1.24.2012

Waiting for Superlong







Well, the long-anticipated "waiting outside in the cold to register my child for kindergarten" has come and gone. Lots to share. I've chunked it up as follows:

Context.
Penn Alexander is a really good school, right in the heart of University City in West Philadelphia, not far from the Penn campus. When Penn agreed to invest in this school, boundaries were drawn that demarcated who could attend the school. Not surprisingly, given the dearth of good public school options, once the school began to be known for quality administration and faculty, demand for residential locations within the boundaries soared, driving up real estate prices and creating a glut of school age kids in the area. While kindergarten was always first-come, first-served, those on the waiting list could previously comfort themselves with the reality that their child would be assured a spot starting in first grade. But about a year ago, overcrowding in the school caused the school to announce it could no longer officially guarantee a spot in any grades. Hence, the value of a kindergarten spot soared: once you're in, you're in, but if you're out, you may be out for several grades. As a result, the lines have started to form before the first day of registration earlier and earlier in the past two years.

Getting in line.
This year, the official start of the line was about 8:30am Sunday morning, some 24 1/2 hours before the official 9:00am Monday morning registration. But, unofficially, the lines started form many hours before then, as multiple parents hovered nearby on foot and in cars, waiting for someone to plant their flag as the first in line. Sure enough, once someone did (our friends across the street from our house), the emails, texts, and calls started circulating furiously. The kids and I were settling into morning service at church at 10:30am, not knowing that Amy (who was home sick) had texted and called me several times. The first one I had a chance to see, at 10:31am, said "As of 10 there are about 40 ppl lined up at pas." My heart sank. There went my preconceived plan to head out there at about 7:00pm that night. Amy bravely volunteered to get herself out there and hold down the fort until we returned from morning service. She got there around 11:00am and claimed the 63rd spot, bundling herself up and trying to block out her sniffles and general achiness.

Preparation.
With temps expected to be below freezing, I had laid out my clothes the night before: a pair of boots, three pairs of socks, thermals, flannel pants, wind pants, cargo pants, three long-sleeve shirts, a wool hoodie, a fleece pullover, my heaviest coat, two pairs of gloves, and two ski masks. I also packed up my sleeping bag, crank lantern, reading materials, crossword puzzles, two sandwiches, fruit, granola bars, M&Ms, gum, a bottled water, folding chair, umbrella, and Aaron's registration materials.

Shifts.
I brought the kids to Amy around 1:00pm to relieve her. She had already made friends with the parents to her left and right, so though she was shivering she was in good spirits. She asked if I needed her to do another shift and I replied, "Likely." She left behind two blankets and a yoga mat, all of which were to come in hand by the end of the waiting. By 3:00pm, my toes were tingling, and I called Amy to ask her to do 4:00pm to 6:30pm. The next hour I passed the time by thinking about how I would spend the time inside and what additional layers I would put on.

Back inside, back outside.
4:00pm arrived, and so did Amy and the kids. I set her up in our chair and then took the kids back home. Walking home, I could feel the circulation returning to my toes. When we got home, I set the kids up in front of the computer to watch Pink Panther and then proceeded to pee, run on the treadmill (to Minority Report, fast-forwarded, in case you're wondering), and take a hot shower. The kids and I ate a long and hearty dinner, cooked by Amy while I had been waiting in line that afternoon, and then I started to layer on again. I added a heavier pair of socks, a scarf, and a sweater to my mix, and took the kids out to relieve Amy again. We got back in line at 6:30pm, by which time the line had swelled into the 70's. I braced myself for a long night and morning ahead.

Sleeping outside.
The wind had died down, taking a little bit of the bite out of the cold. By 10:00pm, folks were fading, and the chatter diminished considerably. Tents were pitched, sleeping bags unfurled, and heating devices set to full tilt. I laid the yoga mat and blanket on the brick sidewalk, got inside the sleeping bag, and listened to tunes. (I had long since given up reading or doing crossword puzzles, as my brain was now turning to mush.) Mercifully, the rain held off until about 5:00am, but still I slept fitfully, between being on a hard surface, hearing cars whizzing by just feet from my head, and it being below freezing.

Morning.
I probably got about four hours of fitful sleep in all, before staying up for good around 5:00am. My cell phone had died, and I knew I would need it for registration, so I ran home to plug it in and to pee, as well as to wake up Amy and get her to call her dad. (In case you're wondering, the good people at CVS across the street were letting us use the restrooms there, which I had done at around 11:00pm the night before, but didn't want to use theirs more than once.) I scurried back into line and waited out the last couple of hours. Since Amy was leaving for work early in the morning, Amy's dad drove in to take care of the kids and get them off to school. They finally opened the building at 7:00am and we filed in and claimed our official number. I got #65, two more than my unofficial line number, because there were two sets of twins represented in line. I scurried home to drop off all my belongings and grab my phone before scurrying back to the school. All the parents spent the rest of the morning filling out forms and, after 9:00am, waiting for our number to be called so we could submit our paperwork. I finally got out of there around 11:30am, trudged home, biked while watching the football games from the night before, showered, ate, and then worked a half-day from home before picking up the kids.

What's next.
So the big question is: is #65 enough to get Aaron a spot? My guess is that we will not get a spot right away, but that by the time the school year starts, we will have moved up from wait list to in. For context, I got either the last spot or the second-to-last spot two years ago with Jada, with #53. Last year, they ended up getting to #77, between increasing class size, cracking down on illegal addresses, and some kids dropping out because their parents had chosen to put them into different schools. As for this year, we'll just have to wait and see.

Community in action.
Cold weather aside, it was really quite pleasant to get to know our neighbors and fellow school parents. Some we knew but some we were embarrassed to have not yet made their acquaintance, given how close we all live to one another. Some of us had past war stories to share, and in general people were quite civil. Despite the high stakes involved, people were courteous about holding spots in line, but no one tried to abuse that courtesy. Speaking of community in action, some parents from last year, remembering their ordeal, came by with cookies, coffee, and hand warmers, while a generous person living in the apartments right across the street from where we were all splayed out bought pizza for all 70+ of us, right at 9:00pm when the evening chill was starting to get to us and our stomachs were grumbling. I was buoyed time and again by the many acts of decency, graciousness, and generosity in the midst of physical discomfort and competition for scarce resources. What a neighborhood we live in, that can have so much racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity, and yet that can come around the shared value for education and for staying warm in the cold?

Popularity vs. liability.
The school, and by extension the district and Penn, have an ambivalent reaction to these growing lines. On the other hand, it is a very real pat on the back, as the local paper's headline suggested: "A school so good they line up to get in." On the other hand, they are careful to say they don't sanction the lining up. Which is true: lining up like this is fed by us nervous parents and fanned by a story-hungry media. But it's the school that takes the blame for such a crazy ritual, and it's the school that's going to get in trouble - rightly or wrongly - if a parent should suffer serious injury exposing himself or herself to the elements for so long.

Fairness vs. personal advantage.
While I understand the complaints of those who marvel at the spectacle of 70+ parents lining up for 24+ hours in the dead of winter, I don't harbor any ill will toward the school because of the way registration has morphed into such an affair. The fact of the matter is that kindergarten space is a scarce resource, so the two best ways to dole it out are to line up for it or to do it by lottery. (No one has yet dare suggest that the slots are auctioned off to the highest bidders, although that would just be juicy to discuss.) Given how often school lotteries seem to be gamed in this town (i.e. the well-connected seem to always find themselves with a spot), I tend to think that lining up is the least inequitable of the approaches. It does significantly disadvantage those who do not have multiple adults to help out; most parents had spouses and/or grandparents with whom to tag in and out to avoid staying out in the cold for too long, but some had to go it alone, and even more heartbreaking, some could not find help to watch their kid so had to have them out there with them. On the flip side, you can't say the school isn't giving parents an early start on demonstrating that they will be involved in their kids' education. (Btw, many have asked me about the "no sibling preference" rule, but while it disadvantages me, it is a fair rule, as it further spreads out the scarce resource instead of concentrating it with the "have's." Call me a rube, but "fairness" to me does not always equal "in my favor.")

So there you have it. I'm sure other parents share some of these experiences and takes, and I'm sure there is a lot else to say and think. But that's where I'm coming from. Let's hope it ends up with a spot in the school for Aaron.

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