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A tale of two blocks
The inequity of catchment areas hits home.
This map is an overview of the five “catchment areas” that surround our West/Southwest Philly house (the red pin).
“Catchment areas” are segments of the city whose addresses are zoned to one of the many elementary, middle, and/or high schools throughout Philadelphia. In public education reform circles, it’s often said that “one’s zip code shouldn’t determine their educational future.” In Philadelphia, it’s not your zip code — it’s your catchment area.
Before I continue, I want to be clear: I am writing neither to impugn nor celebrate the leaders and staff of the schools featured here. I’m simply wondering about the implications of this method of assigning students to schools.
Our house happens to sit inside the catchment area for a school, Comegys, that averaged 20% (out of 100) on the School Progress Report. In 2018-2019, fewer than half of the K-2 students were reading on grade level. In grades 3-8, only 16% could pass the state reading test. Just 5% passed the math test. Only a third of students attended school regularly, and 39 had been suspended at least once.
At Comegys, 94% of the students identify as black.
If our house were located one block north and one block east, we would be zoned to a school, Penn Alexander, whose three-year average on the School Progress Report is 87%. There, 90% of the K-2 students read on grade level in 2018-2019. In grades 3-8, 86% passed the state reading test and 77% passed the state math test. Its regular attendance rate stood at 85%, and just four students had been suspended.
At Penn Alexander, 17% of students identify as black, 42% identify as white, 25% identify as Asian, and 11% identify as multiracial.
In Comegys’ catchment area, houses for sale average around $200,000, with many valued much less.
In Penn Alexander’s catchment area, a house listed as needing “significant upgrades” is listed at $450,000. Houses frequently sell for $750,000 or more.
My wife and I love our old West Philly house. We’ve spent the better part of the last 3 years fixing it up together, on top of the work she did before we met. And we love our neighborhood, with several nearby parks, ample parking, and easy access to Center City. And now that we have a child, the question inevitably comes up: “Oh, you live there? What will you do about school for Ben?”
There are a few options: we could send our child to Comegys and actively support the school and community to help it improve. There are challenges with that, though. We could buy a new house in a neighborhood with a better school, either within the city or in one of the many high-performing suburban districts. That is not an option for most families, though — a form of racial segregation by way of economics. We could also apply for an in-district transfer, as featured in this 2018 article from WHYY. Or we could apply to a charter school, though as Waiting for Superman famously showed, lottery systems are strange and scary.
Catchment areas force many families to make choices like this. Isn’t there a better way? Choosing cereal is fun. Choosing Bonne Maman jams is fun (two fruit spread references in two weeks!). Choosing colleges is fun. Choosing elementary schools? Not so much. The idea of “choice” is laden with lots of privilege — a topic I’ll explore in a future post.
I tried to think of some clever closing for this post, and, the truth is, I have no closure for this issue. Fortunately, we have four more years to find some. For now, though, we need to do better for all parents, not just the ones that can opt their way to a better school.
Thanks so much for reading. Have a great week.