School crisis drives families from city

Realtor Christopher Plant, drying dishes with his son Mason, tells perspective buyers "they can't rely on any of the public schools." TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Realtor Christopher Plant, drying dishes with his son Mason, tells perspective buyers "they can't rely on any of the public schools." TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 19, 2013

Brian Hackford is divorcing Philadelphia, citing irreconcilable differences over public education.

For most of his adult life, Hackford has loved this city - its energy, its grit, its humor, its culture, its diversity, restaurants, parks, museums, and a host of other ineffable qualities that have made this place home.

But try as he might, he no longer believes the Philadelphia School District can be trusted to provide his three children with a good education.

"I've lived in the city since 1995. I've planted roots. Every single one of my friends except one lives in the city. But at 41, I'm having to start all over again."

Hackford, a co-owner of the Keswick Cycle stores, and his wife have put their home in Roxborough up for sale.

"We have an offer," he said glumly, "and if it works out, we're going."

There is no way to know how many parents have lost faith in the city's ability to adequately fund education, and whether they outnumber those who like their kids' schools and won't bail out because of "yet another funding crisis," as one father put it. Countless others can't afford private schools or a move to the suburbs.

But even as officials were promising last week that schools will open on time, several real estate brokers, parents, and public school advocates said the latest money crisis could drive more families away.

The pledges made Thursday to find the $50 million needed to start classes Sept. 9 seemed depressingly inadequate, they said. And news of local and state officials haggling over a miserly budget sounded all too familiar.

'More screwy'

"It's an issue that's been around a long time," said Christopher Plant, a Realtor who specializes in wooing transplants like himself from New York City. "But it's certainly getting more screwy."

"The school thing" is one of the first topics he raises with prospective buyers, Plant said. Until recently, he would talk up the top neighborhood, magnet, and charter schools and explain that even if families opted for private elementary schools, there were excellent public options in the upper grades.

"Now," he said, "I'm telling them they can't rely on any of the public schools."

He began to come to that conclusion, he said, after applying to five charter schools for his own two children - and losing out in the lottery for the limited spaces.

"When we tried again for seventh grade, my son was one of 75 kids applying for zero spots, hoping someone would drop out," he said. "It seems absurd."

Plant's outlook has grown bleaker as he watches the current financial crisis. When CAPA, the city's premier performing-arts school, cannot afford to put on its annual musical, he said, the canary is clearly gasping in the mine.

Hackford described a predicament many new parents may face.

"When you live in the city, as soon as you have your first kid, you start thinking about schools," he said. "You hope your district will get better. Instead, it gets worse. Unless you have $35,000 a year [for] private school, at some point, you go, 'I just can't do this.' "

If their house sale goes through, the couple plan to move to a suburb where they hope their children, ages 5, 4, and 2, can attend fully functioning schools. Schools, Hackford said, that not only can afford adequate staffing for nurses, coaches, and field trips, but the bedrock basics. Books. Librarians. Guidance counselors. Secretaries to answer the phones.

That was the conclusion reached, too, by Marcy and Matthew Gialdo, who reluctantly left Philadelphia in the spring after living in the city's Mount Airy section for 10 years.

The Gialdos had sent their two children to a Quaker elementary school but knew they could not afford tuition that soars past $20,000 at most private high schools. After trying to win spots for their children in charter schools through the lottery system, they gave up.

"The chances of getting them into a good public school were slimmer and slimmer," said Marcy Gialdo. "And over the past few years, we watched programs eliminated and options lessened."

In May, the family decamped to Springfield Township in Montgomery County.

'Not possible'

"It was a very hard decision," said Gialdo, 39, a triathlon coach. "I loved my neighborhood in Philadelphia.. . . The diversity was great for our family. We could walk everywhere. We had public transportation. We gave up a lot when we moved. But the school situation was just not possible."

As officials sparred over where to find the money, Gialdo, a former New Jersey public school teacher, said, "I feel there's a lot of finger-pointing and grandstanding. It's irresponsible of us as adults to do this to the kids. . . . How many years does it take to figure this out? . . . The children are the ones who get hurt."

After receiving the "urgent" request that Greenfield Elementary School's principal sent to parents, asking them to donate $613 for each child enrolled, Tomika Anglin was heartsick and angry.

"A lot of people cannot afford the money schools are asking for," said Anglin, a 45-year-old single mother. "And they recognize that it may be becoming normal to ask parents to contribute like that."

Anglin's solution for now: home-school her daughter, who would be starting sixth grade. ("But there are no secretaries at the school right now, so I have not formally withdrawn her.")

Without minimizing the district's problems, many parents say they are determined to stick with the public schools.

"Parents like me who are involved with schools and like their schools are staying," said Christine Carlson, 50, a mother of two elementary students. "They're going to make it work."

'A year at a time'

Carlson founded the Greater Center City School Coalition two years ago, trying to improve schools so middle-class families would stay. "There is this force, this trend, of younger people moving in. They want to stay," she said. "And the school district is doing everything it can to shoot itself in the foot."

Even so, Carlson praised the district for working with her coalition. "I just wish that the city and state would look at elementary schools as economic development," she said. "They stabilize neighborhoods and create economic diversity."

Having endured district budget crises before, public school parent Kevin Peters isn't panicking.

"We take it a year at a time," said Peters, a fund-raiser and consultant for nonprofits whose son is starting 10th grade at Central High. "For us, just because the circus came back to town with yet another funding crisis, we have faith and hope that Central as well as the other schools that have strong functional leadership and teachers and a strong family and community base will be able to figure this out."

The real concern, he said, should be for children in schools where that kind of support is lacking.

His family isn't moving. "We believe in this city," he said. "And our son has had a fantastic educational opportunity."

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590,, or follow @dribbenonphilly on Twitter.

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