Some higher-income families leaving Philly public schools in search of in-person learning

Listen 4:31
Desks are spaced out 6-feet apart in a classroom.

Desks are spaced out 6-feet apart in a classroom (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Ask us about COVID-19: What questions do you have about the coronavirus and vaccines?

When the Philadelphia Board of Education devoted its entire March 18 meeting to public comment, it was flooded with children and parents pleading for one thing: open classrooms for all kids, as soon as possible.

“This is hard to say, but it’s been tough for me to make friends. Trying to get to know another person from behind the screen isn’t the same,” said Abigail Gorman, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Girard Academy of Music Program (GAMP) in South Philadelphia. “Is this really the best we can do?”

Many of the parents who spoke that night were affiliated with “Philadelphians for Open Schools,” a group formed in February to pressure the school district to reopen classrooms more quickly. Right now, only children enrolled in pre-K through second grade are back in the classroom two days a week.

The group is the mouthpiece for a small but influential constituency in public school politics: higher-income parents with the means to send their children to private schools, or to move to the suburbs.

On Facebook, the group’s roughly 300 members — many of whom send their children to elementary schools in affluent neighborhoods or magnet high schools — share frustrations with remote learning, and post links to stories about suburban and out-of-state districts with faster reopening plans.

The school district has long courted higher-income, highly involved parents like these: they pay higher property taxes, and fundraise and organize for their children’s schools. Losing them could set the district back in both cash and political support as it faces the unprecedented challenge of recovering from a year of virtual classes.

Last week, School District of Philadelphia officials announced a plan to welcome all students in grades three through five back to classrooms two days a week, beginning in late April. Middle schoolers with complex needs would also be eligible.

For some parents who have been pushing for a full return to in-person instruction, that announcement is too little, too late.

Abigail Gorman’s mother, Jessica Ackert, is one of them. She and her husband are planning to either enroll their daughter in a private school or move, likely to Florida or Georgia where school districts have been more aggressive about maintaining in-person learning.

“We have gone as far as to start looking at real estate and calling schools,” said Ackert, 39. “It is clear to me that I don’t think [SDP] can offer a quality education.”

Lost trust

The School District of Philadelphia was not Jessica Ackert’s first choice.

The doctor, who works for a pharmaceutical company, moved to Society Hill from Manhattan eight years ago for a better quality of life. She quickly enrolled her daughter at William Penn Charter, a private school with an annual tuition over $20,000.

“We literally knew one other person [in the city], who told us that the Philadelphia public schools were not OK to send your kid to,” Ackert said.

Over time, Ackert said, friends and neighbors sold her on making the switch to public schools, something that felt more in line with the values she wanted her family to uphold. “Truthfully, we wanted our child in a more diverse setting,” Ackert said.

Now, Ackert said she feels pushed out of a school system she was eager to invest in by the city’s teachers union, which has fought to slow the process of reopening school buildings for safety concerns.

“Even when you have all this data showing reopening can be done safely, the statement is: ‘It won’t be safe for us,’” she said, critiquing union leadership.

Through the past year, she’s felt pushed away by the very system she had been committed to helping.

“We actually do care about public school education and there is a lot of effort going on for advocacy,” she said.

Blair Pomerantz and her 8-month-old daughter Violet
Blair Pomerantz and her 8-month-old daughter Violet in their Queen Village neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In a statement, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan pushed back on the notion that the union has been dragging its feet.

“To suggest that the union is somehow stymying the reopening of school buildings is an irresponsible claim simply not based in reality,” he said. “We would be remiss if we did not note that in just a few short weeks of school buildings reopening, two buildings have already been closed due to multiple COVID cases. This virus is not eliminated, and we must not let our guard down.”

Blair Pomerantz, 44, is no longer just thinking about moving.

Over the weekend she and her family rented a van to drive from their Queen Village home to Long Island. There, they are transforming a vacation property into a full-time residence, all for the couple’s two school-age children to be able to enroll in the area’s public schools, which are offering five-day-a-week classroom instruction.

“We are uprooting our lives so our kids can go to school,” said Pomerantz, 44.

The move might ultimately be temporary — the couple plans to reevaluate over the summer. But Pomerantz, who grew up in the Colonial School District in Montgomery County, said she still feels conflicted about leaving the city and Meredith Elementary, where her children had been enrolled.

“I am very, very conflicted,” she said. “I haven’t lost hope of this vision that maybe we can live with our kids in the city back in Philadelphia public schools, but this, right now, doesn’t work. I just feel like I’ve lost all trust in the district.”

‘Death spiral’ or blip?

There isn’t yet data available on how many parents are pulling their children out of the School District of Philadelphia, or not enrolling them in the first place, due to a lack of in-person instruction.

Overall, non-charter district enrollment fell just 4% since last school year. However, kindergarten enrollment plummeted, falling 28% in that time.

Nationally, some experts have worried about an exodus of higher-income parents from public schools causing a “death spiral,” where school districts forfeit funding generated by enrollment and local taxes at the same time as they lose goodwill with an influential constituency.

Jeff Hornstein, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, isn’t so concerned.

“Whatever portion of middle-class whites decide to leave the city, it’s going to pale compared to the amount that has already left,” said Hornstein, whose group studies education data.

Middle- and upper-class families have been leaving Philadelphia when their children reach school age for decades, Hornstein notes, contributing to a school district that is 15% white in a city that is about a third white.

And, Hornstein points out, the School District of Philadelphia’s local funding — which makes up about half of its budget — largely comes from the city’s property tax. The real estate market in the city right now is white-hot: The average home price is up 13%, year over year, according to a Drexel University analysis.

Philadelphia is also expecting to receive more than $1 billion in school funding from the most recent federal stimulus bill.

All this makes Hornstein think that the exodus of middle- and high-income white families will be relatively modest, and will reverse once most of the country is vaccinated later this year.

“I see us as having a relatively fast economic recovery here,” Hornstein said. “And in good American fashion, forgetting about what just happened to us.”

It’s not just middle- and high-income parents that want more classroom time — Philadelphia’s public school families were fairly evenly split on the question when the school district conducted a survey on it last fall.

But unlike those with means, low-income families — who make up the majority of the population of the school district — have few options if they disagree with the pace of the school district’s reopening.

Many low-income families have been dissatisfied with their public school for years, said Sylvia Simms, a North Philadelphia-based education advocate who runs the group Parent Power.

“This is a conversation that was always happening pre-COVID,” Simms said. “It’s still about the haves and the have-nots. If you have the resources and the money to go to a better neighborhood, go to a different district, you are able to do these things, but if you cannot, you’re stuck.”

Blair Pomerantz, her husband Lance, their children Brayden, 9, Lance, 6, and 8-month-old Violet.
Blair Pomerantz, her husband Lance, their children Brayden, 9, Lance, 6, and 8-month-old Violet. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘Sad that it didn’t work out’

Lexi Peskin doesn’t think she’ll be able to easily move past this last year.

The 40-year-old attorney left the city for Merion Station in Montgomery County in 2014, shortly after having her first child.

“I don’t think we thought about it that much,” she said. “It just seemed like, ‘Oh yeah, everyone who has kids moves to the suburbs for the schools.’”

But in 2019, she and her husband bought a house in Society Hill — lured by a desire for city life, and strong reviews from friends who had children enrolled at McCall, the neighborhood elementary school.

Things were good, Peskin said, until the pandemic hit, and McCall went virtual. Her third-grade daughter has struggled with virtual learning, and Peskin has watched with increasing frustration as her friends whose children are enrolled in private schools or suburban districts have headed back to class.

Peskin has now enrolled her third-grader and rising kindergartener in a private school in the city, starting next school year. She can’t imagine going back to the district, even if it returned to normal instruction.

“I am really frustrated,” Peskin said. “I wanted to commit to the school district. There is a lot of stuff that is positive about public school … I am sad that it didn’t work out.”

Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal