District studying options for kindergarten signups at Penn Alexander

Posted: January 24, 2013

For now, a lottery is still in place for next year's kindergarten classes at Penn Alexander, a public school in West Philadelphia so well regarded that 70 parents were prepared to camp outside for four days and nights to secure spots for their children.

But after a meeting with more than 100 parents and interested community members Tuesday, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he was willing to work with the community to explore alternative solutions.

"Serving every student in the catchment area is the desire of individuals, and that's what we would like to do," Hite said, adding that he was "not guaranteeing" that goal.

In advance of the Tuesday morning first-come-first-served kindergarten registration, dozens of parents parked tents, chairs and even an RV on Locust Street on Friday morning.

But at 6 p.m. Friday, district officials abruptly announced they were moving to a lottery, meaning the first parent in line had the same shot of getting a child in as one who registered on April 1.

There are fewer than 60 available seats for September's kindergarten classes. Children not chosen for them would be directed to neighboring public schools, which lack the small class sizes, high test scores, and $1,300 per student contributed by the University of Pennsylvania to Penn Alexander.

Hite said that after three months in town, he had heard some buzz about the school's registration process.

But it wasn't until Thursday night - when a parent raised the issue at a public meeting - that he discovered that people actually camped out, Hite said.

By Friday morning, Hite said, he had directed his staff to examine the process. A few hours later, they heard that parents had already started lining up.

"For me, it escalated into an issue around safety. We could not have individuals who were standing in the line for four days. It's also a problem with equity, using that process," Hite said.

Some parents are pro-lottery, but others say the district's abrupt policy shift leaves them with no good options if their children do not win the lottery, and that if a lottery is adopted, it should be in place for the 2014 kindergartners, not September's crop.

Within the week, Hite said, one of his top staffers will meet with a group of Penn Alexander parent representatives to figure out the next steps.

But more information needs to be gathered, he said. The memorandum of understanding with Penn must be examined, the university must be consulted, and someone needs to figure out exactly how many prospective kindergartners live in the catchment area, he said.

Igor Burstyn, who has one child in first grade and a prospective kindergartner, said he found Tuesday's meeting constructive and that he was "reassured that at least we are being listened to, and that we as a community have a partner we can work with constructively."

Burstyn, a Drexel University professor, was 25th in line Friday - a spot good enough to guarantee his daughter a spot under the old policy. The old policy wasn't good, he said, but a lottery still leaves inequities, because, if their children don't get into Penn Alexander, some parents have the means to pursue other options, but some don't.

"The only fair and equitable situation," Burstyn said, "is to accommodate all neighborhood kids at a neighborhood school."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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