Wednesday, January 18, 2006


NO ONE moves to Philadelphia these days for our public education, and so we rarely think about the connection between houses and schools.

The suburbs are all about that connection. Middle-class suburbanites seek the best schools they can afford when buying a house. Meanwhile growing city neighborhoods occupy niches defined by the absence of schoolchildren: young professionals, empty-nesters, affluent families using private schools.

Under these conditions, an urban school district becomes a mission impossible: neglected by all but those who need it desperately. With the leadership of Paul Vallas and his team, we're now making the very best of a bad situation.

But without further change, the district can never be much more than just a better-run social-service system for children of last resort. To become a system of public education that serves families with alternatives as well as families with none, the district must reestablish the connection between schools and houses.

Parents make education decisions for their children by choosing specific schools, not whole districts. The tool that makes this work is the catchment area, a bounded area served by the school.

Until very recently, there was only one K-8 school that had a readily available catchment-area map: the Sadie Alexander School being co-sponsored by Penn in West Philadelphia. The school reestablished the connection between school quality and housing values in one neighborhood: prices in the catchment area have skyrocketed.

Catchment areas, because they create winners and losers, also create profound political problems. Penn endured those problems because it puts $1,000 a child into the school. For obvious financial reasons, there had to be a limit to that liability, and the catchment area functions as an honest accounting device.

Families make similar investments in schools: they volunteer, help govern, provide financial and in-kind assistance. Just like Penn, they need a way to limit their liability. Involved parents can do miraculous things to help other people's children at a single school, but there's a limit beyond that.

Without the political power of an institution like Penn, however, it's impossible to enforce devices like catchment areas that limit liability. I've heard horror stories about false addresses used to get ineligible kids into Center City's Greenfield School. Parents who try to enforce the catchment area are called racist.

Penn was, too, but it had the poise to endure and establish a fabulous school that is, in fact, predominantly African-American. Individual parents are more likely to give up and leave. The Center City District has a map showing the catchment areas for elementary schools in the new Center City Academic Region at Otherwise, such information, so basic to the choices normal families make everywhere but Philadelphia, is shockingly hard to come by.

My brother and sister-in-law have four young children and are considering a move to Philadelphia. They love diverse Mount Airy and hear great things about the Northwest Academic Region's leadership and the principal of the Henry School. But I can't find the catchment area of the Henry School in any public source, and I'm a decent researcher. Everyone says the same thing: contact the school or the district.

That's fine for some small town, but I think senior administrators have better things to do than confirm whether some house on Allens Lane goes to Henry or Houston.

If we're serious, we should make it easy to determine what school goes with any house in Philadelphia. Or is the truth we don't care whether people move here for public education?
Mark Alan Hughes is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Fellow at Penn.


KP said...

I sent the article to Paul Vallas & just got an email response saying they're working on a feature for the district website where families will be able to ID their neighborhood school by their address.

Henry school now has a map of its boundaries on its website. Another quick response to an identified need.

Friedman said...

That's Vallas and company for you...very responsive.