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Commentary: It's time to adopt a common enrollment system, starting with high school

By the Notebook on Oct 19, 2012 02:12 PM
Photo: bourgeoisbee/Flickr

This is a guest blog, and the ideas expressed are solely the opinions of the author. The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Send submissions to

by Susan Gobreski

Philadelphia is in transition again. District leaders have said that they want to create more high-quality seats and more choices for families, and give schools more autonomy in how they structure academic programs and culture. There is discussion about reorganizing schools -- re-aligning grade configurations, closing some places and expanding others -- and the role of charter schools in the district’s future.

We need to prioritize the elements of this reform that address unmet needs for children, are supported by research, and draw upon and improve the practice and experience in other places.

Education Voters of Pennsylvania is calling upon the School Reform Commission and Superintendent William Hite to adopt an equitable, system-wide common enrollment system, starting with high school. A common enrollment system would allow a student to apply to all public schools – both district and charter -- through a single application. And there would be just one timetable for enrollment.

The challenge of school enrollment is greatest at the high school level. Parents must navigate the maze of 26 district-run neighborhood schools, 17 district-run magnet schools, 11 district-run citywide schools and 35 charter schools. There are also specialized academic or career education programs of study available within particular high schools. These programs offer diverse opportunities and help attract people to city schools. But there are still more students than there are “high-quality seats” available in these schools.

A recent study by Research for Action documented the confusion, misinformation, and unfairness of the current process of high school choice in Philadelphia. Many schools have different paperwork, interviews, timelines, and other application requirements.

Having a process that is so complex and cumbersome means that not everyone will engage in it; inherently, the system has desirable seats and leftover seats. To make the process sane and fair, we need it to be easy and transparent for parents -- or for students themselves.

Other cities are moving to a simplified common enrollment process that includes charter and district-run schools. Denver established a district-wide system this past school year that consolidated more than 60 application processes into one timeline, one application, and one process for all public schools, with promising results.  Parents participated at high rates, and most students got one of their top three choices.

Concurrent with implementing a common enrollment system, the SRC must increase the number of high-quality seats across the system. Otherwise, too many students will end up in schools they did not choose and the process becomes a sham. One way to do this would be to seed magnet-like or specialized programs within every comprehensive high school, with seats reserved for students who are from the neighborhood (using the current catchment area as a guide) and with some reserved for students to access in the new city-wide process. This approach would help to ensure that a broader population has access to new programs and to prevent displacement.

The new common enrollment system should follow a few principles and best practices based on research, and use lessons learned in other cities and from past experiments here.

Promote equity and access – more choices, available to all. Every student must have the same opportunity to exercise a choice and find a fitting seat.  It is only a choice if you have two things from which to choose.

Make a commitment to every community in Philadelphia. High-quality schools are key to healthy neighborhoods, so seats should be distributed fairly throughout the city.

Make it easy to use.  All the information should be in one place. Short, simple forms with good directions -- 8th graders should be able to do it themselves, if necessary.

Provide plain-language information about schools with more school information and with ratings based on more than test scores.

Use a sophisticated algorithm to match students with schools that accounts for both preferences and student needs, and guards against school segregation by family income, race, disability, or other factors.

Establish a common application form and timeline. This allows students to access all possibilities (charter and district) and provides an enrollment schedule that allows schools time to plan.

Establish a broad parent outreach and support system. Use community organizations and city offices to get the word out.

Provide back-up systems to address problems. There should be complaint procedures, direct transition support for students when needed and fair transfer options during the year.

Evaluate results and improve the system.  Gather feedback throughout the process and after implementation to make future adjustments.

There will be wrinkles, challenges and concerns to address, as well as political objections.  But a better high school system has to be a public and political priority. This crisis is an opportunity. A common enrollment system, paired with the development of new high-quality seats, is a structural change directed at changing things for students, not adults. It is “reform” done right.

Find more information about this proposal on our website:

Susan Gobreski is the executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania and a parent of children attending public schools in Philadelphia. She can be reached at

Education Voters of Pennsylvania is a nonprofit advocacy organization working to support policies that strengthen public schools for all children. 

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Comments (30)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2012 6:11 pm

Susan, would you be willing to put your child in a neighborhood high school magnet program?

Submitted by Susan Gobreski on October 22, 2012 9:57 am
I would do it if I felt good about the district's intentions, the leadership of the principal, the arrangements made for staffing/staff development and the framework for the program. That is what we are trying to advocate for here.
Submitted by Timothy Boyle on October 19, 2012 7:56 pm

So step one might be ending barriers to access that exist in publically funded schools. Step two might be bringing to justice those who ask student's for immigration status, and reconstituting boards that have failed to oversee the illegal and extra-legal policies of the schools they serve

Submitted by Susan Gobreski on October 22, 2012 11:39 am
Yes, we need to end barriers to access. One shouldn't have to navigate dozens of ways to find/enter schools that one might be interested in attending. That is a process that favors people with time, capacity etc and disadvantages others. One issue of concern is that even if the "system" of "system of schools" (or whatever) was operating the way it is supposed to, it will still be untenable and inequitable.
Submitted by J.J. McHabe (not verified) on October 19, 2012 7:34 pm

What percentage of American 8th graders have a choice of schools to apply to for high school? Seriously. Think about it. Even in our own backyard, take a look. What high schools do 8th graders in the Upper Darby School District get to apply to? They don't. They go to Upper Darby. This is just one example of THOUSANDS of school districts across the nation that only have one high school to go to. Even districts with multiple high schools, kids don't get to pick.
How can #1 work? Every student must have the same opportunity to exercise a choice and find a fitting seat? What does that mean? So a straight A, high test score, well behaved student should have the same amount of choices as a straight D, low test score, trouble maker? I don't get it.
Use a "sophisticated algorithm" to match students with schools? Huh? Gobbledegook.
Get the word out about school choice? It's already being done! It's been done! 8th grade counselors all over the city invite high school reps into their schools to speak to students. The SDP recently had a weekend high school fair. Info is placed online. Counselors meet with students individually to go over what choices they should list.
Should EVERY school be like Science Leadership Academy (SLA)? Why aren't the neighborhood high schools like SLA? Are teachers at SLA better than neighborhood high schools? Of course not.
If you made the SLA student body a reflection of Philadelphia, it would be SLA in name only. It would basically be a neighborhood high school (they would even have to install metal detectors!).
Let's be real, when parents look at schools to send their kids to, they look at the student body. They ask, "Do I want my kid to go to school with those type of students?".
I can't believe people honestly believe "if every kid went to a good school, there would be no bad schools". Good schools are good schools because they can keep out the bad kids. And Susan, you know this!

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 19, 2012 8:48 pm

I believe all of the authors students went to Masterman starting in 5th grade. So, no, I doubt she would send her kids to a neighborhood high school since she wouldn't even let them stay in a reputable charter for 5th grade.

If neighborhood high schools are to be saved, they need to be like Northeast and Washington HS. They have internal magnet programs and International Baccalaureate. Let all neighborhood high schools have the same!

Submitted by Susan Gobreski on October 22, 2012 9:26 am
Did you read in this paper that we call for the creation of magnet programs in every neighborhood high school to be paired with this so as to foster the strengthening of all the schools? Similar to what you say here.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2012 10:32 am
Once again school district is wasting time Pinky and the Brain. Thank you for saying exactly what I was thinking!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2012 2:53 am
Will the application process be the same for SLA, Masterman and Central? Unless all magnets have to comply, it is not equitable. Returning magnets / special programs within neighborhood high schools will make the schools more attractive. Those programs were taken out of neighborhood high schools (other than Northeast and Washington) by Vallas. Put the small high schools into a neighborhood high school such as SLA into Ben Franklin, Academy at Palumbo with Furness, Lakenau with Roxborough or Germantown, Constitution with Univ. City, etc. (I can hear the uproar now....)
Submitted by Susan Gobreski on October 22, 2012 9:10 am
In Denver and NY, they still have selective admission schools AND common enrollment. That is something that would have to be addressed. We are not arguing that it should be eliminated. My guess is that we would still have selective admission schools, and there will be strong opinion on both sides of that issue. However, even that can be made more equitable by putting a common timetable into place so we aren't basically putting kids in some sort of merit line, and then working our way down it, thus leaving the kids at the end of the list to get whatever anyone else didn't want. A common application process would reduce the many steps needed for some schools and thus give more kids who aren't as adept at navigating the process a better shot to have their hat in the ring for a number of schools. And we are STRONGLY in support of the idea that this needs to be paired with the development of new programs in neighborhood high schools so the assumption isn't that the only "high quality" seats are in charters. We simply can't walk away from what is in place right now and our neighborhoods deserve a chance to be in the mix for this wave of change.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2012 9:24 am
The Philadelphia School District is hiring now to fill vacant positions. Check the vacancy list. Dual certified special education teachers needed NOW!
Submitted by Linda K. (not verified) on October 20, 2012 8:25 pm
I looked and there do not seem to be too many spots you have more information that you can share to help a sp ed teacher get a job?....I may have an applicant ready
Submitted by charter nonsense (not verified) on October 21, 2012 1:09 am
The more I think learn about Education Voters, the more I don't like. Common enrollment won't help the kids who need it most--the end. And I'm' willing to bet her kids are magnetized like all the other so-called activists in this city. Where's the evidence that shows this will help? No where. Expand quality seats for whom and to what end. Anyone can put together a 10 point plan with these overly general points--what is the actual algorithm. How do you actually ensure equity and access for all? What are the safe guards for special needs students. She needs to take a page from Education Law Center---and do her research.
Submitted by Jenny Lowman - ELC (not verified) on October 25, 2012 11:40 pm
The concept of common enrollment (also called universal enrollment) is relatively new and, as Susan points out, just getting started in Denver, New York City, and New Orleans, so how it will play out is still very much an open question. (For an article about how universal enrollment will work in the Recovery School District, go to: For information about the Denver Public Schools' enrollment process, go to The idea is to make the application process for school admission to all public schools in a district - including charter schools - much less complicated and therefore, more equitable. You are absolutely correct that this process must not neglect the needs of the most vulnerable students, including students in foster care, students experiencing homelessness, students who have limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities. In Philadelphia, this already would mean that any universal enrollment process would need to be developed in conjunction with the terms of the Legare consent decree, which attempts to ensure that students with disabilities and students who English Language Learners, are not denied admission to citywide or magnet schools because of their special needs. In addition, steps would need to be take to ensure that highly mobile students, such as those in foster care, are not relegated to their neighborhood schools simply because they missed an enrollment deadline because they were in the middle of changing placements.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 26, 2012 5:22 am
Thank you for the clarification. Please DO NOT use the term "relegated" in the context of "relegated to their neighborhood school" as a pejorative. A neighborhood school is not a death sentence. There are quality neighborhood schools with a variety of academic and extra curricular offerings. If the SDP would invest in neighborhood high schools, including returning special academic programs like they allow at Northeast and Washington HS, the neighborhood schools would attract more students. While the SRC - especially Ramos - has written off neighborhood high schools, they are the school home to thousands of students. Test scores are never going to match the magnets because magnets only admit students with high test scores.
Submitted by Susan Gobreski on October 26, 2012 9:49 am
I hope that common enrollment could, if done properly, have a positive effect by allowing students to maintain their placement through high school (if they want it). So a student in foster care would not have to change high schools because of changing locations in their foster placement. I think stabilizing placement, enrollment schedules and creating access are key to all of it. Also, Anonymous, I just want to emphasize that this proposal calls for the investment in neighborhood schools!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2012 3:21 pm
Is this the same selection process being introduced by the Philadelphia School Partnership? Minus Catholic schools? The use of the term "high-quality seats" here is disturbing. Is Education Voters OK with the district's failure to make every school a good one?
Submitted by Susan Gobreski on October 22, 2012 10:16 am
The use of the term "high quality seats" is twofold. First: more high quality seats should be created. Whether or not you agree with the HOW this is being pursued, the WHAT is harder to argue with. We advocate for public education however; so our use isn't intended to say that we think "the kind of seat it is doesn't matter." Public education is fundamental to a strong society. Secondly, it is the term being used these days, so the intention here is to point out what they should look like.
Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 22, 2012 11:31 am
The term "high performing seats" is the corporate speak of the corporate reform movement, just like "portfolios". We are talking about children, about human beings, not statics on an Excel spreadsheet. The use of "high performing seats" is that of a corporate bureaucrat who rarely if ever enters a public school and certainly has not stood in front of a class of children to teach them.
Submitted by Susan Gobreski on October 23, 2012 8:46 am
Ken, I am not in the corporate reform camp. Seats don't "perform" but they can reflect a "quality" level --- i.e. a suite of programmatic and support offerings that make it a more desirable seat to sit in rather than a seat that represents less opportunity (class size, art, music instruction, activities, tutoring, counseling, libraries and resources etc) and access to quality education. We do need to do more to define equity and opportunity together.
Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 23, 2012 11:32 am
Susan, I was not referring to you personally or claiming that you are in the "corporate reform camp". The point I am making is that the corporate reform terminology is creeping into our discourse on public education. Data is necessary for analysis, but it should not be used for a political agenda. If data shows that a student or a school have serious problems, data should be used to fix the problems, not segregate the student or close the school.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2012 6:48 am
Another group that has been bought and sold by the SRC.
Submitted by Susan Gobreski on October 22, 2012 9:25 am
Please say more about what you mean?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2012 9:34 am
This seems like a great idea. Navigating the current "choice" and different application procedures and deadlines is cumbersome. Just having one application and one timeline would make the process much easier. I'd like to see one common application for public elementary and middle schools too. The "best" PSD schools all have their own waitlist procedures outside of the district's voluntary transfer program and the charter applications and deadlines and lotteries are all over the place. One application for all public schools would be a great service to parents and students.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2012 1:11 pm
How would you make sure the magnet programs within neighborhood schools would actually teach at the same level? AP classes in neighborhood school aren't taught the same as at other higher performing school. And I'm saying this as an AP teacher
Submitted by Susan Gobreski on October 23, 2012 9:46 am
This is an excellent question. I'll start by asking you a question: what do you think the obstacles are to getting them to be at the same level? (I am actually asking). I think there are several mechanisms that could help with this, recognizing that this is a topic that needs more attention from a variety of perspectives to really explore what is going on and which solutions could be most relevant in specific situations. I think a) the development and use of SACs (School Advisory Councils) that position themselves to play a role in the quality level of programs offered in schools and b) teachers and principals that work together to champion specific programs would go a long way toward this. And, to be clear, I do not think that common enrollment is a cure-all. I think it helps address a couple of problems related to equity and access. And, if we also pair it with with a couple of other things such as the development of new programs for all our high schools and a heavy emphasis on professional development and the use of collaborative professional learning/leadership teams, I think we can take a couple of solid steps forward to bring about more learning opportunities that are more available to all kids.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 23, 2012 9:19 am
Do you think Masterman and Central have "professional learning/leadership teams?" They do have a library, many electives, music programs, etc. They have parents who donate to school fundraisers. How much teacher collaboration is another issue. What magnets have is very selective admission policies - and the ability to "counsel out" students. Achievement on AP tests is dismal across the district. On average, only 50% of Central students who take an AP test score a "3" or higher. (Masterman is around 72 - 73%). In other schools, the scores tank. This is both a reflection on the AP tests, which focus more on breath than depth, and student preparation in middle schools. Students are being prepared for the PSSA - not the type of reading, writing, and thinking required in AP courses. Taking an AP course still has it place. Neighborhood schools give students who would never be enrolled in an AP course at a magnet school the opportunity to take an AP course. (Look at the requirements for taking an AP course at Central!) This doesn't mean the AP courses at neighborhood schools have to be watered down but students need to be prepared for AP level work starting in elementary school - not their junior year of high school. Under Ackerman, the elementary curricula was watered down. There needs to be a school wide effort that vertically aligns the curriculum to prepare more students for the types of reading, writing, speaking and thinking expected in AP courses and college if there is going to be a change. This also impacts magnet schools where, as I wrote, AP scores in many are abysmal.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2012 2:21 pm
Who would select students to each school? currently the principal is the gatekeeper of the magnet schools.
Submitted by Susan Gobreski on October 23, 2012 9:10 am
If I read your question correctly, the first part is about the overall process. In Denver, 83% of students got their first or second choice, and the algorithm was programmed to account for things like siblings, proximity and transportation. As for the second part and magnet schools: this is a topic that will get discussed at length. There are plenty of points for and against the value of selective admission schools. We are not proposing that they be eliminated (although I would imagine that some people think they should be, just as others will think that this part of what we have now should be left alone). We, as a community, will have to delve into it to see if it makes sense to make changes.
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