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Applying to high school is not easy, especially on your own

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I am pretty sure that I got into Central High School because of my mom. More specifically, it was my mom’s folder. Yes, I sat for the PSSA exam, earned the grades on my report card, and wrote the admissions essay. But it was my mom who kept a folder labeled, “Philadelphia high schools.” When I told her that I wanted to go to Central, she started asking around to get more information. It was her gathering of pamphlets, dates, and advice that allowed me to navigate the high school admissions process as a 13-year-old.

In Philadelphia, students must apply to high school in the beginning of their 8th grade year. The application process involves ranking one’s top five choices from three different categories of schools with three different admissions criteria.

While the default is to enroll in your neighborhood school, these schools often have lower achievement rates compared to more selective public schools. Special admission schools, such as Central and Masterman, have more competitive entrance criteria including top test scores, grades, and attendance requirements for the 7th- and 8th-grade year.

Citywide admission schools don’t have a test score cutoff, but do set minimum standards regarding grades, attendance, and discipline records. Students who meet the criteria for a citywide school enter into a computerized lottery that randomly selects the students who will be offered admission. 

In addition to the District admission process, there are 38 charter high schools, each of which has its own deadlines and requirements for entering admission lotteries. These schools also vary in terms of graduation rates and success in propelling students to  higher education. Finally, there are independent and parochial schools that also have their own admissions processes.

Applying to high school in Philadelphia is not easy, especially if you are doing it on your own. However, the decisions 7th and 8th graders make about high school can greatly impact future pathways to life-defining opportunities. Data shows that more students at selective schools graduate and go on to college or other postsecondary options.

When I taught 7th grade, I realized just how complicated the high school admissions process could be. Many students with families that had resources or the social capital to understand how to proactively navigate this process, had their applications ready, their choices made, and their essays edited before they entered 8th grade. But many of my other students had families too overwhelmed with work and other responsibilities to devote the time to figuring out this maze. Other students had parents who were not active in their lives and faced additional challenges of not having any home support when completing this process. 

Our school counselor did the best that she could with over 50 applications to review and help prepare in just three months. But with counselor shortages in the Philadelphia School District, it is difficult to imagine that every student got the kind of one-on-one attention that this important decision required. In my school, our 8th grade teachers stepped up and devoted time that would otherwise have gone to teaching and preparing to help students, but this often resulted in too little information too late in the process.

There is no doubt in my mind that high school applications are another point in which students who have strong advocates at home fare better than students whose home situation is tumultuous. Indeed, a study conducted by PolicyLink and CHOP showed that students who are involved with the child welfare system as a result of a neglect and abuse referral have less access to selective admissions schools than the average student in Philadelphia and tend to be concentrated in neighborhood and alternative schools. In fact, 30 percent of students in alternative education and 23 percent of students in neighborhood high schools have a history of DHS involvement.

Last year, I worked with a team of educators to establish My Sister’s Keeper Collective, an organization dedicated to providing educational advocacy for girls who are involved in the child welfare system. Recognizing that the high school application process disadvantages students with less resources at home and limits these students in accessing a better future, we seek to provide support and information about the application process. We also provide help these students access other important opportunities like finding summer programs, extracurricular activities, internships, and applying to college. You can read more about what we do here

It shouldn’t be the case that so much of a student’s future is determined by who is best able to figure out a complex system, especially when it comes to kids who have barely reached their teenage years. While it is the child who must ultimately do the work that will make him or her a competitive applicant, we need more adults who know how to navigate the education system to share advice and resources with kids who may otherwise not have access to selective opportunities. You don't have to be a mom to create a high school application folder. And that folder could change the path of a young person’s life.

Cara McClellan is the founder of My Sister's Keeper Collective--a Philadelphia non-profit that provides one-on-one educational advocacy for girls. She currently serves as a federal law clerk in the District of Delaware. 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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