Despite massive budget deficits at the district, school closings and controversial lottery systems for pre-school admission, some Philadelphia parents say that the city’s schools can help grow its economy.
It’s well known that more middle-class families are moving to and staying in Philadelphia — 20-34 year olds represent the city’s fastest growing population, according to the recent Pew State of the City Report. And, as people between ages 20 and 34 tend to do, many are having kids and starting families. Neighborhoods in Center City, especially, are catering more and more to these baby urbanites, with new parks, events and businesses. But historically, urban tots would grow into suburban kids as parents fled in search of affordable schooling.
Christine Carlson remembers watching her friends disperse as her kids reached school age. And while the city and the powerful economic development organization Center City District (along with affiliates Central Philadelphia Development Corporation and Center City District Foundation) have invested heavily in Center City, Carlson argues that letting those young families leave is undermining the whole revitalization process.
“It’s a cycle that’s really destructive to the long-term health of the city,” she says, citing lost taxpayers, customers and employees.
But Carlson thinks that this cycle is ending, because parents want to raise their kids in the city and send them to school in diverse environments. And while the Center City core has a highly educated population (74 percent have bachelor’s degrees, according Center City District, compared to 23.6 percent citywide) paying for private school is still a stretch for many of these parents.
So send the kids to public schools. But aren’t these schools facing tight budgets and the constant threat of closure?
Yes and no, says Carlson, who founded the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition to help city schools become viable options for parents. In a partnership with Center City District, the organization created the website kidsincentercity.com, which has information about all the schools in the district. Carlson says that reputation is as big a factor for parents as the actual quality of the school. “These are good schools,” she insists.
And they indeed are some of the best-performing in the district. Which is the slight sticking point here. As Chris Satullo of local NPR partner station noted in February, one major question underlying the debates over school reform is, “for whom?” Should public schools focus on the needs of the poor who have no other options, or cater to middle-class students who could potentially go elsewhere?
It’s a political question that fluctuates with each superintendent. The new Philadelphia superintendent, Dr. William Hite, has said that schools should cater to everyone.
“We want to create a system of schools that will serve our community, and I’m talking about the Center City community and the broader community,” he said at a Tuesday meeting for business leaders arranged by Center City District. “We want to make sure we’re serving all of the families in our community.”
Carlson emphasizes that the schools in Center City cater to an economically and racially diverse student body. In fact, the diversity is part of their attraction to urban parents. As Carlson sought support for the schools coalition from assembled business leaders, she framed the project both as an investment in employee retention and as a charitable contribution to the city’s needy children. At all of the schools in the coalition, at least half (usually more than three quarters) of students are economically disadvantaged. All but one school are minority white.
And Carlson believes that investing in middle class students will lift all students. Research shows that poor students at economically integrated schools perform better than children at high-poverty schools.
So the only sticky issue around the Greater Center City Schools Coalition is that it’s happening in Center City, where everything is going right; cleaner streets, less crime, more jobs, better schools. In a city with a 28.4 percent poverty rate, concentrated in neighborhoods outside the center, the next question is how can public schools perform better in neighborhoods that really need the boost.
In an upcoming Forefront story, I will dig deeper into Philadelphia’s lopsided parenting opportunities.
Allyn Gaestel is currently a Philadelphia Fellow for Next City. Much of her work centers on human rights, inequality and gender. She has worked in Haiti, India, Nepal, Mali, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Bahamas for outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera. She tweets @allyngaestel.