Now, Center City is at risk of losing many of these youngest residents, along with their parents, the reason being the continual source of so much civic anguish: our public schools. The recession and rising tuitions have made private schools unaffordable for many families.
"We can lose these gains. It would be a shame to see this cycle [of families] go suburban," warns Center City District president Paul Levy. The upside of this influx "is huge. We could sustain those individuals in the city. They're starting businesses. The more people we retain, the better everyone does."
The solution is stronger neighborhood schools, Levy argues, and School District support. "This is a great moment, a really great opportunity to retain families with kids. And the more middle-class families with kids" who tend to be involved in neighborhood schools, "the more impact they'll have on city politics and state politics," since the state provides more than half the district's funding.
The public schools have grown less diverse, with almost four out of five students coming from poor households. "Obviously, the School District's primary mission is to serve economically disadvantaged families," Levy says, "but with a change in leadership at the School District, this is also a chance to retain the middle class." He adds: "Public education is not just an issue for poor people."
But a Center City District report argues "the School District has underemphasized an older paradigm: the neighborhood elementary school as a community anchor." This has been to the city's detriment.
Meredith School in Queen Village, which almost 90 percent of the children in the catchment area attend, is cited as a model in reviving neighborhoods, and also an amenity in real estate listings. Meredith achieved its popularity while retaining economic and racial diversity, drawing children from outside the area who benefit from the school's continued progress.
Meanwhile, Bache-Martin in Fairmount, a neighborhood where mothers joke there must be fertility drugs in the drinking water, has the opportunity to do the same, but has attracted little more than a third of the catchment's children. Staying in the district or moving out has become the conversation for parents.
Philadelphia, as I've often noted, is home to a lot of poor people dependent on government services, poverty being the problem we all own. We have a woefully undereducated, unskilled labor force, workers who are most vulnerable to layoffs and persistent unemployment. Fewer than one in five Philadelphia residents holds a college degree.
The key to Philadelphia's prosperity is to increase educational and training opportunities to help the poor while increasing the percentage of educated, employed residents who pay taxes and support businesses.
Stabilizing neighborhood schools is critical to continuing Center City's growth, Levy argues, and must be supported by School District leadership that appoints strong principals and encourages community participation. His recommendation is that the schools reserve at least a third of each grade for children outside the catchment, guaranteeing diversity while allowing more students to benefit from academic progress.
"This is a real opportunity to keep these residents," Levy tells me. "The era of decline is over."
Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, email@example.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller