Saturday, August 29, 2015

Let's talk about schools

West Philadelphia resident David Hincher and his wife never argued much until they started talking about where to send their daughter to school. Here's how they have worked it out so far.

Let's talk about schools

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The Hinchers, with daughter, Lucy.
The Hinchers, with daughter, Lucy.

I bet a lot of you have had the same experience as David Hincher and his wife. Read about their school-search saga below, and if you would like to share your own, please e-mail me a brief version of your story at hillmb@phillynews.com. Thanks.

And now, West Philadelphia's David Hincher:

My wife and I stumbled into the debate over Philadelphia schools by accident. As recent transplants, we had fallen in love with Philadelphia’s rich history and neighborhoods friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Even the industrial decay and patina charmed us. We decided to put down roots and stay.

One day a few years ago, we spontaneously decided to go to an educational open house Forum in Fairmount to learn about public schools. By the time we left, we were shell-shocked and drowning with information. People there were convinced that Philadelphia public schools were unacceptable. They said parents who stayed in the city would have to pony up the cash for private or parochial school, apply for the limited lottery spots at one of the dozens of charter schools or abandon the city for the suburbs. Our future kid wasn’t even on the drawing board, but we were suddenly panicking about where she would go to kindergarten.

That's when the arguments began.

My wife and I had never fought much. Philadelphia’s schools changed all that. I stuck up for public schools, believing they could not be as bad as everyone was saying. Surely, I thought, concerned parents could band together to make any school better. My wife, however, was freaked out and adamant that private school was the way to go. There seemed to be no changing her mind. She was glued to local news reports on school violence until she finally refused to watch the news at all anymore.

After several irreconcilable discussions, we simply ignored the subject for a while. After all, we were arguing over an imaginary child.

But then we decided to buy a house, and the minute we moved into our first place in West Philadelphia, my wife got pregnant. And we started arguing about schools again. Most parents on our block drove their kids all over the Philadelphia area to other neighborhood public schools, charter schools and parochial schools. The only "good" schools in our immediate neighborhood were the Penn Alexander School, whose catchment was far from our address, or Powel School, which is highly desired but with limited availability.

I started researching Philadelphia schools. I thought a little data would win my wife over. Instead, the poor test scores at many Philadelphia public schools sent me scurrying toward her point of view. But even if our daughter got into a charter school, how would we get her there? And how could we pay for private-school tuition unless my wife returned to work.

Shortly after our daughter Lucy turned two years old this year, we found some inspiration. I went to a “How To Walk To School” event organized by the West Philadelphia Coalition For Neighborhood Schools (WPCNS), that was going to be held in the auditorium of Henry C. Lea Elementary, a neighborhood school at 47th and Locust streets. The author and keynote speaker, Jacqueline Edelberg, was a feisty mother from Chicago who transformed her local elementary school with eight other moms and assistance from the local community. In WPCNS, I found a group of parents, neighborhood residents, and concerned citizens, not unlike Jacqueline’s moms. Her talk fired me up so much that I signed up with the Coalition, as did several other parents.

Shortly after the event, the Coalition decided to focus its efforts on Lea Elementary with the support of the school’s principal, Dr. Bell Chiles, and Home & School Association President, Maurice Jones. At the end of the school year, the Coalition helped Lea Elementary with its Kindergarten Open House.

Several local businesses donated coffee and pastries for the Open House. About 60 parents attended, including my wife, who brought our daughter. During the school tour, we saw the garden, interior murals and visual art projects, and talked with the kindergarten teachers and students. My wife took all the information in objectively, and began to see the potential. It was kind of funny, but later she said that Lea reminded her of the neighborhood elementary schools she had attended when she was a kid. This was a good memory. The walk home was pleasant, with no arguments at all.

It began to dawn on me that this political battle we had been waging on schools, the very one I had been fighting valiantly with armies of statistics and articles and pure stubbornness, had just been killed by nostalgia.

Over the next few months, I began to work more closely with the Coalition on efforts at Lea, and the potential transformation that it could undergo over the next few years. My wife has tenuously become infected with the same enthusiasm I caught at the “Walk To School” event, and is slowly, slowly coming around. The collective hope of all those hundreds of other parents in our area all in the same situation we are in, all working together to find a solution, and improve one school, has soothed that old public school issue panic like a strange balm. For the first time in years, my wife and I are in agreement and will likely apply for a voluntary transfer for our daughter to Lea Elementary when the time comes. For now, the feud is over.

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Reach Miriam at hillmb@phillynews.com.

Miriam Hill
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