With three new openings set for the fall, the School District will have 28 charter schools serving at least one high school grade in 2009-2010. Charters have moved to the forefront of high school options in Philadelphia. There are now nearly as many of them as there are special admission (16) and citywide admission (13) high schools combined.
But for the family interested in a charter school, this proliferation has not necessarily led to easy accessibility. The applicant must navigate a web of paperwork, interviews, information sessions, orientations, and rules set by state legislation that hasn’t been significantly revised in a decade. For anyone hoping to enroll in a charter school, the learning curve is steep. Terms like “lottery” and “catchment area” must become part of his or her vocabulary.
Perhaps the most important thing for the prospective charter student to know is that, by law, charters must give all applicants an equal chance at admission – unlike special and citywide admission high schools, which use academic performance, behavior records, writing samples, and other criteria to screen applicants. The 1997 state law that created charter schools, Act 22, guarantees this. To meet the requirement of equal access, charter schools with more applicants than spaces conduct a lottery to determine who enrolls.
The District, however, has begun to bend the “equal access” mandate by locating charters to relieve overcrowding in some schools in the city, and requiring them to give preference to students within a certain “catchment area.” KIPP-West Philadelphia, Tacony Charter, and Sankofa Freedom Academy, all new this year, are in this category.
Ayesha Imani, chief executive officer and founder of Sankofa, said that the school's charter requires them to give preference to students who would normally feed into Frankford High. If there are more of these students than open slots, Sankofa must use a lottery. If there aren't, the school may open up to applicants from the rest of the District.
Variety of themes
Charters have the freedom to base their curricula on themes and vary their educational approaches. Some are immersed in African culture. Others focus on math and science, performing arts, civics, or architecture. One is rooted in maritime studies. Variety is one reason charters have become popular. Overall, they now educate one in six public school students in the District.
“People have asked for more choice in public education,” said Benjamin Rayer, District associate superintendent for charter, partnership, and new schools. Approving charter schools is one of the District’s ways of responding to that demand. “It’s a market, if you think about it in economic terms,” he said.
As with any market, consumers with more knowledge have an edge in making choices.
Tips for getting admitted
Ethan Bell, director of operations at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD), said that getting an early start is essential. Even though the charters typically run their lotteries in the spring, “parents and students should be thinking about high school in October” of the applicant’s 8th grade year, he said. “If they wait until January, it’s too late.”
Bell strongly recommends the District’s annual High School Expo as a starting point. Many of Philadelphia’s public and charter high schools send representatives to the Expo, which will take place the last weekend in September at Temple University’s Liacouras Center. Teachers and school officials are there to answer prospective families’ questions.
Expo aside, though, Bell said that parents and students should not rely on the District for information.
“There are many parents who think they can get info about applying to charter schools through [the District]. That is not the case. Go through the individual charter school,” he said.
In an interview with the Notebook, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said she hopes this year to “put in place a new system that addresses these issues” of communication between the District, charter schools, and families. She also expressed hopes of “widening the [Expo] so that all parents get to look at all” District high schools.
Other charter administrators emphasize the importance of parent and student initiative in the application process. Larry Sperling, chief executive officer at the Philadelphia Academy Charter School, said that he prefers not to rely on the District to disseminate information to families. “We try to remain self-sufficient,” he said. Sperling advised prospective parents and students to “go to the Web site, then do your homework.”
Charters are permitted to interview students, and sometimes the application can be long and daunting: a downloadable version of CHAD’s application, available on the school’s Web site, is 14 pages long. A few ask prospective students to visit the school, attend an open house, or participate in a weeklong summer orientation. Multiple-step application processes can deter some families, but they are permitted under the law. That is one of the reasons why diligent follow-up is so important.
David Rossi, CEO of Esperanza Academy Charter School, also pointed prospective families to his school’s Web site, and said his school’s application “doesn’t really require any information other than name, address, grade level, and desire to apply.”
In the end, though, no matter how involved a prospective family becomes in a charter’s application, it all comes down to how many open slots a school has and how many applications the school receives. With applicant numbers rising, Sperling said, “People are feeling a level of frustration.”
As Rossi put it, “the waiting list is always larger than our enrollment.”
For more charter info
A Directory of Philadelphia Charter Schools, 2009-2010 will be available from the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition in October. The guide will include application deadlines for each charter school. Free copies will be available at GPUAC, 1207 Chestnut Street or on-line at gpuac.org. To request a copy, call GPUAC at 215-851-1955 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.