Penn Alexander School: The lottery is a travesty

Parents had lined up on Locust Street in West Philadelphia for a four-day wait to get children into Penn Alexander when the lottery was announced.
Parents had lined up on Locust Street in West Philadelphia for a four-day wait to get children into Penn Alexander when the lottery was announced. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 24, 2013

I WAS RECENTLY on the website City-data.com and came upon this question: "We are considering moving to West Philadelphia from Lansdowne so our daughters can attend the Penn Alexander School. The attendance area is basically 40th-46th streets between Sansom and Baltimore Avenue. Is it possible to buy a nice place under 200k? Is it relatively safe? What are the taxes like?"

Most of the people who answered said it was a safe area and a mecca for families with kids who wanted the school and the diversity of the city. Imagine that - an area of the city and a school serving as a magnet, attracting young families, improving real estate values and providing Philadelphia with a source of better taxes.

Of course, the people who run the Philadelphia public schools could not allow this fairy tale to continue. The Penn Alexander School is so highly prized due to the fact that it gets $1,300 extra per student from the University of Pennsylvania and that Penn provides additional instructional support. It is a showcase neighborhood school, and it draws very educated and involved parents that make the school even better.

This great school then provokes a real-estate market in which the homes inside the school boundaries are roughly $100,000 more than homes just a few blocks away. The message is clear: Give people great schools and they will move to areas around the schools and transform Philadelphia.

In fact, the demand for slots in the Penn Alexander kindergarten classes is so intense that annually a great event has happened on Locust Street in West Philadelphia. For four days starting on the Friday before Martin Luther King Day, parents have grabbed a space in line and have waited to register their child on the Tuesday after MLK Day. If you thought this was a line to get tickets to a hot movie or a concert, you would be mistaken.

The Daily News reported Saturday that 70 parents were lined up the day before with tents, chairs, take-out food, even an RV. One family even erected a temporary structure with plywood floors and insulation. All of this just to get their child a precious slot in the Penn Alexander School.

These parents were doing what people do for the latest sneakers, iPad, Beyoncé tickets or anything else that has a buzz and a demand. They were willing to suffer through some pretty cold and boring days to give their kids the best shot possible at a quality education. You would expect that Superintendent of Schools William Hite would be there with hot chocolate, telling whoever would listen that these lines represent his goal of making more and more Philadelphia public schools places that parents move to be near.

Instead, the school district ruled on Friday, in the middle of the process with people already in line, that this annual tradition was over and now they would use a lottery to determine who gets the upcoming kindergarten slots in Penn Alexander. They rolled this under the banner of "safety concerns" they had for parents waiting in line. Of course, they cited the fairness of the lottery.

Imagine these edu-crats espousing fairness and changing the rules in the middle of the game. What would they tell the grandfather who had to travel two hours to help hold the place in line for his daughter and son-in-law? The school district seems to buy the argument that not everyone has a grandfather who will help out or is willing to be out in the cold. To them fairness is some spinning wheel determining the fate of kids.

To me, fairness is an equal shot under equal conditions, and that's exactly what the line was all about. If we want to play out their ridiculous fairness argument, is it fair that you have to have a very good family income to afford a house that lies within the drawing area of the Penn Alexander School?

This lottery mentality is not new to the Philadelphia public schools. Over the years, there have been fights over changing various special programs in their schools away from a system based on judging the very best qualified for the program to one that uses some kind of lottery system. This mentality is not driven by fairness, but by mediocrity and a lack of understanding that competition drives achievement.

Do you think the woman from Lansdowne will want to come to the Penn Alexander area, pay a lot for her house, face higher crime and taxes in the hope that she might hit the Lucky Lotto? Rather than dampen the passion of the parents out in West Philadelphia, the efforts of the school district should be directed toward using this publicity to aggressively call upon all the colleges and universities in Philadelphia to create neighborhood lab schools. If you build it, they will come.


Teacher-turned-talk-show host Dom Giordano is heard on WPHT (1210-AM) radio. Contact Dom at domgiordano.com.

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