Maria DeJesus*, 42, emigrated from the Dominican Republic three years ago. Having no knowledge of the range of options, she enrolled her son in the 9th grade at South Philadelphia High, his neighborhood school.
She was never informed that she and her son had many other choices, nor did she receive help with the application process. When she opted for Southern, she had no idea it was rife with ethnic tension.
She said her son was assaulted there on two occasions. In December 2009, Southern's problems gained national headlines when Asian students were attacked en masse by schoolmates.
Ultimately, DeJesus found support from the immigrant parent support group JUNTOS and was able to transfer her son to Furness High School, from which he graduated in June.
Looking back on the experience, DeJesus said she wishes the District had taken more initiative to inform immigrant parents about school options because it might have meant a different outcome for her son.
"I didn't know my rights," she said.
Navigating the high school application process can be daunting. The District has 61 special admission, citywide admission, and neighborhood high schools. More than 30 Philadelphia charter schools also offer a high school program.
Depending on the school, applicants must wade through paperwork, go to auditions, enroll in lotteries, and interview with school staff to be admitted. While students and their school counselors take the lead, parents are just as much a part of the process.
Some parents have the system down pat. But many find themselves struggling to get a handle on what's required. They don't know the options or where to access meaningful information. Parents with limited English and with special needs children are often at a particular disadvantage.
Understanding the different categories of high schools is the first step. Neighborhood high schools have geographic boundaries, and students are guaranteed admission if the school they attended in 8th grade falls within the feeder pattern. Students living outside the feeder pattern can also apply, but admission is based on available space and is determined through a lottery.
The District's citywide admission and special admission schools have requirements for grades, test scores, and attendance and behavior records.
Charters are open to all and must hold lotteries if there are more applicants than slots. But they each have their own application process, and many of them have application forms just to be entered in a lottery.
"We work to say to middle school parents that these are the types of schools and opportunities that will be available to your child … and these are the types of questions you should be asking," said Karren Dunkley, deputy chief of the Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement, and Faith-based Partnerships.
One place to learn about the process is Parent University, one of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman's key initiatives.
Parent University provides information about the application process in addition to offering classes for parents to improve their work-life skills. The Office of Counseling and Promotion Standards both supports the school counselors and works with Dunkley's office to educate parents about finding a good school match.
Parent ombudsmen – though recent budget cuts have reduced the number districtwide – are also information hubs for specifics on the process.
Other services for families include high school information meetings, which are conducted in several languages to accommodate non-English-speaking families. Web pages called FamilyNet and StudentNet allow parents and students to access their records, track their academic progress, and conduct research on a variety of high school-related topics, including how to transfer.
Parents can also attend the District's annual High School Expo, which this year will be held on October 22 and 23 at 440 North Broad Street.
The Notebook asked several parents how they handled the application process. They agreed that it is important to start early, maintain communication, and stay informed.
Cathy Roccia-Meier, who lives in South Philadelphia, is a longtime parent advocate.
But, she said, "even with the proper access and information, the process can be a challenge."