Penn Alexander to go to lottery for registration

Last year: Parents camped out overnight to sign their children up for kindergarten at the Penn Alexander school. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

By Friday morning, 70 people had lined up on Locust Street to register their children for kindergarten at one of the city’s most sought-after public schools.

By mid-afternoon, there were tents, chairs, takeout food containers, an RV, and a man erecting a temporary structure complete with plywood floors and insulation.

Kindergarten registration doesn’t begin until Tuesday.

“This is totally ridiculous,” said Terrence McGuckin, dad of a current Penn Alexander kindergartener, who was holding a spot for his friend at mid-afternoon. “It’s totally driven by panic. We’re talking four days in the cold.”

But district officials decided the situation was untenable, and Friday night informed the community that Penn Alexander was going to a lottery system for registration. That means that the person who’s first in line has the same shot at getting a spot as someone who registers on April 1, the deadline.

“There are safety issues involved,” said Karyn Lynch, the district’s head of student services. “There was a great deal of concern. And the decision was made to create the greatest amount of equity.”

Lynch said the Penn Alexander lottery would become a pilot, and in the future, if other schools have situations where there are more students than seats, a lottery would be used there, too.

As is the case currently, siblings of current Penn Alexander students will not be given any special treatment, she said.

The decision was made Friday, the day after a Penn Alexander parent raised the issue at a School Reform Commission meeting.

“The way that we do this shouldn’t be through who can stand in line the longest,” David Lapp, whose child will be in kindergarten in the fall, told the SRC. What about single parents, he said, or people with childcare issues?

The decision was sure to rankle some, but to others, it was the best solution.
Chris Hiester applauded the decision. He lives across the street from the school and has a child who will be a kindergartener in the fall, but had vowed not to camp out.

“Part of it is practical,” Hiester said. “I have three kids, and it would be a huge effort to be able to pull off having one of us, my wife or myself, be over in that line for four straight days.”

But equity was also a concern, he said.

“I feel very strongly - it’s a public school, and if we’re still going to have it be a neighborhood school, it should be a lottery,” said Hiester. “They should do everything possible to make the school reflect what the neighborhood looks like - economically, ethnically, racially, demographically. I think everyone should have the same shot.”

Earlier in the day, parents in line were clearly unhappy with the situation.

“None of us likes this,” said one, who declined to give her name. “None of us wants to be here.”

Liza Law was at her desk at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where she is head of IT, on Friday morning when she heard the line was forming.

She ran out the door, taking the rest of the day off. She had formulated an extensive plan, involving food and phones and tents. Trading off throughout the weekend would be her parents, who live nearby, her sister and brother-in-law, who live in New York, and her husband.

Law was number 62 in line, a spot she said might not guarantee her child a place. There were 72 spaces this year, but children with special education plans and those in Head Start programs get first dibs on the spots.

When the possibility of a lottery was raised, Law wasn’t sure. If she was nearer to the front of the line, she wouldn’t like a lottery, she said.

But in her current spot, “a lottery would be nice,” she said. “You pay a premium to live in this neighborhood, but not everyone can wait in line.”

When news of the lottery came out just before 6 p.m., many were furious.

One neighbor described the chaos: “Parents are really angry.  Some parents are trying to persuade everyone just to stay in line.  For our neighborhood, a lottery is a catastrophe.”