Why do so many people avoid Philly schools?

Philadelphia School District Headquarters. (JONATHAN YU / Staff Photographer)

Why didn't my husband and I choose our local public school, Laura Wheeler Waring, for our son? And why don't we know anyone who does?

That is what reader @emaleigh (more on her and her sister, both public-school graduates here) wanted to know after my last post.

The short answer is I don’t really know. There is probably a doctoral thesis for someone in the question. The longer answer, which involves some guesswork, involves all the same factors that explain why so many people who have choices don’t choose Philadelphia schools. They fear the schools are unsafe. They are people who prize education and fear (too much, in my opinion) that if they don’t find the perfect first grade, their child won’t get into Harvard. Somewhat more legitimately, they fear their kids won’t get an education at all. Add the messy issues of race and class, and you have your answer.

The question is, are these people right?

Maybe, but I’ve developed a deep admiration for what seems to be an increasing number of middle-class Philadelphia parents who are questioning those assumptions.

So at least visit your local public school. I visited two, Waring, and Bache Martin, a Philadelphia public school in my neighborhood that I had hoped to transfer into, and came away with positive impressions. (I'll write more on Bache later.)

I was forced into looking at Waring, but I’m glad I did. Through a misunderstanding about the Philadelphia School District’s Voluntary Transfer Program, or VTP, (for more on how the VTP confuses many parents, read this from my colleague Kristen A. Graham), I thought I had to register Luke at my local school.

So off I went, expecting to drop off my paperwork and leave. It was late in the day, and I would not have blamed Principal Brianna Dunn if she had said the school was closed and suggested returning later. Instead, Dunn sat me down in her office and answered all my questions. She was warm and patient. I immediately felt she would take good care of my child.

Most of the children at Waring are from the neighborhood, she said. She thinks even more would attend but don’t because they incorrectly think the school is unsafe. Dunn acknowledged that the school “has some work to do” on test scores and urged  me to come back when the children were there to really see the school. When I returned, she showed me clean, bright classrooms with small numbers of students, countering the dreary impression created by old tile and dim lighting in the Waring entryway.

Why wasn’t my comfort with Dunn enough? I’m not entirely sure. There were those test scores, of course, but mostly, it said something to me that many parents were avoiding this school.

But what did it say? Were the parents correctly assessing Waring? What about wealth and class, black and white?

This is usually the point where thinking about all this makes my head hurt. As we looked, I realized that I had a deep need to know parents at any school we might choose. As a reporter, talking to people is my business, and the most helpful conversations I had about schools were with other parents. Waring dropped off my list, but so did private schools, such as Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, where I didn’t know anyone.

Up next on Raising Philadelphia: Education is personal. Finding a school-search strategy that works for you.