Kindergarten shouldn't be this hard

“Do you want people to pick Philadelphia, or do you want them to pick somewhere else?"

With those words, Eric Santoro, a father whose child was wait-listed in the new lottery instituted for admission to Penn Alexander, perfectly summed up the feeling of so many Philadelphia parents.

(For more on what’s happening at Penn Alexander, check out this report from my Inquirer colleague Kristen Graham.)

As a city parent who has finally decided where to send my son for school next year, I have felt that same way so many times. There have been exceptions, of course: The principal at my local school, Laura Wheeler Waring, was lovely and welcoming. She almost made me feel like I could send my child there.

But public or private, I had a rule that I needed to know parents at the school. It said something to me that I didn’t know any families in the neighborhood who sent their children there.

Often, as Santoro says, the school district makes parents feel like they either don’t want their families or are at best indifferent about whether they attend.

At Penn Alexander, the district changed the admissions process longer after the time when families could apply to private school. The district also will not allow sibling preference, creating a logistical nightmare for families who may have to manage multiple drop-offs and get themselves to work. Independence Charter has sibling preference, and while it’s the primary reason that the school is so difficult to get into, it strikes me as fair in a world where the morning commute can feel like a daily version of a Tough Mudder.

In the last two years, I’ve met so many parents who are working so hard to improve their local school. In some cases, they are succeeding, but many of them have tales of how challenging it can be to get the district to implement even small changes. While I am sure these challenges exist in many suburban schools, too, Philadelphia doesn’t have a strong academic reputation to compensate for failures elsewhere.

It’s much more complicated than that, of course, but in addition to allowing sibling preference at Penn Alexander, the district could change its Voluntary Transfer Process, or VTP, to appeal to middle-class families.

Right now, parents don’t know find out whether they will be able to transfer a child to a Philadelphia public school that is not their local school until long after they have been accepted – and been required to put down a deposit – at a private school. This is about more than money. By the time a parent has said yes to a private school, many of them emotionally wedded to their choice. It’s hard to turn back.

Plus, learning late just reinforces the feeling many parents already have that the district doesn’t really care where they go.

There was a time when the Philadelphia School District let parents know VTP results earlier in the year. It’s time to restore that policy.