In a school district with vast disparities in academic outcomes among schools, applying to high school is a critical process for the thousands of Philadelphia students who do so every year.
Graduation and college-going rates are all over the map. Some schools offer a variety of vocational programs, some have a curriculum full of AP courses, some are sports powerhouses, and others excel in the arts. There are also schools with few extracurricular options at all.
A student’s high school experience will affect his or her life in a myriad of ways. Often students don’t fully grasp this until too late. For them, the refrain from Faces’ 1973 hit single “Ooh La La” is especially poignant: “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger.”
The Notebook interviewed several Philadelphia public high school students to find out what students knew before they applied to high school, and what they wish they had known earlier.
Looking back on his experience, senior Khalif Dobson of West Philadelphia High now thinks that “the whole process should be treated like [the] college process.” He explained that students, especially those hoping to attend a special or citywide admission high school, need to begin thinking about their options well before 8th grade.
“I wish they told me high schools would be looking at 7th grade,” said Dobson, who applied to Central and High School of the Future before landing at West. For Dobson, “they” is anyone at his elementary school, McMichael, who could have shed some light on the application process – a counselor, teacher, or principal.
Eric Yates, a junior at West, recalled how counselors at Shaw Middle School divided high schools into three groups – A, B, and C. Schools with high admissions standards, such as Central and Masterman, were As; neighborhood high schools like West Philadelphia, Cs. Beyond this, however, Yates knew little. He applied to Northeast Magnet and the High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), two definite “A” schools, without knowing that CAPA required an audition. Like Dobson, Yates wishes he had known to “push in 6th and 7th grade” and advises middle school students to “keep your attendance and grades on point.”
Kelly Tran, a junior at Central, said she was unprepared for the academic transition to a magnet high school. “At Central I had homework every night and…. on the weekend. In 8th grade I’d never done homework that much,” she said. “If I’d known that beforehand, I could have started studying to be ahead of the game before freshman year.”
A junior at West Auto Academy, Azeem Hill now appreciates the link between a student’s high school experience and college aspirations. “High school really affects how accessible college is,” he said.
Hill is glad he ended up at the Auto Academy, even though he applied to Central and Masterman. To avoid “culture shock” in entering a magnet school, Hill suggests that middle school students “get a better sense of the people” and “what your average week will look like” at special and citywide admission high schools.
He also wishes he had known more about the transfer process for high school students. “I wish I knew that you can reapply to citywide or special admits if your grades are good,” he said.
For students who drop out and then want back in, stakes are high and the process more intimidating.
Forrest Wilson, now 21, dropped out of West and recently graduated from YouthBuild Charter School. YouthBuild offers an intensive one-year program to out-of-school youth, rooting their educational experience in apprenticeships, service learning, and work outside the classroom.
Wilson said the process of finding and applying to YouthBuild was like “walking into a dark room and not knowing what’s in front of your face.”
Today, however, Wilson is quite sure what lies ahead: an apprenticeship with Digital Service Fellows, an AmeriCorps-sponsored post-secondary program. Under the guidance of a professional technician, he will spend the next year helping to remedy the District’s IT issues.
Wilson kept his advice simple. “Follow the rules,” he said, recalling one instance where he “almost got kicked out” of YouthBuild for having his cell phone on in class. Punctuality, whether with paperwork or admissions interviews, is also crucial, he said.
Beyond that, Wilson emphasized the importance of perseverance: “Keep believing. Never stop. Keep pushing,” he said. “And make sure, whatever your goals, you attack them. You have to take care of yourself before anyone.”