For one family, enrolling in District kindergarten is a lesson in frustration

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Angela and Corey Battle have one immediate goal, and that is to get their 5-year-old son into kindergarten in a public school in Philadelphia.

So far, no luck.

The Frankford couple can’t understand this – especially given the city and the District’s emphasis on the importance of early childhood education and Mayor Kenney’s determination to provide access to universal pre-kindergarten.

“We didn’t know our local school didn’t have to accept our son, and now we’re stuck,” Battle said. “It’s August, and we have no idea where we are sending our child.”

How could this happen?

There are myriad reasons. First, kindergarten is not mandated in Pennsylvania, so the cash-strapped District is not obligated to provide it, although it does. For two decades, in fact, it has provided full-day kindergarten; many suburban districts are still offering half-day kindergarten.

But because the District is always facing tight budgets, it doesn’t automatically add classes at a school if the kindergarten demand exceeds the supply, as it does for upper grades. For more than two decades, state aid hasn’t been tied directly to enrollment increases, so adding an extra teacher would be costly.

Then there is the planning issue. School budgets are prepared well in advance, but many parents wait until the last minute to register. The city’s population is very mobile, and it is always hard to predict how many students will show up.

And even if a principal could manage to squeeze an extra teacher into the budget at the last minute, the recent massive downsizing of the system – more than two dozen schools have been closed since 2013, and more have been converted to charters – has made space scarce at many schools.

As one District veteran put it: “We were directed to make the highest and most efficient use of space, so we can’t open up a new classroom on a dime. We were so efficient in the use of space, there are no classrooms left.”

A student who shows up at the local school for kindergarten after it is full is put on a waiting list and is also offered a space in a nearby school. But in Philadelphia, kindergarten children are not allowed on school buses, so families must provide their own transportation. This doesn’t work for many families, who might give up on sending the child at all if travel is required.

Second, the policy of turning over schools to charter organizations to improve them – the Renaissance schools initiative – means that for many neighborhoods, the local school is a charter. This is the case for the Battles, and that complicates their situation.

Although some parents don’t want to send their children to charters at all, that is not an issue for the Battles. They tried to enroll their son in the Philadelphia Charter School for Arts & Sciences at H.R. Edmunds, because they live in its catchment area.

Angela Battle went to enroll their son Camal there in June, shortly after the District started touting kindergarten pre-registration. But she was told kindergarten was already full.

As a Renaissance charter school, Edmunds is required to accept all neighborhood students before accepting students from outside the catchment area. That is emphasized on its website and confirmed by a person answering the phone at the school who said she helped parents with registration but did not want to be identified by name.

She said that Edmunds, run by String Theory, starts enrolling students for kindergarten in October and was full by May. She said she hates turning families away; one, she said, lived right across the street.

“Our only option is to tell parents to go to the School District. They have to find a school for them,” the employee said.

Angela Battle said she didn’t know that registration started so early at Edmunds.

Her next option was to try to get Camal into Shawmont, way up in Roxborough. Her 5th grader, Coby, is bused there every day.

He attends Shawmont because five years ago, when Coby was starting 1st grade, the Battles received a letter from the District informing them that because their local school – then Edmunds, under District control – was underperforming, they had a right to transfer their child to a better school. This letter was required under No Child Left Behind, the federal law that required school districts to take aggressive action around so-called “failing” schools.

They chose Shawmont, and Coby has been there since. Battle said she asked the principal about Camal attending Shawmont as well, and she was fine with it. The Battles were willing to drive him there.

But Battle said they were told that they had missed the deadline for applying for such a transfer for Camal (such a transfer is still possible, but not under No Child Left Behind, which has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act).

“I was told that if you want to transfer your son out of the neighborhood school, there is a process for that, and it ended months ago,” Battle said. (At the very bottom of the web page on kindergarten registration is a sentence saying that the deadline for such transfer requests was Nov. 13 of last year.)

Angela Battle said she is reluctant to send Camal to another school in Frankford; she has done her research and says they are underperforming compared to Shawmont.

They have also tried two other charters in the area and are on waiting lists there. They have even looked into Catholic school options.

As Angela Battle sees it, “We can’t get into our local school, and they won’t let us go to the school where our other son is attending and the principal is on board.”

Their effort to find a school for Camal has proven to be far more difficult than it should be in a city that is putting a high priority on early childhood education, she said.

The District is required to provide Camal a spot somewhere. The Battles are still hoping they can get him into Shawmont. Corey Battle has a meeting Wednesday morning with the Office of School Placement to discuss the options.