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Choosing a high school: New twists in the process

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 30, 2013 02:25 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Student protests like this one in June have decried the elimination of most District counseling jobs.

Under the best of conditions, applying to high school in Philadelphia can be a trying exercise.

In this extraordinary year, the process will have new wrinkles, in large part because of unprecedented budget cuts and staffing shortages. There are some changed procedures and requirements, and several gaps caused by the funding crisis:

  • All 8th graders must fill out a high school application, even if they plan to attend their local neighborhood school.
  • In many District schools, 8th graders will be applying to high schools without the help of full-time school counselors, who usually lead the process.
  • For the first time in recent memory, the District will not print a high school directory; it will be available only online.
  • The District is not holding its annual High School Expo. However, there will be one on Nov. 16 at Drexel University, underwritten largely by the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP).
  • The District is encouraging each high school to conduct an open house during which prospective students and parents can visit.
  • The city’s Great Schools Compact is promoting a common deadline – Dec. 6 – for District and charter school applications, as well as a common application form for admission to charters. However, it is unclear how many charter schools will participate.

8th graders must fill out form

Students in Philadelphia have more than 80 public high school options, District and charter, not to mention the growing number of cyber schools.

Each year, most 8th graders participated in the selection process by filling out an application and listing their top District-run choices, and/or applying to one or more charters.

But many students didn’t do anything – and were automatically assigned to the local neighborhood school.

No longer.

“We’re asking every 8th grader to complete the application process,” said Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student services. Lynch said the change was made because the application process pushes students to think about their futures.

“It’s an opportunity to get students prepared for the college application process,” she said, “writing an essay, selecting schools, determining what you want to do in your career.”

But applying students will be confronted with a second big change.

Counselor shortage

Due to the District’s budget crisis, 283 school counselors were laid off last summer, and only 126 so far have been hired back. Most schools with fewer than 600 students were not assigned full-time counselors. That leaves 115 schools that are sharing a roving group of 16 “itinerant” counselors, who, on average, can spend time at each school only once every seven or eight days.

District officials acknowledge that families this year will face special challenges. But, for the most part, Lynch said she expected things to run smoothly.

“We’re going to have resources available so 8th graders who have challenges and questions or needs can receive assistance with completing the application,” she said. The District is urging schools to use class time for filling out applications and writing essays.

“Many schools do it now,” Lynch said. "Given the challenges we have otherwise, it’s a great way to complete the application.”

She said the District is seeking more help from outside organizations to work with students.

The view from the ground is less hopeful. Overburdened teachers and principals fear that the counselor shortage will stifle opportunities for students.

“We are overwhelmed,” said Amy Roat, an ESOL teacher at Feltonville School of the Arts and Sciences.

She pointed out that there is a separate process for English language learners and special education students applying to selective and citywide admission schools. Because of a 1995 lawsuit called LeGare, those schools must set aside a percentage of spots for qualified students within these categories. This year, that work with 8th graders is not getting done, she said.

“Usually, the counselor gets all the information and does the work,” Roat said. “But no one is there to take the lead.”

Plus, she said, “The counselor has the expertise, knows the students, knows the counselors at other schools, knows what schools accept what kind of students. They have the knowledge and connections.”

The situation is putting an added burden on principals, said Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan, who leads Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia, which does not have a full-time counselor.

“It’s very challenging,” she said.                          

Making sure that 8th graders apply to high school has become yet another task for principals, who now also give out medications, prepare payrolls, patrol lunchrooms, distribute TransPasses, and intervene when students have crises.

The situation “is not really conducive for getting kids the leading edge, as far as applications go,” she said. "We’re managing because we have to, but it’s not easy.”

High school counselors used to visit elementary and middle schools to answer questions and urge students to apply, while the elementary and middle school counselors conducted trips for students who might shy away from applying to a school because they think it is hard to get there.

“Last year my counselor took a group to Central, showing them how they can travel by subway from South Philly,” Kaplan said. “So the students weren’t afraid, and Central became an option.”

Counselors know the students and advocate for them, she said, and not just by writing recommendations.

“If you have a kid that you know doesn’t test well because they are not a native English speaker, but is an amazing student, you make that connection with the high school counselor,” she said.

Expo, directory, and open houses

Citing financial concerns, the District canceled its annual High School Expo, which showcased District and charter schools. PSP is working with other organizations to hold one on Nov. 16 at Drexel University that would include District, charter, and Catholic schools. How many schools will participate was not clear as of late September.

To save printing costs, the District also decided to do only an online version of its high school directory.

Students are still encouraged to visit high schools they are interested in, but “shadowing” students for a day may be more difficult due to reduced personnel in schools. The District is encouraging high schools to hold open houses and plans to distribute a schedule.

Common application

The new high school application form and common deadline are first steps toward what the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact foresees as a “universal enrollment” system that would take effect next year. An effort to roll out the full process this year fell short.

The Compact is a working group that includes the District, the mayor’s office, two charter school coalitions, the state Department of Education and the Philadelphia Archdiocese. A committee working on this includes other groups, many of which are concerned about the fairness of the current system. According to one recent study, a majority of students do not get in to any of their top choices.

Universal enrollment, if it comes to pass, would be a significant change from how high school selection is now done.

For special admission schools like Central and Masterman, principals now have a major say in who is admitted. For citywide admission schools, the names of all qualified applicants are put into a lottery. For charter schools, students apply to each separately, and each holds a lottery, but deadlines and applications for each charter vary widely.

Under universal enrollment, students will list their top choices on a common form – District and charter – and then be matched to a school by a computerized formula. Each student would be admitted to just one school on their list.

“It is more fair,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, an advocate for the change. “It’s a matching system, based on an algorithm.”

He said the goal is to have the archdiocesan high schools participate – there are eight in the city – but how that will work has not been resolved. For now, the District and Archdiocese have agreed to a common application deadline, Dec. 6.

As of late September, it was unclear how many charter schools had agreed to use the common application and adhere to the Dec. 6 deadline. 


This article appears in the Notebook's annual Fall Guide to High Schools, which comes out next week. 

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Comments (17)

Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on September 30, 2013 3:48 pm
The District is urging schools to use class time for filling out applications and writing essays. Really? Then will teachers then get in trouble for not following the curriculum (sp?)?
Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on September 30, 2013 3:17 pm
Oh and wait, a computer is going to decide where my child is going to go to High School
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2013 4:56 pm
This appears to be another attempt by Gleason / Phila. School Dictatorship to run the District. I assume the neighborhood high schools will be the "dumping" ground for anyone not admitted to a charter or special admit school. Then, Gleason and his posse will label the neighborhood schools "bad schools." It is a vicious cycle of deceit and deception . I don't trust an algorithm any more than I trust Gleason. Nada. Nunca.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 7, 2013 2:13 pm
So a major question several people I've spoken to have is: "Where is this algorithm coming from? What company put it together? Who is profiting? (PSP, GATES?) And when exactly was this put forth to the public?" It seems to me that a decision so major across so many organizations, schools, people, should have some sort of MAJOR PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT!!! The article states that this is to help prepare students for when they apply to college. What algorithm is being used when applying to college? And what colleges are using it? Because I'm pretty sure that's BS.
Submitted by Terrilyn McCormick (not verified) on September 30, 2013 4:39 pm
High schools are already worrying about how they are going to handle the admissions process with limited admin staff, and to make matter worse SDP is now going to require all kids complete an application thereby significantly increasing the volume of applications. The one secretary answering the phone, handling the office desk, student records, attendance, and many other things really doesn't need to have the applications volume increased this year. Is anyone at 440 thinking this through? Also, can the Notebook clarify when the official application deadline is or if it still isn't set. This article was helpful but that is the one thing all the parents I speak with want to know. Its unclear if PSP's desired Dec deadline is the real deal. Please confirm. Thanks.
Submitted by Paul Socolar on September 30, 2013 5:44 pm

Dec. 6 at 5 pm is the District deadline for high school applications. There is an effort to make that a universal deadline for charters as well, but whatever happens with that, it is the District's deadline.

More on this, including a timeline, in the upcoming fall guide.



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 1, 2013 9:25 am
Is there a new application or can we have kids fill out the old application?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2013 7:17 pm
This whole situation is absolutely diabolical. Rhetoric and double-speak are in stark contrast to the acts inflicted upon our schools and more specifically our children within the district. No libraries, no Counselors, reduction in AP classes and IB programs, few nurses .....all schools have been hobbled by so called " education reform" . The children are collateral damage as all schools within the district are destroyed... even magnet schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2013 7:21 pm
At what point do we acknowledge the obvious - the SDP is the charter school manager, not the provider of a free and appropriate education for all?
Submitted by rob (not verified) on September 30, 2013 9:17 pm
and what happens when 30% of the kids don't fill out an application?
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2013 10:24 pm
The Counselor (if there is one) gets written up. I used to be an 8th grade counselor.Every year I had about three or four kids not turn in their application. They had poor grades, and attendance and stated (along with their parents) that they wanted to go to their neighborhood school. Still, the Principal (and once someone from the regional office) threw a fit. Principal chastised me. Wasn't written up, but if 30% hadn't returned it, I certainly would have been written up. Possibly 204'd. I should add this principal expected "several" students to be accepted to Central. Most years, I would be lucky if one even came close to the TerraNova criteria.
Submitted by linda (not verified) on October 1, 2013 10:11 am
a sin a the classroom teacher, I guess you should go home, bathe, clothe, tutor, feed, and unstill morals for every kid at the school as well. Linda K., ........sympathetic to the madness
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 1, 2013 8:24 am
Will the notebook do a story on how the District RIGHT NOW IS STILL CUTTING SCHOOL BUDGETS??? Schools are losing personnel as we speak solely based an ineffective formula, not on school needs. Budget staffers looking only at cold numbers are endangering our students and watering down education this year even further. Small schools are being hit the hardest. Staff members doing the job of 10 people will no longer be available to help their schools with those extra duties because now with the new cuts, every teacher will have a full load. Thus, none of the extra duties around schools will not get done. Principals are merely managers of schools, they will not be instructional leaders at all. The resources are shrinking, but the long list of responsibilities and accountability schools are held to are not. Philly Notebook, where are you on this story???
Submitted by linda (not verified) on October 1, 2013 10:34 am
“We’re going to have resources available so 8th graders who have challenges and questions or needs can receive assistance with completing the application,” she said. The District is urging schools to use class time for filling out applications and writing essays." What resources?....there is no more money for supplies What resources?...the counselors are missing or have 2000 students to see What class time?......there are the standarded test preps, the scripted lessons, the IEPS and of course the students need to learn the actual lessons for the the grade otherwise the teacher is accused of not teaching. Nice words but not realistic, but then the people making the rules don't teach Linda K.
Submitted by aphillycounselor (not verified) on October 1, 2013 8:15 pm
The HS appt. process will be the schools responsibility now that this plan didn't work out this year. Student placement has no idea how the process will be done in schools with no counselors. They are no additional resources.That's BS. The organization that was going to take over the process literally backed out less than two weeks ago. The charter schools and student placement have a meeting this Thursday to discuss next steps. The SDP will direct schools and their principals to "figure it out." This has been the answer to a lot of the responsibilities that counselors had that now principals and teachers are being asked to do. For instance, they had training for teachers, (only the ones who signed up), on how to call DHS to report abuse and/or neglect, identifying trauma in children and case management for behavior problems. The schools are a mess. Don't let the SDP tell you otherwise. The staff in the schools are already overwhelmed as it is. They can't take on any more responsibilites. Nor should they. It's a great liability. Please fill out a complaint form and let the state know what is going on in the schools. For more info on this go to
Submitted by Joan Taylor on October 3, 2013 7:47 am
The cost of the high school expo is peanuts. That's not why it's cancelled. It's cancelled because the PSP wants to run an event that promotes charter schools. This is another step in demolishing public education. End of conversation. Teachers running the high school selection process? Fine, especially as glib, confident Karyn Lynch, ensconced at 440, isn't held accountable for PSSA'a. Her comment that the "change was made because the application process pushes students to think about their futures" is utter baloney. It means a lot less curriculum will be taught. It's a disaster for our kids.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 3, 2013 8:57 am
You are so right Joan. It is another move on the chess board of the PSP assault on public education and their attempt to control the processes of public education. Your post about the mindset of those who gathered at the Union League is particularly telling. So is Tom's comment about the conversation with a couple of them as being "sanctimonious and arrogant." (I Googled those vocabulary words of art to refresh my memory of their deeper meaning.)

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