Phone to her ear, Jennifer Byiers waits on hold. As she waits, she sits on a deep-red couch in her Mt. Airy home, typing on her laptop and chatting with her husband, Chris.
Around her sit superhero toys and marker drawings — trademarks of the couple’s 4-year-old son, Jamie.
It’s an important call. Jennifer is on the phone to confirm, at long last, Jamie’s kindergarten enrollment.
It’s been a long journey, full of earnest conversations, reversals of opinion, anxiety and some tears.
Along the way, the main options have numbered three, ones familiar to many young professional couples in Philadelphia like the Byiers family:
A public charter school. For them, it was Greenwoods Charter School in Roxborough.
A private school, in this case, Greene Street Friends, where Jamie is enrolled in preschool
The neighborhood public school, C.W. Henry.
When Jennifer and Chris moved to their tree-lined street in Mt. Airy four years ago from Brooklyn, they were dead-set on public schools. They had gone to public schools, which they believe foster a better sense of community and lead to the greater good.
Plus, C. W. Henry School is close. Just a 10-minute walk from their house. (Maybe a little longer if Jamie is dawdling, says Jennifer.)
But as decision day approached, things got complicated. The couple read the headlines coming out of the city school system: Schools shuttered. Teachers, librarians and counselors let go. Big budget shortfalls.
And as Jennifer did her homework on Henry, anxiety rose. She checked the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile rankings. Henry ranked just OK, not great.
Seeing that, Jennifer says, she “panicked.”
Public vs. private
The couple took a step back and began to consider Green Woods and Greene Street Friends as alternatives. On a cold winter night in Roxborough, Green Woods evaporated as an option; Jamie didn’t fare well in a lottery for scarce spots in its upcoming kindergarten class. Deciding not to go through any more charter lotteries, they narrowed the choice down to Henry and Greene Street Friends School.
Jennifer and Chris are happy with Quaker-based Greene Street Friends in Germantown, where Jamie attends preschool. But they say they never imagined sending him to private schools. The nearly $14,000 a year in tuition is something to consider, too. That cost, while manageable for the Byiers family, would certainly tighten up their finances.
They kept probing and probing about Henry. They attended a neighborhood meeting held by a group of current Henry parents, called Considering Henry, and went to an open house held by the school.
There, they didn’t see any “red flags,” says Chris. The kids seems happy and well adjusted, which is all they say they are ultimately seeking.
Still, they couldn’t come to a decision. The couple oscillated between agonizing over and downplaying the ripple effects of their choice on “wee Jamie.” (Chris is from Scotland.)
One day, Chris would talk about his strong preference for public schools as the glue of communities. The next day, Jennifer would invest in a new set of clothes for Jamie to wear to Greene Street Friends.
At Henry, students wear a uniform of navy blue polo-style shirts and khaki bottoms.
Back to that phone call
Jennifer has been on hold for five minutes now.
She snaps to attention; someone is on the line.
“My name is Jennifer Byiers. I’d like to confirm my son, Jamie, is registered to start kindergarten at Henry,” she says.
The voice confirms: Yes, he is. With a laugh, the woman from the school tells Jennifer she has a sticky note on her desk to call Jennifer back in response to an email she had sent earlier in the week.
“I’d just like something in writing,” says Jennifer.
After all the time she and Chris have spent weighing this choice, their nightmare is that Jamie ends up with a seat … nowhere.
So, what made up the couple’s mind?
There was no one “aha!” moment, Jennifer and Chris say. More like a tide slowly coming to shore.
They kept meeting parents of Henry students, on the playground and while they were out in the neighborhood. (Many parents had seen or heard the news stories chronicling the couple’s deliberations.) No one ever said Henry was a mistake.
“I’ve been so pleased with the parents I’ve met,” says Chris. “It’s made me comfortable.”
For Jamie, the conversation that’s been swirling around him over the past months has been less complicated. He likes the playground at Henry and his friend Johnny already attends Henry, making it a shoo-in in his mind.
The Byierses know sticking with the public school will demand more of them. They feel the weight of having to be heavily involved. They know that Henry parents do things such as responding to the budget cuts that eliminated the school librarian by organizing a little library in each classroom. They know the list of things to send with Jamie on the first day of school will likely include items like Clorox wipes, Kleenex and reams of paper.
At Greene Street Friends School, it was just a spare pair of clothes. That’s a chasm Jennifer is acutely aware of.
“There is no sigh of relief here,” she says. “But this is the right decision.”
A painful parting
A week after the phone call with Henry, Jennifer and Chris visit Leanne Clancy, Greene Street Friends School’s admissions counselor, to tell her that Jamie will not be returning in the fall.
Jennifer sits down in Clancy’s office after dropping Jamie off to his preschool classroom and promptly bursts into tears. Chris jumps in to tell Leanne on behalf of the couple what they have decided.
“I love the school and how warm and inviting it is,” Jennifer says later. “I’m terrified we made the wrong decision.” She quickly acknowledges she’d probably suffer the same buyer’s remorse if the call had gone the other way.
“There is no way to know,” she says. “We would have regrets no matter which school we chose, for different reasons.”
Clancy says she empathizes; she’s seen a lot of couples go through such struggles.
“My heart really went out to them because they want the best for Jamie,” she says.
But Clancy says she has a list of families eager to take Jamie’s spot at Greene Street. Her wish, she says, would be that all parents in Philadelphia have the opportunity to find the right fit for their child.
“A great city is made up of lots of things and one of those things is thriving schools,” she says.
Derren Mangum understands the Byierses ambivalence, too. Three out of four of his kids are currently attending Henry. Some of his kids have spent time at a private school as well. Mangum and his wife are among the parents in the Considering Henry group who open their homes up for meet-and-greet sessions to chat about the school with prospective parents.
Having been both a private school parent and a public school parent, he’s seen the often startling and stark differences. His twin sons moved from a private school class of seven to Henry classrooms “pushing 30.”
He says Henry parents must worry about things that don’t cross your mind at a private school. “Simple things,” he says, “like books and paper.”
“A lot of our resources — financial and time — are spent finding ways around that,” he says.
Still, he believes, there is no better place for his children than C.W. Henry.
“The community is strong and the kids are thriving,” he says.
And to the Byiers family, he says, “Welcome.”