Community asks for an expansion at popular Philly school

A seat in the kindergarten class of Penn Alexander, one of the Philadelphia School District’s best schools, has long been coveted. The school has the benefit of a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, which contributes $1,330 a year for each student enrolled at Penn Alexander.

But many families who paid a premium for houses in the Penn Alexander catchment area in West Philadelphia had faith that even if kindergarten wasn’t a shoo-in, their children would have a spot by first grade.

But now, the school’s kindergarten through third grade classes are full.  New students will have to attend the nearby Lea School, which lacks the resources of Penn Alexander, has lower test scores and a shabbier building. One neighborhood group is trying to bolster Lea and Alexander Wilson, another school in West Philadelphia, but their efforts are just beginning.

This puts many parents in a bind, to say the least. (Read my colleague Kia Gregory's story about the dilemma here.)

Late last month, the neighborhood group Spruce Hill Community Association passed a resolution that said “Any child living in the catchment area has the right to attend Penn Alexander and should have that right guaranteed from first through eighth grade.”

That’s easier said than done, of course.

But the group recently pleaded its case in a letter to Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman and Penn President Amy Gutmann.

Association officials pointed out that the partnership between the district and Penn has transformed their neighborhood, which has been “enlivened by hundreds of new families who have made a personal commitment to support the highest ideals of education.”

They said they realize their request raises questions about available classroom space.

“However,” they wrote, “space should be found.  Families have made commitments to this neighborhood based on the belief that their children could someday attend a first-rate elementary school.”

They told Ackerman and Gutmann that families who were looking to move to the neighborhood for the school “have been making decisions not to move here.” They said that parents have turned to their group for help.

Spruce Hill Community Association President Mark Wagenveld (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a former editor at The Inquirer) says the group has not heard back from either Ackerman or Gutmann.

"We haven't gotten an official response as yet," Wagenveld said, "but we know that Penn is very concerned about this situation and is also hearing from parents who work at Penn."