Selling Fox Chase: One kindergarten open house in the era of school choice

 Kelly Stacey leads prospective kindergarten parents on a tour of Fox Chase school. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Kelly Stacey leads prospective kindergarten parents on a tour of Fox Chase school. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Robert Caroselli isn’t a button-up type of guy.

The principal at Fox Chase elementary, a K-5 school in Northeast Philadelphia, only wears a tie to work twice a year.

“The first time you’ll see me in a tie is today,” he likes to tell parents. “And the next time you’ll see me is when your child graduates in six years.”

The “today” he’s referencing is Fox Chase’s kindergarten open house, an annual showcase to attract the next generation of families. As the rare necktie indicates, Caroselli takes this task seriously. Since he arrived four years ago, the young principal has made it his mission to market this school of 490 to the middle-class communities that surrounds it

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“The objective here is that parents can feel that this is a place that they want to send their children to,” said Caroselli. “And not because they have to because it’s the neighborhood school.”

Kindergarten pre-registration runs March through May in the School District of Philadelphia. And the mere mention of it brings two types of schools to mind.

There are the ultra desirable city schools — often located in tiny swaths of Center City — where families clamor to get through the doors. Then there are schools in the city’s declining pockets, where the ability (or inability) to lure new families may someday determine their survival.

Fox Chase falls somewhere in the vast middle. Over the last three years enrollment has grown, but the school isn’t at capacity. By the time September rolls around, most if not all of the 90 kindergarten seats will be filled.

But in an era of expanded school choice, even schools like this are increasingly aware of the need to sell themselves. Rarely is that imperative more obvious than at kindergarten open houses.

Caroselli’s goal on this day isn’t to fill the seats. That’ll happen regardless of his efforts. Instead he wants to sway a certain type of a parent — the kind who will invest in the school.

“If the child really wants to be here or the parent really wants the child to be here then the parent’s gonna do more to support that child,” said Caroselli. “It’s just not shoving a kid into a building and here, babysit my kid.”

In essence he wants families who will help make Fox Chase a destination, give it an it-school vibe among the neighborhood’s most plugged-in parents

“Because other parents talk and they don’t want their children with other children that are major behavior problems,” he said. “So that’s the whole idea behind it.”

Unlike some district schools Fox Chase isn’t surrounded by a thicket of new charters. The biggest competition is St. Cecilia’s, a Catholic elementary school located square across the street.

Caroselli lives in Fox Chase and grew up in the Greater Northeast attending parochial schools. Catholic education is often the default choice for families in the area, he said. His pitch at the kindergarten open house is very much crafted with the competition in mind.

As about 30 families gather in the school’s auditorium he tells them about the Foxworthy trait of the month, an initiative Caroselli dreamed up last summer. Each month, Fox Chase students learn about a new virtue. It isn’t the direct religious education kids get at Catholic schools, but Caroselli hopes it can sway parents who worry their kids won’t get that type of knowledge at a public school.

“So do we teach religion? No,” said Caroselli. “But we do teach a little bit more than the A’s and B’s and 1’s and 2’s.”

In other areas, Caroselli draws subtle contrasts. Parents who might be turned off by the excessive formality of Catholic school will hear Caroselli wax poetic about all the innovative ways Fox Chase educates its students.

He praises the school’s agriculture program, which includes a nearby farm where students do “project-based” learning. A special shout out goes to the school’s new piano lab, made possible with a grant from the famed pianist Lang Lang.

He tells the families you won’t find his kids quietly seated in desks as a teacher lectures at the chalkboard.

“It’s not like that anymore,” he said. “Our kids sit in groups. Our kids work with their hands.”

After Caroselli’s stump speech he fields a few questions and sends the parents on a tour. There isn’t much razzle-dazzle, Caroselli’s budget wouldn’t allow that. But it’s an earnest effort to sell the school.

The district wants more of its schools to take open houses as seriously as Fox Chase does. This year officials are fanning out across the city to schools that exceptionally high open house turnout and schools where turnout was particularly thin.

The hope, said Doria Mitchell, director of K-2 early literacy and special projects, is for the stragglers to learn from the stars. “We noticed last year that there was a such a difference in some schools,” she said.

The district plans later this year to create a packet of recommendations and best practices for schools when they run kindergarten open houses.

The purpose of this push is twofold: One, to help schools do a better job promoting themselves in a more competitive education marketplace. Two, to help the district’s own planning efforts.

The more parents who pre-register early in the year, the easier it is for the district to allocate resources. Last year, according to Mitchell, only 44 percent of kindergarten families pre-registered before the end of May. Most of the rest waited until the final registration push in August and September.

Of the parents who showed up to Fox Chase’s open house, most seemed to be already high on the school.

“We came just to see, make sure it lived up to the hype,” said Nick Peralta.

He’d heard good things about Fox Chase from his sister, who works in a suburban school district. The tour did not disappoint.

Kristyna Carroll is still torn between a private school and Fox Chase. But she likes both better than the local Catholic options.

“I’m not as concerned about him learning to read and write as I am his social-emotional growth,” she said.

Carroll had heard positive things about Fox Chase, “as far as the public schools go.”

Naturally, Fox Chase has its challenges. Just under half of the students receive government assistance. That’s an extremely low number for a Philadelphia public school, but higher than one would likely find in the suburbs or a selective private school.

And Caroselli is the first to admit, his budget isn’t big. He doesn’t try to convince the parents otherwise.

But he thinks with some energy and a few special extras he can boost Fox Chase’s image in the neighborhood. His ultimate goal is to fill all of the kindergarten seats with students from the catchment area, so that Fox Chase doesn’t have to rely on overflow from nearby public schools.

So far 25 families have registered. He’s on his way to a decent year. And even after the open house ends, he’ll be keeping tabs on the number of families who have signed up.

“Every week or so I’ll ask our secretary what are our numbers looking like,” said Caroselli. “Are we up? How’s it looking?”

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