Since Penn Alexander School opened its doors in 2001, it has consistently ranked as one of the top public schools in the city.
The independent organization GreatPhillySchools.org – a collaborative effort including nonprofit organizations and the more than 400 schools– assigned it scores of 10 out of 10 both overall and in academics.
The success of the school is due, in no small part, to the help of Penn University, which provides approximately $1,300 in funding for each of the school’s 589 students.
But this success led to serious competition for spots over the last few years, as places were awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. Christina Galle, a mother of two children – both of whom attend Penn Alexander – was caught off guard by the line in February 2012 while trying to register her youngest child for kindergarten.
“I didn’t realize that it was going to be so difficult to get registered for kindergarten because with my oldest, they just automatically took him,” Galle said. “There was no line, there was nothing like that. So I was very surprised that year. I didn’t have sleeping bags or anything. It was just like out of the blue one of the mothers called me and 9 o’clock in the morning and was like ‘you better get over there.’ And I was number 60 in line by 9 o’clock in the morning.”
Galle said that she waited for about 25 hours and was the last person to register her child last year, but only after the person directly in front of declined his spot.
The following year, amid the line starting several days before registration, the School District of Philadelphia elected to switch to a lottery-based system.
Galle said she believes the demand among parents in the catchment is warranted because the gap between Penn Alexander and some of the city’s other public schools is just that wide.
“I grew up in South Philly and had private school education until 10th grade and then I had to go to South Philly High and I experienced a school where they didn’t have textbooks,” she said. “I mean, it was just pretty awful and I determined with my children that they were not going to go to a school like that because of our social class. I think that they’re entitled to a good education no matter what my income is.”
The intense demand for spots has not been the only byproduct of success during the school’s 12-year lifespan.
A study entitled “Neighborhood Value Update: West Philadelphia Price Indexes” done by Penn University’s Institute for Urban Research found that average property value in the Penn Alexander catchment rose by approximately 211 percent from 1998 to 2011, as compared to an approximate increase of 101 percent in University City overall. This study was largely corroborated by the substantial increases in assessed value reported by the Office of Property Assessment after the Actual Value Initiative reassessments.
These increases are likely to affect the renter community, which Galle is a member of. She said she is fearful that these increases could price her out of the catchment, and therefore remove her children from the school.
“I moved in three years ago and it was higher than what I originally could realistically afford, but I decided it was worth the sacrifice. But every year it’s gone up and I’m afraid I’m going it’s going to get to a point where I can no longer to afford to even rent my apartment.”
Alan Krigman, Galle’s landlord, said that he expects to have to increases rents for his tenants, although he
hopes to do so gradually. While 10 of the 11 properties he owns are located in the catchment, he said that he does not rent out to many families looking to send their children to Penn Alexander.
“Not many of our units are especially well suited for occupancy by families with small children, Krigman said. “So, we get inquiries from people in this situation, but don’t rent to many.”
The school’s popularity has raised questions of how best to decide which students are accepted. While the School District of Philadelphia threw its support behind the lottery system in February, others have come forward with alternative suggestions.
“There have been people who suggested, ‘well let’s shrink the boundaries of the catchment,’” Krigman said. “Well that’s all well and good if you’re close enough that you’re within that shrunken boundary. But what about the people who used to be in and aren’t then?”
While Penn Alexander may be ushering in changes and questions, Galle said she believes one thing is clear: The quality of education the school provides is worth it.
“Like I said, I grew up in South Philly and a lot of the children in the neighborhood went to other public schools and that’s not a future that I want for my children,” Galle said. “And so I feel that all the frustration and sacrifice that it takes is worth it for Penn Alexander’s education.”