met who have could not enroll, she never sensed anger of having to send their child instead to Lea.

But not all parents feel this way.

James Lytle, a practice professor at the University of Pennsylvania, worked with Penn Alexander. (Mike Polinsky)

James Lytle, a practice professor at the University of Pennsylvania, worked with Penn Alexander. (Mike Polinsky)

Mathew Himmelein, a resident of Cedar Park, lives in the boundary of Lea and has a 2-year-old son who will soon be attending school.

Himmelein, who went through the Philadelphia public school system himself, wants his child to go to public school as well – just not Lea.

“Penn Alexander [and] what they strive for – their excellence,” Himmelein said. “They have a good system. Their program seems to work. Children are graduating from there, score higher grades [and] get higher test scores.”

It is true students at Penn Alexander score much higher on the PSSAs than at Lea. In all the proficiency ratings in math and reading, Lea scored either below average or in the bottom 25 percent of schools, whereas Penn Alexander scored in the top 25 percent in the same categories, according to the annual reports.

“There are science laboratories and a strong science program and there’s a very strong extracurricular or co-curricular program,” said James Lytle, a practice professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “They have both smaller classes and more course offerings than probably any other K-8 school in the city, so it makes it very attractive.”

Penn Alexander opened in a partnership with the school district, the University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The university has provided subsidies to Penn Alexander over the years, and today, it is roughly $900,000, said Lytle.

Parents of students attending or who will be attending Lea want the university to expand and help schools other than Penn Alexander.

West Philadelphia resident Mathew Himmelein has a copy of the catchment area, envisioning a way to get his child into Penn Alexander. (Mike Polinsky)

West Philadelphia resident Mathew Himmelein has a copy of the catchment area, envisioning a way to get his child into Penn Alexander. (Mike Polinsky)

“There are a group of parents who would like Lea to be a school they are comfortable sending their kids to,” Lytle said. “The question the parents keep asking the university is, ‘Aren’t you willing to do to Lea what you’ve done for Penn Alexander?’ So far the university has said no.”

Until the university changes its mind, families will have to try and find houses within Penn Alexander’s catchment area, which is easier said than done.

Homes within Penn Alexander’s boundary have a higher price tag than those outside of it.

“If I had to put a dollar value on the difference, it’s really hard to do,” said Kevin McGillicuddy, a realtor with Prudential Fox & Roach who sells homes in the area. “I would approximate it at maybe $50,000 on average for that difference of being on the dividing line.”

But some parents who live outside of Penn Alexander’s boundary are trying to find a way to get their children in.

“I bring this map of the catchment area down because it has literally been on our minds for years now,” Himmelein said. “We only have about another year and a half until we actually have to enroll him, so I look at this every couple of weeks.”

Because of the high standards and test scores at Penn Alexander, some parents feel like moving on to West Philadelphia High School, which has PSSA proficiency levels in the bottom 25 percent, would be taking a step back and are enrolling their children to special admission schools instead.

“Not speaking for my organization, but from what I understand, over the last few years in the district, there has been a movement away from the neighborhood high schools,” Rockar said. “I have heard people high up say they feel that there won’t be many, if any, neighborhood high schools going forward.”

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Categories: Education

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