At Meredith, a kindergarten lottery stirs worries — and larger issues

Students and guardians leave the first day of the new school year at the William M. Meredith Elementary School in the Queen Village section of Philadelphia on Monday, September 8, 2014.

In the dead of winter, in the middle of the night, parents lined up last year to ensure that their kindergarteners would have a seat at Meredith Elementary, the well-regarded, increasingly crowded public school at Fifth and Fitzwater.

To avoid a repeat of that scene and its associated concerns, the Philadelphia School District will switch this month to a kindergarten lottery for Meredith, prompting panic -- and some controversy -- in a neighborhood where many paid hefty premiums to buy or rent for the express purpose of sending their children to that school.

It’s a thorny situation, involving issues of school capacity and parents’ wishes, of equity, and of who belongs at the school. And it’s likely to play out often in the next decade, as more families choose to stay in the city and send their children to public schools.

“A lot of this is getting attention at Meredith because Meredith is one of the best public schools in the city,” said Joan Maya Mazelis, a Meredith parent and a sociologist. “But this is not a Meredith problem. It’s a citywide issue.”

Meredith is unquestionably a top city school. It boasts strong student achievement, an active parent group that supplements the school budget with robust fund-raising; it aims to raise $250,000 this year to pay for items the district can't afford, such as extra teacher's aides, computers, and extracurricular activities. It is whiter (64 percent of its students are white, compared with 14 percent districtwide) and wealthier (26 percent live in poverty, compared with 75 percent districtwide) than the district as a whole.

Discusison of a lottery can be uncomfortable, principal Lauren Overton said.

“There is this general feeling that there are a handful of schools where people who are part of the gentrification of this city feel comfortable sending their children to,” she said. “This is an issue that’s charged with elements of race and class.” 

School officials say they have done what they can to assuage parents' concerns, saying that as long as there is room at Nebinger Elementary, less than a mile away, at Sixth and Carpenter Streets, Meredith overflow kindergarteners will get spots there.

The district has also promised that any overflow students will return to Meredith for first grade. (School attendance, by state law, is not compulsory until age 6 in Philadelphia, so the district does not have to guarantee kindergarten space at a neighborhood school the way it does for subsequent grades.)

Given population increases, kindergarten lotteries could be possible for McCall, Jackson, Greenfield, and even Nebinger, all Center City and South Philadelphia schools where demand is likely to keep increasing. For now, many Queen Village parents with young children are in a panic.

Heike Doerr has three children -- a Meredith first grader and twins who will be in kindergarten in the fall. She calls the topic of the Meredith lottery "highly charged" in the neighborhood.

“Everybody woke up the day after they announced the lottery, and a lot of people started calling private schools,” Doerr said.

Particularly troubling to some parents is the lack of sibling preference -- a guarantee that children with family members already in the school get spots -- for the Meredith lottery. That means that Doerr’s twins could be split up.

Will the change scare some families away from  choosing public schools? Sending young children to multiple schools would be tough, some said, logistically and in terms of community building.

“It’s harder to do fund-raising for two schools; it’s harder to attend two back-to-school nights,” Doerr said.

District officials said that Meredith and Nebinger would consider staggering opening times next year and ensuring that their events do not overlap. They say that giving preference to children who have a sibling already at Meredith would disadvantage an only child.

Paul Leitner called the lack of sibling preference "absurd." Leitner’s oldest child is a Meredith second grader, and his younger daughter will enter kindergarten in the fall. “Our kids need to learn together,”  he said.

If Leitner’s younger daughter does not win a spot at Meredith, lightning will have struck twice. Neither Leitner nor his wife waited outside in the cold to register their older daughter three years ago; they mistakenly thought the line was for children who lived outside the school's attendance zone. When Leitner showed up at the school a few days after registration opened, his daughter was number 12 on the waiting list.

She never earned a kindergarten spot, and Leitner and his wife sent their child to a Catholic school for a year until Meredith was able to accommodate her.

Nebinger educates more children living in poverty than Meredith, and the idea of even a few Meredith children taking up spots and using resources at Nebinger for a year worries some. Leitner said he was "tremendously bothered" by the prospect of using Nebinger's resources, he said.

“That reeks of privilege,” Leitner said. “You don’t get in, but here, rich people, borrow this school for a year. It’s the opposite of what you’re trying to build with neighborhood schools.”

In a poor urban district with complex problems, Leitner said he realizes the Meredith lottery is far from the most pressing situation.

“It’s a first-world problem,” he said, “but it’s incredibly frustrating.”

Karyn Lynch, the school system’s chief of student support services, said the lottery decision was necessary to handle the “good news” problem of more demand for Meredith seats than available slots.

The district did not want a repeat of the Penn Alexander situation, where, for several years, parents camped out over a weekend to ensure their children a place in a top-rated public kindergarten in West Philadelphia. That was halted in 2013, when the district moved to a lottery.

“People lining up in the middle of the night and getting in Winnebagos and sending their nannies to wait on line, that’s a public safety issue, and it’s an equity issue,” Lynch said. “Those who can afford to, who have the availability to, have the means to, gain the access.”

To date, every child signed up for the lottery has received a place in Penn Alexander’s kindergarten, Lynch said. She says the same could happen at Meredith, which will have 60 slots for kindergarteners in the fall. Its lottery will be held March 21.

For many years, schools such as Penn Alexander and Meredith enrolled students who lived outside the neighborhood, either at the principal’s or the central office’s discretion. From now on, no students from outside the catchment -- the neighborhood attendance zone -- will be allowed in, the district said, and a vetting plan will be developed to verify students’ residence. (Out-of-catchment students now at the school will be allowed to remain, Lynch said.)

“We are going to closely monitor each of the applicants,” Lynch said. “In the Penn Alexander catchment, there’s knocking on doors and talking to landlords. It can get fairly involved. We check tax records.”

Space is already tight at Meredith, which enrolls more than 600 students and has some oversized classes. The lottery is a band-aid for now, but with more housing being built in the area and ever more demand -- some real estate agents bill themselves as Meredith catchment specialists -- officials realize they need a more permanent fix. And with a number of South Philadelphia schools experiencing booms, it’s going to be an issue elsewhere.

Architects are examining the Meredith building to see if there are opportunities for expansion, Lynch said, and officials are also looking at other available space.

“We’re considering every single option and suggestion, regardless of whether it’s something we’ve done before or not,” Lynch said.

But Overton, Meredith’s principal, is acutely aware that the perpetually poor district has nearly $5 billion in capital needs, and that Meredith’s building concerns will not and should not overshadow those of other schools, where there are immediate health and safety issues.

The lottery is the most equitable solution now, she said, and every year, she and others will re-examine it. But the concerns will not go away.

“There are going to be more people wanting to send their kids to school in Philadelphia,” Overton said. “This is going to need to be a partnership between the school district and the city. Where are we going to send kids when we all reach capacity?”