It’s hard to discern exactly why, but more families are sending their children to their public catchment schools.
When Kathleen Butts moved to West Mt. Airy from Minneapolis in 2015, she was both pleased and alarmed by what she found.
A teacher and parent of a school-aged child, Butts had been a big public school advocate in her former city, and looked to replicate that experience in Philadelphia. She found the Charles W. Henry School – her neighborhood K-8 school – and thought it a charming place with experienced teachers and happy students. She enrolled her own child.
But when she started talking to neighbors, there was a disconnect.
“I was shocked when people started saying, ‘What, you’re sending your child to Henry?’” Butts said. “And to be honest, when I would say to people, ‘Why?’ and challenge it… With some people, there was latent racism.”
Butts had discovered a long-running fault line in Northwest Philadelphia, where despite high levels of affluence and diversity compared to much of the city, equity in schools lags behind: with the wealthiest parents often sending their kids to private schools and the remaining families competing to secure spots in the public schools seen as most desirable.
But less than a decade after Butts moved to the area, she and other local education advocates say, the story is changing. It’s hard to discern exactly why, but more families are sending their children to their public catchment schools.
The change is perhaps most acute at Henry H. Houston School, which sits just off Allens Lane and serves both East and West Mt. Airy. Enrollment at every area school dipped during the throes of the pandemic, School District of Philadelphia data show, but Houston is the first to fully bounce back and even exceed prior enrollment: 371 kids last year, and over 400 expected this year, compared to 366 during the 2019-20 school year. Demand was such that earlier this summer, a notice went out to about 30 out-of-catchment families who had opted to send their children to Houston for the upcoming kindergarten class that space was no longer available.
The district has since retracted that notice – and opted to add a third kindergarten class.
In an interview, LeRoy Hall, Jr., the school’s highly-regarded principal, said Houston is adding a third kindergarten class and hiring a new teacher to accommodate the increased enrollment. A district spokesperson told The Local that the message went out in “error” and that the families were invited to re-enroll.
For Hall, the change is welcome.
“I used to drive past kids waiting for a bus that was not a Houston bus, literally across the street, and it would just eat me alive,” Hall said. “I think [the enrollment increase] is just evidence of people being excited to start their kids’ experience with Houston.”
Most area public schools saw an increase in enrollment over the past two years. At John S. Jenks School in Chestnut Hill, enrollment increased to 424 last school year, up from 413 the year before but still below pre-pandemic enrollment of 513, district data show.
Data also show an increase in neighborhood interest, with the percentage of students coming from in-catchment families increasing at most schools during the past two years (11% at Houston, 7% at Henry, and 2% at Jenks).
Education advocates offer different theories about what might be driving the uptick, especially at schools like Houston. Residential and demographic changes are likely playing some role. Perhaps, they say, more affluent and progressive people have moved to the area, or inflation and other economic issues are limiting the number who can afford private school. But Hall advocates for the most popular theory: the organic result of an effort to drive community buy-in for public schools.
After his arrival at Houston in 2014, Hall said he emphasized community engagement, holding ice cream socials, playground cleanup days, and other public-facing events. He knew the school’s playground was used by families who didn’t enroll their children at Houston, so it became a kind of recruitment vehicle. He also believes in the value of extracurricular activities, such as school plays, STEM education, and Houston’s successful track team, offering the kind of bells and whistles that help parents think about more than just standardized test scores.
“Some parents unfortunately are just assuming that public schools are the bottom of the barrel,” Hall said. “The first thing is changing the dynamic around that narrative.”
As Hall was building at Houston, so too were education advocates across the wider community. Roberta Frempong, literacy and schools coordinator at the Mt. Airy Community Development Corporation, helps head up the Mt. Airy Schools Coalition. Working with community groups East Mt. Airy Neighbors and West Mt. Airy Neighbors, the coalition seeks to support seven local elementary and K-8 schools: Day, Emlen, Henry, Houston, Jenks, Lingelbach, and Roosevelt.
Meeting monthly, the coalition helps with capacity building, identifying needs at the schools and trying to find matching community resources or grants. But like at Houston, one of the Coalition’s primary objectives is the education not just of students, but parents. In 2020, the group released a video series introducing prospective families to each school, and last summer, published a Northwest Philadelphia Public School Guide that Frempong says can be shared in the community or even given to new families by realtors.
“I feel like what’s going on… is that people have started to utilize the value in the public schools,” Frempong said. “I think it’s a good story around parent and community involvement.”
Bob Elfant, president of Elfant Wissahickon Realtors, is another example of the kind of cogs now turning in the Northwest education machine. Years ago, he attended a coalition-run tour of the area’s public schools.
“It was kind of like an epiphany,” Elfant said. “I remember going to Lingelbach and thinking, ‘This is a sweet little school. This place deserves attention and it deserves population.’”
Elfant Wissahickon is now a supporter of the Lingelbach school, which serves Upper Germantown, Blue Bell Hill, and a sliver of West Mt. Airy, having contributed to overhauls of its playground and library. Elfant says he and his wife, Nancy, have also supported Jenks and the John B. Kelly School in Germantown with similar initiatives.
But while these kinds of dynamics are on the whole a good thing, advocates say they also come with drawbacks that need to be addressed.
For Butts, it’s troubling that a school’s reputation suddenly changes once a “critical mass” of white students start attending, when the staff and curriculum have mostly remained unchanged. The concern is most acute if the changes snowball into gentrification, she said, pushing Black families out of the residential and educational communities they desire.
For that reason, Butts and a group of other advocates behind the “We Love our Philly Public Schools” sign campaign have actually backed off the initiative in recent years.
“It’s almost like it did too good of a job in some ways,” Butts said. “If you look at Henry now, the demographics are way different than in 2015.”
Inequity between public schools is also a problem. While the success of one school or another is great, it can draw well-resourced families away from other schools that are struggling, leaving their situation even worse. Elfant says he strongly believes an individual school’s value is tied to the quality of its principal and parent groups. Frempong, with the CDC, agrees – and says creating resources and how-to guides for families at all area schools to form support groups is a priority for the coalition.
For Butts, the problem is best addressed holistically by the district. In Minneapolis, she says, there was no such thing as families choosing which public school to go to, as every student was required to go to their catchment school. She acknowledges that implementing such a system in Philadelphia could deprive some families of sending their kids to objectively better or safer schools. But she thinks pairing it with basic standards – so that every school is provided with a Spanish teacher, music and art programs, advanced courses, and attractive extracurricular programming – is the best way she knows to ensure no one is left behind.
“The goal at first was, let’s just get more people enrolled… But as that sort of steamrolls, the second step needs to be [asking], what happened to having integrated schools? What happened to having schools that have the same resources?” Butts said. “Word of mouth is great, but the equity can’t get lost.”