For Philadelphia’s neighborhood elementary schools, a tale of two cities

In Philadelphia’s Far Northeast, within city lines but long its own sprawling world, the traditional neighborhood public elementary school remains a popular option for families with young children.

Take William H. Loesche Elementary at Tomlinson Road and Bustleton Avenue, almost in Bucks County.

The school serves nine of every 10 public school students living within in its attendance zone. Just 6 percent of families choose to send their children to charter schools. The school, like most others in that section of the city, has remained untouched by the district’s multi-year push to close dozens of schools and convert others to charters.

Across a large swath of North, West and South Philadelphia, however, it’s another story.

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In a pocket of Gray’s Ferry near 32nd and Dickinson streets, for example, fewer than half of the families with children in public schools are choosing struggling James Alcorn Elementary. Almost 30 percent of families in the neighborhood send their children to a charter school of some sort. Another 23 percent have found spots for their children in district-managed schools in other neighborhoods.

Next year, the district will hand over management of Alcorn to a charter operator as part of its Renaissance school turnaround initiative.

As in many big cities across the country, the relationship between Philadelphia’s traditional public schools and their surrounding communities is in flux.

In New Orleans, students are no longer assigned to schools based on where they live at all. Boston school officials established “choice zones,” but are now taking another look.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Mayor Michael Nutter, the School Reform Commission, and Superintendent William Hite all have been vocal in their desire to move the city toward a “portfolio” of schools. The focus would be on ensuring “high-quality” schools in every neighborhood, but not necessarily guaranteeing that those schools would be district-managed or that all students in the surrounding community would be able to attend the option closest to home.

Over and over, officials have stressed that many parents have already opted out of their neighborhood schools.

Yesterday, NewsWorks took a look at new “live-in/attend out” data released by the district to see how public school choice is driving the push to downsize and consolidate the city’s neighborhood comprehensive high schools.

The data reveal that, at the high school level, proposed closings mostly hit neighborhood schools that enroll only a small fraction of the students from their attendance boundaries.

Two-thirds of elementary students opt for neighborhood schools

At the elementary level, meanwhile, a NewsWorks analysis of the data shows that roughly two-thirds of public school students in the city are choosing their neighborhood elementary school. About one in five choose some kind of charter, and one in 10 go to a neighborhood school other than their own. Those numbers cover the 159 school attendance zones for which the district made information available.

But among elementary schools, there is not such a clear relationship between the district’s downsizing effort and the choices being made by parents.

In fact, seven of 14 elementary schools targeted for closing are retaining a higher-than-average percentage of neighborhood children.

One school, Bayard Taylor in Eastern North Philadelphia, retains 81 percent of the public school students living in its attendance zone. That’s good for the 18th best rate in the city. Other elementary schools on the closings list with a higher than average percentage of neighborhood students attending include Fairhill, Fulton, L.P. Hill, Leidy, T.M. Peirce, and Reynolds.

An interactive map created by NewsWorks shows the geographic patterns attached to the numbers. Users can select “neighborhood” and “charter” options from the menu to see a comparative breakdown of how many families in different parts of the city are choosing each type of school option. Users can also select any school attendance zone, or “catchment,” in the city to get a breakdown of what public school options families in that neighborhood are actually selecting.

The map also contains the city’s Renaissance charter elementary schools, which are externally managed but required to serve the students in their attendance zones.

The data, provided by the School District of Philadelphia, does not include students in private, parochial, and other non-public school options.

Some further highlights:

Popular Penn Alexander Elementary in University City – where parents began queuing up for limited elementary school spots a full four days before the official start of registration, prompting the district to institute an enrollment lottery – serves 83 percent of the families in its catchment. That’s good for the 12th highest rate of neighborhood students served.
Tiny Munoz-Marin Elementary in Kensington serves 88 percent of the students in its catchment, the third highest rate in the city. Munoz-Marin is part of a cluster of neighborhood schools in North Central Philadelphia, east of Broad Street, that remain popular with parents.
At the other end of the spectrum, Amedee Bregy Elementary in far South Philadelphia serves under 15 percent of the public school students living its catchment. More than two-thirds of families send their children to charter schools.
A total of 43 district-managed elementary schools have been recommended for either closure or to receive an influx of new students as part of the districtwide downsizing, to be voted on Thursday by the School Reform Commission. Just under 63 percent of students living in those schools’ attendance zones are choosing their neighborhood schools, compared with just under 69 percent in the 116 schools unaffected by the closings plan.

This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.

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