In West Philadelphia, a public school so good parents line up to get their kids in

Parents camp out overnight to sign their children up for kindergarten at the Penn Alexander School.
Parents camp out overnight to sign their children up for kindergarten at the Penn Alexander School. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 23, 2012

Niambi Love doesn't mess around when it comes to her children's education.

Friday night, her husband parked their car outside the Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia. She kept checking to see whether anyone had lined up to grab one of the coveted kindergarten spots at the public school.

When no one had by 9 a.m. Sunday, Love donned fuzzy green ear muffs, bundled up in several layers of clothing, and plunked herself down in a lawn chair - first in line.

Word quickly spread via text messages, e-mails, and phone calls. By late afternoon, more than 70 people were camped out on Locust Street between 42d and 43d Streets. They planned to stay until officials opened the doors early Monday to start taking applications to register at the school.

"The school was the only reason we bought our house," said Love, who estimates that, like many within the Penn Alexander boundaries, she paid a $100,000 premium for her home.

Penn Alexander is part of the School District of Philadelphia but it receives a yearly subsidy of $1,300 per pupil from the University of Pennsylvania. Parents perceive it as one of a few good options in a district beset by budget cuts, poor test scores, and reports of violence.

The school has grown so popular it has triggered a small mania. So many families have moved into the Penn Alexander "catchment" the only way parents can guarantee their children can attend is to line up on a cold January night and sleep out.

In the last year, anxiety has increased significantly. Until last spring, parents who did not get kindergarten spots almost certainly would get their children into Penn Alexander in first grade. But at that time, the district said enrollment had grown so much it could no longer promise all children in the school's catchment would get in at first grade. The district has not yet said how it would deal with that situation, though reducing the size of the catchment is one option.

Some parents in line Sunday night wished the district would find a better way to dole out spots. One woman, who would not give her name, said it was difficult for single parents to camp out because they did not have partners to watch their children.

Other parents, however, have come to view it as a badge of honor.

"People do it for Rolling Stones tickets, and this is much more important," said Mark Bowerman, who got both his younger sons into the school by sleeping on the sidewalk in previous years. He and his wife, Hilary Bonta, dropped by the line to share cookies with neighbors who were camping out. Nearby, their friends warmed themselves over a small fire in a metal outdoor pit while watching the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens on a large-screen television in the back of a Honda minivan.

"What we'd like them to do is for this not to be the only good school," Bonta said.

Penn Alexander she said, is simply a good school, not a perfect one. She said the district might be able to duplicate its success by adopting some of the same practices. The principal at Penn Alexander, for example, can choose the school's teachers, she said.

The scramble to get into Penn Alexander has intensified discussions about how to improve other schools. At least two groups, Advocates for Great Elementary Education and the West Philadelphia Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, have formed to find ways to improve education for all area children.

In the meantime, parents are resigned to queuing up and sleeping on concrete.

Omar Morris, a postal worker, was roughly 70th in line. It was unclear whether he would get a kindergarten spot, because only 40 to 60 were available. A friend told him about Penn Alexander, and he carted his lawn chair to Locust Street early Sunday afternoon in the hope of sending his 5-year-old daughter there next year. If he does not get her into Penn Alexander, he plans to start researching charter schools.

"This is all new to me," he said. But he took the line as a positive sign.

"I feel like it must be a pretty good school," he said.


Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or mhill@phillynews.com.

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