11.11.2009

Going to the Neighborhood School


Yesterday morning I played hooky from work for an hour to attend an open house for our neighborhood school, in advance of Jada’s kindergarten registration in a couple of months. A lot of University City’s upswing, at least in real estate terms, can be attributed to the introduction of this K-8 school, which is newly renovated and supported by the University of Pennsylvania to the tune of $1,000+ extra per student per year, plus student teachers from Penn’s education school.

In addition to this good public elementary school option bidding up house prices, it has also led to an increase in the number of families with school-age kids who have moved into the school’s catchment area. Because kindergarten is not required in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and because the School District of Philadelphia only mandates that you be allowed to attend your neighborhood school from first grade on, there is always a line on the first day of kindergarten registration. You can bet that I will be there bright and early that morning, with all my paperwork and then some, to make sure Jada gets her spot for Fall 2010.

But back to the present. The tour was interesting on a number of fronts. For one, the school reflects both the diversity of our neighborhood, as well as the ways in which that diversity has changed over time in response to rising real estate values. Minorities seemed to make up higher proportions in the higher grades than in the lower grades, and those in the lower grades tended to be more East Asian, South Asian, or Middle Eastern rather than African or Latin American. Tellingly, of the parents on the tour, only three of fourteen were minority: an African-American man, a South Asian woman, and me.

I personally liked what I saw, in terms of learning environment and teaching approaches, although others seemed more critical and unmoved. I saw orderly classrooms, neatly arranged desks and cubbies, and lots of independent exploration in small groups rather than one large group activity. And I saw a nice range of activities, from the basics like reading and math to other things like computers, music, and gym.

I had to chuckle when the tour guide stressed the importance of parents dropping their kids off in the courtyard and then leaving, so that the kids and teachers could come together, bond as a class, and enter their classrooms as one, as opposed to parents wanting to shepherd their kids all the way to their classes and seats. Of course, Amy and I have had many years of experience dropping our kids off and quickly fleeing the premises, so the school will have complete buy-in on their philosophy from us two on this one.

It was particularly fun to bump into two sets of kids of friends of mine, both from church. When you have a church that tends to draw from its surrounding neighborhood, and a school that only draws from its surrounding neighborhood, and that neighborhood does lots of kid-friendly things, it makes for a lot of easy overlaps in relationships and friendships. Yet another nice aspect of where we live. I’m sure we will end up making friends with other neighbors besides our church friends who live near us, such as our old Clark Park buddies who we don’t see as much now that we don’t go to Clark Park as much, as well as other nearby residents who we just haven’t gotten a chance to intersect with yet.

So, pending I have my act together in terms of paperwork and lining up on the right day, we’re in good shape as far as nine years’ worth of public school education: two blocks from our house, diverse student body including lots of our friends’ kids, and solid educational product thanks in part to Penn’s resources and bodies. And, after paying for pre-school for so many years, it’ll be nice to take a break and instead divert some funds towards college savings. When Jada and Aaron hit high school age, circa 2019 and 2021, if we’re still in Philly, here’s hoping we’re in similarly good shape in terms of public options that are high-quality and close by.

But that’s obviously a long ways off. More immediately, I’m thankful we are so nicely set up, and increasingly glad we bought where and when we did. This is particularly resonant as friends of mine who have kids my age are having tough conversations about where they want to send their kids to school or if they want to move to change their choices: in some cases, it is about moving out of the city altogether, and in some cases, it is about whether it is worth it to move into our neighborhood. Imagine that: the place I first knew for its endless row of vacancies and “for sale” signs, where a popular professor was stabbed to death on the sidewalk during a robbery gone bad, is now a place people are moving into for the sake of their kids.

The fact of the matter is that schools matter when it comes to where families live, and many of the most committed city dwellers don’t want to impair their kids for the sake of their own crusades, principles, or dreams, if in fact sending their kids to the neighborhood school will mean a sub-par educational experience or an unsafe environment. Our kids will have experienced both good and bad settings in their short lifetimes when they enter kindergarten; I feel fortunate that for the ensuing nine years, they’ll have a good setting, and I wonder what can be done so that other families are in the same good situation that we are.

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