This week marks the end of the school year for Philadelphia’s public school students. Suburban kids are out next week, and private school kids are out early this month as well.

As this school year wound down, Philadelphia officials announced that they were planning a full-scale review of the city’s schools, starting with a look at a group of neighborhoods across South Philadelphia. The review will last a full four years, with the Northwest’s schools last on the list, beginning in the fall of 2022.

The main rationale for the review is to review the city’s student population and adjust catchment areas to make sure those students are distributed sensibly. Currently, some schools are overcrowded while others are short students. In theory, the review’s purpose is to make sure the school district’s limited budget is deployed efficiently.

“Knowing how populations of families are expected to evolve in different neighborhoods over time will help the District better plan for and meet the educational needs of our students,” said Dr. William R. Hite, superintendent of schools, in a press release announcing the review. “This forward-thinking approach will help us work with communities to determine the opportunities that are necessary for student success in all corners of the city.”

This seems like a sensible approach in a city with a tight budget, aging infrastructure and a shrinking population of students, many of whom are filling a growing number of charter schools.

In a report this week by WHYY’s Avi Wolfman-Arendt, many expect that a review and reassessment of catchment areas will be controversial, to put it mildly. Wolfman-Arendt quoted an email blast sent by a South Philadelphia realtor, Jeff Block, who warned the review would put many homeowners on the defensive.

“This could be the mother of all battles,” Block was quoted as writing. “As in, try to tell a mother (or father) that they no longer live in a certain Philly school catchment. Or try to tell a homeowner that their property is no longer in a certain catchment.”

School catchment areas in Philadelphia have a lot to do with why parents buy homes. They determine home value and are tied to not only real estate taxes, but also family education planning. Parents buy houses to send their kids to specific schools. Changing those circumstances, regardless of the rationale behind the change, will feel like a betrayal to those parents who will suddenly find themselves facing unwelcome change.

There are, of course, a host of equality issues that need to be addressed in any school assessment. Many of the city’s most desirable school catchment areas are so because of the privilege of the homeowners in it. The city will have a hard time striking a balance between righting those wrongs and keeping young families in its growing neighborhoods happy.

In the Northwest, we’ll have to pay attention to how the first review goes. It will give neighborhoods here a preview of change that is sure to come.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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