Kindergarten battle at Penn Alexander rages on

Eric Santoro reads a statement during a protest over Penn Alexander's kindergarten lottery that denied enrollment for 10. His child was wait-listed.
Eric Santoro reads a statement during a protest over Penn Alexander's kindergarten lottery that denied enrollment for 10. His child was wait-listed. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 07, 2013

The kindergarten war continues.

After it halted a longtime first-come, first-served policy for kindergarten registration at one of the city's top public schools, the Philadelphia School District held a lottery late last month to select the 78 children lucky enough to win spots at Penn Alexander for the fall.

That left 10 children denied admission to the K-8 school, which boasts a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania that provides an extra $1,300 per student and low class sizes.

And it left many parents - who had hoped the district would increase kindergarten class size to accommodate every neighborhood family - steamed. Some say they have not ruled out legal action.

"This is the reason you don't make governmental decisions on a capricious whim. This is a disaster," said Eric Santoro, whose child was wait-listed. He is particularly concerned with the district's decision to forgo sibling preference, leaving some families scrambling to figure out how to take young children to multiple schools simultaneously.

Although most of the parents who braved eight hours of what they expected to be a four-day midwinter campout did secure kindergarten spots for their children, many are still vowing to fight for those who were left out. The policy must be fixed going forward, they say.

And many are questioning why neighborhood children are being turned away when 36 Penn Alexander students currently live outside the school's boundaries, according to district records.

Some were admitted by superintendent's privilege, a long-standing practice of allowing central office staff to direct admissions for personal or academic reasons, a school spokesman confirmed.

"Past superintendents have exercised a prerogative to locate students in schools throughout the district," spokesman Fernando Gallard said. "This superintendent has not."

Gallard said that the current non-neighborhood Penn Alexander students will not be kicked out, but that no out-of-catchment students will be admitted going forward.

"To remove these kids right now would be disruptive, and it would not solve the situation of the over-enrollment of kindergarten students," said Gallard.

About 70 parents had lined up four days in advance of the kindergarten registration deadline in January when officials shifted their policy and dispersed the line, saying a lottery was the best way to ensure equity.

Parents were livid, but the district agreed to work with them to try to come up with an acceptable solution. No one had liked the idea of a line much to begin with.

But no acceptable situation materialized, as far as many kindergarten parents are concerned. The district added six kindergarten spots, but said it lacked the room to add more.

Penn officials referred questions to the district but in a statement said the school system's facilities department had made the call that Penn Alexander was at capacity. Recognizing the neighborhood's needs, however, the university noted that it had ramped up investments at Henry C. Lea, the closest public school to Penn Alexander.

District officials privately held the Penn Alexander lottery last month, and the week parents were notified, dozens staged a rally, waving signs that said "Enroll all!" and "A lottery is gambling with education!"

Barry Bush's daughter won a spot in the lottery, but he's still fighting for the parents whose children didn't get in.

The out-of-catchment students and experience of navigating the district leaves him suspicious, Bush said.

"Why wasn't the lottery done publicly? When things are done behind closed doors, with a bureaucracy such as the Philadelphia School District, it makes us question the validity and the true randomness of it," Bush said.

The day of the rally, Samantha and Bryce McNamee had just gotten bad news - their son was No. 8 on the Penn Alexander waiting list. Private school isn't in the budget for the family, and their son's wait-list number for popular Independence Charter School was even worse, they said.

The McNamees don't consider Lea a viable option because of safety and academic concerns. They said they won't be pushed into gambling on the school because of what they consider a push by Penn to gentrify more of West Philadelphia.

They're considering homeschooling their son.

The couple moved to West Philadelphia in 1999. They paid a premium for a house in the Penn Alexander catchment in 2004, before their son was born. Neither Samantha nor Bryce has relatives close by, and their neighbors have become their family, they said - which makes the current situation more wrenching.

With Penn Alexander kindergarten class size still under 20, much lower than the rest of the district, the McNamees say they can't understand why officials don't do what they did the day they stopped the line or admitted students out of the neighborhood - make a decision to halt a policy because they feel it's the right thing to do.

"We can't stand for a lottery or a line," Bryce McNamee said. "That's not what community is all about."

Santoro understands that the district's attention is focused on the possible closure of 29 schools. But the district has said it will consider this year's Penn Alexander admission process a pilot for future overenrolled neighborhood schools, and Santoro hopes that if nothing changes for September, officials make long-term fixes.

Santoro, whose oldest is a first grader at Penn Alexander, hasn't yet found a spot for his soon-to-be kindergartner. Although he's long considered himself a die-hard supporter of the city and its public schools, all options are on the table.

"The way things are structured now, it makes it very tough for middle-class families to stay," Santoro said. "Do you want people to pick Philadelphia, or do you want them to pick somewhere else?"

Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at

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