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Philly public school puts on a full-court press to get Jamie’s parents to choose it

This is the second in a series of reports on one Philadelphia couple’s search for a school for their son. 

Chris and Jennifer Byiers are sitting inside the warm living room of Anthony and Jennifer Aiello on a blustery February night. They are surrounded by framed drawings and a sparkly robot made out of recyclable tissue boxes and paper towel rolls.

This is the second in a series of reports on one Philadelphia couple’s search for a school for their son. [Read part one.] 

Chris and Jennifer Byiers are sitting inside the warm living room of Anthony and Jennifer Aiello on a blustery February night. They are surrounded by framed drawings and a sparkly robot made out of recyclable tissue boxes and paper towel rolls.

The Aiellos’ daughters, Elizabeth and Katherine, sit nearby coloring.

The Aiellos have opened up their Mt. Airy home this evening to talk schools with families like the Byierses, who are in the throes of choosing where to send their 4-year-old son, Jamie, to kindergarten come fall.

Anthony and Jennifer hope to get families to commit to their local neighborhood school, C.W. Henry. They are part of a group called Considering Henry. Parents in this network take turns hosting families and talking them through their questions about Henry.

A neighborhood school

C.W. Henry is just a 10-minute stroll from the Byiers home. When they moved to Philadelphia from Brooklyn in 2011, it’s where they imagined they would be sending Jamie.

After years of being sure public school was for them, the couple began to suffer doubts earlier this school year. Lured by the nearby private school Jamie attends for preschool and the shiny hallways of local charter schools, the couple began looking into alternatives.

All the while, a feeling in their gut reminded them that Henry had up until now been their one and only Plan A, the one that corresponded best with their personal values.

But the Philadelphia School District’s chronic budget woes (an $80 million shortfall in the 2015-16 school year, as things stand now) concern the couple. They know it takes a village to make a neighborhood school work, and they’re willing to put in volunteer time, but they worry, when it comes to Jamie, they can’t take chances on a collapsing system.

Their anxiety and self-doubt are familiar to many Philadelphia parents.

Already, the couple faced a disappointing end to the lottery at Green Woods Charter School, the stunning school on Domino Lane in Roxborough. They came in at number 324 out of 499 applicants vying for 75 open kindergarten spots the school was offering.

Now the choice is between C.W. Henry and Greene Street Friends School, the private Quaker school where Jamie attends preschool. Kindergarten would cost nearly $14,000 at Greene Street.

Jennifer, who works in financial services, and Chris, a personal trainer who grew up in Scotland (where he says public schools are the norm) say they could manage to pay that tuition, but…

‘Considering Henry’

Tonight the room is full of parents of 4- and 5-year-olds. Some are from within the geographic zone, or catchment, that Henry primarily pulls from. Others are visiting from other catchments, hoping to get their child into one of Henry’s slots for kids from other neighborhoods.

“One of the things we are trying to do with this group is put a face on what the school is and talk about real experiences with the school,” Anthony Aiello says. In addition to the host couple, two other families representing current Henry students are here.

Jennifer Byiers starts the night off by discussing what led Chris and her here tonight. Earlier in the school year, she explains, she began doubting herself when she saw the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile ratings, a state index that’s largely based on test scores, but also accounts for metrics like attendance and graduation rates.

Among all public schools in Northwest Philadelphia, Henry ranked sixth, and third among traditional public schools. Green Woods tops that list. (Charters are public schools).

“I panicked. I absolutely panicked.” says Jennifer, after explaining that they moved to Philly by choice. They chose city life. They chose Philadelphia. They chose Mt. Airy. And that means they chose Henry.  But that was then.

“We moved here for Henry, too. And we’ve been very happy” says a current Henry parent. She adds that she never saw any school ratings. 

A parent offers up a possible explanation for Henry’s rating: It has a number of special-needs students, who are required to take the annual Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test. That can skew the scores.

The Henry parents talk honestly about the impact of the budget cuts — the loss of the gifted program, fewer grownups on the playground, and classrooms that get slightly larger each year.

Elizabeth chimes in, saying her third-grade class has 27 kids. In Katherine’s first-grade class: 26 kids.

Jennifer Byiers has been worrying about big classes. At Greene Street Friends School, Jamie’s preschool class has 14 kids in it.

But the Henry parents also talk about the administration’s and community’s efforts to minimize the impact of these cuts on children. The gifted students program was replaced with a program dubbed What I Need; parents fundraise for a Playworks recess program to be brought in for more organized outdoors time. The loss of a central library and school librarian has been replaced with a mini-library in each classroom.

“There’s often this concern that kids aren’t going to learn the fundamentals in the the public schools, but from what I see — not just our kids, but all the kids — are learning what they need to learn,” says Anthony.

As the grownups keep talking about Common Core standards, PSSA testing and dismissal procedures, the Aiello girls focus on their drawing. But they pipe up when asked about their art teacher. And again when their dad lists the available non-academic offerings. He forgot gym, they say.

Heading to school

It’s a few weeks later on a drizzly Wednesday morning. Chris and Jennifer are inside a bustling coffee shop, High Point Cafe, across the street from C.W. Henry. Outside, remnants of the latest snowfall are turning to slush.

Before crossing Carpenter Lane for the school’s monthly open house, the couple review their concerns.

Jennifer admits some of her worries may come off as superficial. An out-of-date website, for example, that links to an old policies handbook listing now-defunct programs and old principal information.

“I just felt deflated,” she says. “It seems like such a simple thing to do.”

She wonders if it’s a reflection of just how scarce the resources are.

Chris mentions he has met Henry principal Fatima Rogers once before. He attended a parent meeting on revitalizing C.W. Henry’s blacktop playground. It ices over in the winter making it impossible for kids to use. Plus, there’s no greenery.

He says it’s clear Rogers wants to make Henry one of the best schools in the district.

They say they won’t be comparing what they see during today’s open house to Green Woods Charter School or Greene Street Friends. That wouldn’t be fair. They are just looking for smiling faces, bright spaces and engaged staff.

“I want to see some happy kids,” says Chris.

A parent they recognize walks into High Point Cafe and the couple immediately launches into a conversation with her about preschools, kindergartens and summer camps.

“It’s a minefield,” says Chris, after the woman walks away to wait in the winding line. “One thing to figure out after another.”

The hallways of Henry

The couple is soon walking into the bright auditorium of C.W. Henry School. Greeting them are older C.W. Henry students clad in navy blue Polo-style shirts and khaki pants — the school uniform.

Chris and Jennifer take places in the auditorium’s wooden seats among 20 or so other parents and guardians.

Led by the school’s music teacher, a group of first-graders sings hello to the parents 15 different languages.

“I don’t know your name. We speak different languages. We may not be the same. But I reach out my hand to you, and I say, Hi! Hola, salaam, konichiwa! Ni hao, buon giorno, jambo!”

Tears form in Jennifer’s eyes. She can’t help it, she admits later.

Principal Rogers welcomes the group: “Good morning parents, guardians, visitors,” she says. “I am the proud principal of C.W. Henry Elementary School.”

Soon, the group heads to the hallways, which are lined with construction paper cut-outs explaining Black History Month. Seventh and eighth graders stand at intervals, eager to answer questions about their journey through Henry so far.

The tour includes a pit stop in the computer lab, where students are working away on up-to-date Apple computers. Dancing from the ceiling above the computers is a sign that reads, “Do you code?”

Finally, the tour reaches a key stop for these parents: the kindergarten classrooms. The “suites” lead out to separated outdoor areas and have bathrooms (so the school’s littlest kids don’t have to venture down the hallway). The students eat their lunch in the spacious classrooms, too.

As Rogers put it earlier: “a small school within a large school.”

From the walls, smiley faces and scenes from Frozen look down at the adults. Cubbies are home to Spiderman and sunflower backpacks. The kindergartners are crowded around their teacher, engrossed in story time and only mildly fazed by the grown-ups encroaching on their space.

At a Q and A after the tour, Jennifer is the first to talk and brings up the out-of-date website. Administrators note that the school’s PTA website and Facebook page are constantly updated and promise to upload new documents on the district’s subpage for the school.

Weeks later, the old handbook remains.

Two choices

Talking to Rogers as the open house winds down, Chris and Jennifer say they are going to register Jamie for C.W. Henry.

That doesn’t mean they’ve made up their minds. They have also put down a $500 deposit to hold his spot at Greene Street Friends.

They have until June to make a final decision, but they say they don’t intend to take that long.

Still, they need time to weigh what they’ve seen and heard about Henry against their worries about the overall state of Philadelphia public schools.

“[The open house has] given me some confidence that [Henry] will be a good choice, a fine choice,” says Chris, walking out of the building.

In one breath, Jennifer lauds the community and diversity she just witnessed at Henry while then with the next returns to her concerns about a lack of resources.

“We’re going to be having this conversation a lot over the next month,” she says.

Emily Brooks contributed reporting to this piece.

Next up in the series: Chris and Jennifer Byiers decide where Jamie will attend kindergarten come fall.

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