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Choosing a high school keeps getting more complicated

Expect a wave of school closings, more new charters, a new tax credit – and fewer counselors to help sort it all out.
  • p3 20mayor 20nutter1 harvey 20finkle
    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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The always daunting process of getting into high school has a new twist this year.

In a system where studies have found that parents are already befuddled by the process, students and their families have a dizzying array of high school choices – small schools, large schools, themed schools, charter schools, themed charter schools, neighborhood schools that have become charter schools – the list goes on.

This year, however, students and families will be choosing high schools at the same time the District undertakes a process that could result in a dozen or more of them closing down.

Today, there are 89 regular public high school options in Philadelphia: 54 run by the District and 35 charters.

Come next September, there could be many fewer as the District embarks on a massive downsizing designed to shed underutilized buildings as a strategy to maintain its solvency. It’s the continuation of a process that saw three District high schools close this year. What’s ahead will likely include the closings of both newer small high schools and some of the huge, iconic buildings that have dominated neighborhoods for generations.

Plus, there is the ever-present uncertainty about how drastically relentless funding cuts will affect programs in the remaining District-run and charter schools.

Emblematic of the problem: In the spring, the city’s premiere performing arts high school, CAPA, had to scramble for outside funds to stage its annual musical.

For parents and students seeking a high school for the coming year, this turmoil only means more anxiety in a process already fraught with obstacles and risks of missed opportunities.

Stakes are high because so many of the city’s District and charter schools still perform poorly. None of the city’s 26 neighborhood high schools and only 11 charters graduate 75 percent or more of their students within four years (see p. 20-21).

“It’s a very scary process,” said Laverne Bess, the mother of an eighth grader.

District officials stress preparedness.

“It is incumbent on parents to research all the choices and do a deep dive,” said Danielle Seward, the District’s deputy chief for student enrollment and placement who offers this advice as the parent of a 1st grader herself.

New paradigm

Overall, District, city and philanthropic leaders are touting a new paradigm that downplays the public-private distinction in favor of “quality seats.”

Boston Consulting Group, brought in to help the District plan with its severely downsized budget, recommended that it close between 29 and 57 schools by 2017, including 15 to 19 high schools. It said that high schools are at 59 percent capacity, with 85 percent being the ideal.

And it urged the District to start immediately by shuttering dozens of schools by fall 2013.

The timeline means that for students applying this year, some may select schools that won’t exist when they start 9th grade.

“We will make the necessary accommodations if there are students affected” by closures,” said District spokesman Fernando Gallard.

BCG proposed making better use of bigger buildings by expanding some high schools to grades 7 through 12 instead of closing them. But so far the public has no clue what new Superintendent William Hite and the School Reform Commission will do.

At the same time, BCG and the commission are forecasting that 40 percent of the District’s students will be educated in charters by 2017.

This is partly because the SRC has been turning over District schools to charter operators, as well as expanding the number of charter seats in high schools, mostly notably authorizing a 1,400-student performing arts school to be operated by String Theory. The SRC did also move to shut down three small charter high schools. Hope Charter will close in 2013; Truebright and Arise Academy are fighting the decision.

Three neighborhood high schools – Olney, Audenried, and Gratz – are now charters, converted under the Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative launched by former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Ackerman wasn’t the first to outsource troubled District schools for turnaround. Former CEO Paul Vallas ceded three middle schools to Mastery Charter Schools, which has added grades and converted them to middle-high schools. They also have their own catchment areas, but accept students from outside.

This may seem confusing, but it is part of a game-changing approach to school reform, focused on increasing “high-performing seats” and shedding low-performing ones.

Private schools enter the portfolio

District and city leaders have made clear that their strategy for school improvement is based on supporting “schools of excellence” regardless who runs them – a “system of great schools” instead of a “school system,” in the words of SRC Chair Pedro Ramos and Mayor Nutter

In August, Nutter declared that the traditional demarcation between public and private in the education world has blurred.

He said debates around public vs. private schools and school management are “esoteric” and “ultimately don’t mean anything to … young people.”

What is important, he said, is “a system of great schools where parents get to make a decision. … If you want to go to public school, wonderful, if you want to go to Catholic school, great, if you want to go to private school, to religious school … go wherever you want.”

Nutter was speaking at a press conference for Philadelphia School Partnership, formed two years ago, which has raised $50 million from foundations and individuals so it can give grants to ”high-performing” schools. The partnership has given away $7 million so far, almost all to charter and private schools.

Come October, the partnership will provide an online resource, www.greatphillyschools.org, for families to compare city schools – District, charter, parochial and private – on a host of characteristics.

While the partnership has thrived, public money has been drying up.

Some charter operators say the 15 percent reduction in their funds this year – under the state’s funding formula, cuts to the District hit charters a year later – will make it hard to continue operating as they have been.

Also as a result of the cuts, many District counselors have been laid off, meaning that students needing help in finding the right high school are getting less.

Meanwhile, a new state scholarship program could provide money to Philadelphia families for use in private or parochial schools (see box). The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit will make $50 million available for students who live in the catchment areas of schools on the state’s low-performing list, which includes all the city’s neighborhood high schools that aren’t charters.

Beyond the politics, the confusion, and the funding cuts, parents and students are trying to find safe, high-quality schools.

Laverne Bess’s son William, an 8th grader at J.S. Jenks School, takes music lessons at Temple, has good grades and test scores, and is on the basketball team, but still, she’s worried.

“It’s a lot of stress. You just pray that the school gets the application there on time. I plan to be close buddies with the counselor. It’s real tough on the parent, it really is.” She is also looking into private schools.

For motivated high-achievers like Nagee Graves in schools with plenty of adults offering help, the process can have a happy ending.

Graves, 14, took his high school search into his own hands early, starting in sixth grade and drawing on an extensive network of support at E.M. Stanton School.

“Some of the teachers helped me, my computer teacher, art teachers, even the school secretary,” he said.

Once he decided he wanted to be a computer engineer, he set his sights on Science Leadership Academy, and he starts there this fall.

“I researched the school. I shadowed kids. I even emailed the principal about myself. I took it upon myself to make a project.”

He added, “I made sure I did everything correctly.”

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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