Penn Alexander in Philadelphia wins major national education award

Penn Alexander students celebrate after learning their school was named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Penn Alexander students celebrate after learning their school was named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia has been called many things since it opened in 2001: success story, ground breaker, gentrifier.

Now it can add a new label: national award winner

The K-8 school — located on the western edge of University of Pennsylvania’s campus — was named a National Blue Ribbon School Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Education.

First awarded in 1982, the honor goes to schools that are extraordinarily high achieving or — as in Penn Alexander’s case —  have done a notable job closing the achievement gap. Just 11 public schools in Philadelphia have earned the distinction, and Penn Alexander is the only district winner this year.

Penn Alexander is also a notable recipient in one other regard — it’s a neighborhood elementary school. Of the 10 prior district schools to win the National Blue Ribbon prize, eight are special-admission schools. The list includes perennial top performers Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, Central High School, and the Philadelphia High School for Girls.

“The School District of Philadelphia congratulates Penn Alexander on this exciting accomplishment,” said district superintendent William Hite. “Penn Alexander is a strong example of just how great Philadelphia schools can be.”

Penn Alexander has been a closely watched experiment since its inception 15 years ago. The school was conceived as a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Penn provides supplemental staff and extra funding to the school on the order of $1,330 per child. The project is part of Penn’s ongoing efforts to reach beyond the ivory tower and into the largely low-income swaths of Philadelphia that extend beyond its borders.

The teachers union, meanwhile, helped plan the school and agreed to staff work rules that — at the time — were unusually flexible. Penn Alexander, according to union president Jerry Jordan, was the first district school to incorporate full site selection — a teacher-hiring process that gives more discretion to schools rather than allowing teachers to determine where they’d prefer to work. Site selection is now widespread across the district.

Jordan attended Wednesday’s celebratory ceremony alongside Randi Weingarten, national head of the American Federation of Teachers.

Thanks to its academic success, Penn Alexander quickly became a destination school for the type of middle-class families who once sidestepped the city’s troubled public schools or moved to the suburbs. The school’s popularity triggered a real estate boom in the West Philadelphia catchment area it serves.

Controversy follows success

Due to a spike in neighborhood families, Penn Alexander eventually found it could no longer seat all eligible children in the school’s catchment area. In 2013 frustration boiled over when the district announced it would implement a lottery process for area parents who wanted to send their children to the school. Prior to the lottery, the school’s kindergarten slots had been first-come, first-serve.

School officials say they are now able to accommodate all kindergartners in the catchment area who wish to attend. They still have to turn away some students who move to the neighborhood after kindergarten.

The school’s success sparked a West Philadelphia real estate boom that helped revitalize the neighborhood around Penn’s campus. Some, however, blame the school for gentrifying the area and driving low-income families out.

“It’s a problem,” admitted Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, whose district includes Penn Alexander. “I’m always fighting to make sure that we don’t have people displaced. We’re always fighting to make sure we have a mix of incomes.”

Still, Blackwell said she’s “overjoyed” at the school’s academic accomplishments, saying it exceeded her wildest expectations.

Last year Penn Alexander scored the highest of any K-8 school in the city on the district’s metric for gauging school quality. It also sends a disproportionately high number of students to the city’s most selective magnet high schools.

Penn Alexander’s student body, meanwhile, is one of the most racially diverse in the district. Just under 40 percent of the students are white; 23 percent are African-American; 18 percent are Asian; and 7 percent are Latino.

“The differences we have, that’s what makes us stronger as a school,” said eighth-grader Zara Kelemen. “I have friends who have roots in Mali, Nigeria, Cambodia, Ireland … all over the world.”

Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), located in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, also received a National Blue Ribbon award on Wednesday. FACTS follows Franklin Towne Charter High School to become the second Philadelphia charter school to earn Blue Ribbon status.


The following Philadelphia district schools have won the National Blue Ribbon award:

Central HS (twice)
Franklin Learning Center High School (twice)
George Washington Carver High School of Engineering & Science
Hill Freedman World Academy (twice)
Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School (twice)
Overbrook Educational Center
Philadelphia High School for Girls
Robert Blair Pollock Elementary School
Russell Conwell Middle School
William W. Bodine High School for International Affairs

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