W. Phila. school is all the rage: Why aren't all the others?

Eric Santoro reads a statement Wednesday during a protest organized by angry parents on the University of Pennsylvania's campus. The university's partner elementary school, Penn Alexander, is using a lottery system to deny some neighborhood children admission. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Eric Santoro reads a statement Wednesday during a protest organized by angry parents on the University of Pennsylvania's campus. The university's partner elementary school, Penn Alexander, is using a lottery system to deny some neighborhood children admission. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 22, 2013

THE CHANTS from families whose children attend Penn Alexander School were simple and blunt.

"Ten more in! Ten more in!" the 60 adults and children yelled Wednesday outside a University Council meeting at the University of Pennsylvania.

The group braved the chilly temperatures to demand that 10 students, wait-listed to attend the prestigious K-to-8 school under a new district-imposed lottery system, be allowed to enroll.

"Broken Compact, Broken Families, Broken Community" read one sign. Another protester, Lani Shade, carried a sign with a drawing of a pair of dice next to "PAS is not a casino."

The passion among neighbors over Penn Alexander - officially the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School, a joint venture between Penn and the school district - begs the question: Why hasn't the district done more to replicate Penn Alexander's success around the city?

"In a large system, your shining examples cannot just be islands unto themselves," said Mark Gleason, executive director of Philadelphia School Partnership.

"They need to be part of the effort to create more schools like their own."

He said that the district "has an opportunity to identify the key ingredients that are making [Penn Alexander] a great school and then doing whatever it takes to put those same ingredients into another school."

Since it opened in September 2001, PAS has attracted middle-class families to West Philadelphia, helped to increase home prices in its catchment area by tens of thousands of dollars and established a strong community in an area once plagued by crime.

"When [the university] got involved, it had a deep concern about its relationships with West Philadelphia, generally," said James Lytle, professor of educational leadership at Penn's Graduate School of Education. "Creating Penn Alexander was one part of the response. I suspect Penn Alexander is more successful than the university imagined. It's had a tremendous effect on the whole community."

The district leases the land at 42nd and Spruce streets from Penn for $1 a year. The district built the school for $19 million.

Most officials agree that parental involvement and established community partnerships are the building blocks for a school to become high-performing.

Although it's likely the most competitive, Penn Alexander is far from the only successful neighborhood school in the city.

"We are a successful neighborhood school that relies on the neighborhood to help with its success," said Cindy Farlino, principal of Meredith Elementary, on 5th Street near Fitzwater, in Queen Village.

The K-to-8 school partners with the Fleisher Art Memorial, Settlement Music School and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which provides leadership training.

At Cook-Wissahickon, on Salaignac Street near Righter, in Wissahickon, the Home and School Association is "very well-known and vocal," said principal Karen Thomas. The school is "not doing it alone . . . it's not something you can do alone by any means."

The school has had a partnership for 16 years with Progressive Business Publications, in Malvern, which provides the school with some financial support and a mentorship program, Thomas said. The money helps fund Cook-Wissahickon's before- and after-school care programs at low cost.

PAS knows very well the help that partnerships provide. Principal Sheila Sydnor declined interview requests by the Daily News, but one parent said that the Penn connection "has proved invaluable."

The school has made "annual yearly progress," a measurement of the No Child Left Behind Act, each year since at least 2006, and was the 2012 Intel Schools of Distinction winner in the middle-school-science category.

Most neighborhood schools, however, don't have mandated low class sizes like Penn Alexander, capped at 18 children in kindergarten and 24 in other grade levels. Nor do other schools receive $1,330 extra per student, up to $700,000, from the university.

Penn provides student teachers from its Graduate School of Education, and offers professional development to its teachers.

"But the money alone does not make it a great school," Gleason said. "It helps. By itself, it doesn't change anything."

"We are constantly looking to transfer lessons learned from our best-performing schools," said Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the district. "We want to duplicate the success of high-achieving schools across the system."

The swift and sudden decision last month by the district to change the "first-come, first-served" policy to a lottery system at the school has thrown families and the tight-knit Spruce Hill neighborhood into a tizzy.

Some parents say that the lottery system takes away from the fabric of the neighborhood; others believe that it may be the only fair way to resolve the high demand for entrance into the school.

"It's a neighborhood school. They grow up together. They go to school together. They end up walking to school together," said parent Predrag R. Bakic, whose son was selected in the lottery to attend PAS next year. "A lottery is for special-admission schools, art schools, not for your neighborhood school."

PAS parent Eric Santoro, who had voiced his opposition to the lottery, learned Wednesday that his daughter didn't make it in.

"Doing lotteries in secret is unacceptable," said Santoro, whose older child is in first grade at PAS. "I think the . . . process so far is paternalistic and condescending that we are viewed as not a part of it. They [district officials] come and listen to us but don't involve us in decision-making."

Sam McNamee, a neighborhood resident since 1999, said she shook, cried and screamed inside her car after learning that her son Cole didn't make it into PAS.

"It's just heartbreaking for me to consider him going somewhere else," she said. Cole is No. 8 on Penn Alexander's wait list and 343rd at Independence Charter School, in Center City.

A change to a lottery system changes the hometown atmosphere that the school inspires throughout the area, say families and community groups.

For years, some families have moved to the Spruce Hill neighborhood specifically to get into Penn Alexander's catchment. According to an analysis by Plan Philly, a house inside the school's boundaries fetches $50,000 to $100,000 more than one a block away. Property values inside the catchment increased by 211 percent from 1998 to 2011, according to PlanPhilly.

"Bottom line, Spruce Hill [Community Association] does not want to see kids getting turned away from their neighborhood school," said Andy Lochrie, president of the neighborhood group.

Many parents, forced to think of a future without PAS, applied to charter schools or for voluntary transfers to nearby district schools such as Lea Elementary and Powel School.

Lea has the support of the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, and Lytle says Penn and the district have been talking about providing more assistance to Lea.

Penn wants "to improve the quality of schooling in West Philadelphia," Lytle said, adding that Penn doesn't plan to provide the same type of support to Lea.


On Twitter: @ReginaMedina

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