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Fall Guide 2009 Vol. 17. No. 1 Spotlight on High Schools

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Selecting a high school: Not a level playing field

By by Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 1, 2009 02:28 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Checking out the new Abraham Lincoln High School in Mayfair.

With the recent creation of many new, themed high schools and the continuing growth of the charter school movement, students in Philadelphia have more public high school options than ever.

But more options haven’t meant that most students are getting into the schools they prefer, or that the available choices meet students’ needs.

In fact, about 58 percent of District high school students are enrolled in schools that they did not choose, according to an analysis of School District data by Research for Action. The most desirable schools, including some charters, accept a small percentage of applicants. Average and struggling students find that there are still not enough accessible and appealing options for them.

“If you’re not proficient, your choices are limited – let’s be honest about this,” said Wilfredo Ortiz, deputy chief of the Office of Academic Counseling and Promotion Standards. “And if you look at the students in the District who are advanced or proficient, it’s a smaller number of students.”

Nearly 80 percent of District 8th graders apply to attend a school other than their assigned neighborhood high school. Separately, many also apply to charters.

The application and selection process for District schools is daunting and poorly understood, and students have vastly different experiences. Throwing charters into the mix with their individual applications has only made the maze more challenging.

Some students – mostly those with the best academic records – get into all the selections listed on their District application, while other applicants are admitted to none. Some have parents and counselors who guide them and advocate for them, while others get little or no help.

Students’ and parents’ access to good information about schools and programs varies widely. There is no single location or clearinghouse where all this information is readily available, and some stages of the application process lack consistent timelines.

District officials say it is the role of counselors in K-8 and middle schools to make sure families are informed. However, Ortiz acknowledged, counselors until now have had no guidelines on exactly what they must do to advise 8th graders. Without guidelines, counselors view their responsibilities differently. Some are more proactive in reaching out, while others wait for parents and students to ask for help. 

It’s not clear whether counselors are expected to assist students with charter school applications. Several students interviewed said that their counselors didn’t help them navigate that landscape.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has said that she is concerned the high school selection process may not be fair to all students, and District officials plan to put together a task force to look at potential changes. One possibility, they said, is moving to a system more like New York City’s, in which students list their preferences in order and they are centrally matched to only one school – their highest-ranked choice that accepts them.

But such a move could be controversial; a previous attempt to do this sparked opposition from some parent groups.

RFA research has found that 20 percent of students get into more than one school. All these slots are tied up for weeks while these students make their selections. “If you’re accepted at five schools, you’re holding a spot at all five locations,” said LeTretta Jones, the director of the Office of Student Placement.

Jones believes that revising the process would streamline it and make it more equitable. “We could say, ‘You’re at Central,’ and boom, that opens up the other locations for other students,” she said. The Columbia University economists who designed New York’s system noted that “in a system without excess capacity, the cost of giving some students multiple offers is that multiple students get no offers.”

Three tiers of District high schools

In the District’s high school selection process, there are three tiers of schools. The 16 special admission schools have the most stringent academic criteria and the most discretion over whom to accept. There are 13 citywide admission schools that have less stringent criteria and select students through a lottery after eliminating students who don’t qualify. The 32 neighborhood schools are required to enroll all students who live within their attendance boundaries, including students who return from disciplinary schools and incarceration. If there is space, neighborhood schools also admit students from outside their feeder pattern through a lottery.

Based on the review of 2007-2008 data provided by the District, RFA found that Asian and White students were more likely to apply to special admission schools than Blacks and Latinos. At the same time, Black and Latino students applied to citywide and neighborhood schools at higher rates than Whites and Asians. Overall, fewer than half of applicants gain admission to even one school, with Asian and White students most likely to be admitted to a school of their choice.

RFA also found that students don’t have to fulfill all admissions criteria to be admitted to a school. For instance, the data showed that only a small percentage of applicants actually met to the letter all the requirements for the most selective schools in the city – requirements that include test scores, grades, attendance, and behavior records. According to RFA’s analysis, many students who were “unqualified” on paper were admitted to these schools anyway. Some 30 percent of applicants who did not meet all the criteria for any special admission school wound up attending one anyway, and 19 percent of students who didn’t meet criteria for citywide schools enrolled in one, meaning that schools have a lot of discretion to make decisions.

Students can apply to up to five District schools and to as many charters as they want. But the processes are totally separate, something that not all families understand.

The District’s high school application process starts in September. That is when counselors are expected to hand out the directory and applications to 8th graders and the District runs a High School Expo where students and parents can learn about each school. Students who want to apply to one or more District high schools fill out and sign a single application form that they hand in to their 8th grade counselor.

But that process bears no relation to the 28 charter schools with high school grades. These schools must accept students by lottery if they have more applications than slots, but each has its own application form and deadline and can impose other requirements, such as attendance at an open house or an interview. Parents must contact each charter school individually to get an application and find out about the admissions process.

Explaining the selection system

Some school counselors hold an information session and expect 8th grade parents to come, and follow up only with those who show interest. Others require one-on-one meetings with each student to discuss options. Others give students the form and the Directory of High Schools and do little else to help families.

The RFA report found that in addition to providing information, some counselors actively advocate on behalf of students by calling high school counselors and principals, even after decisions have been made – a practice that is likely most effective at schools where principals and other school leaders have wide discretion in admission decisions.

In the spring, students get letters from the District indicating whether they were admitted to any of their five choices. Students admitted to more than one school get letters first, and they have two weeks to make a selection. After that, additional slots open up, and a second round of letters goes out. Throw in the possibility of acceptances from charter schools and things get very complicated.

The annual Directory of High Schools lists information about schools, but doesn’t walk parents and students through the steps they must take to participate in the process. In past years, the Directory has also lacked a timeline with deadlines and key dates. For instance, most citywide admission schools require students to come in for an interview or open house, but students don’t know by what date they should hear from a school about that second step. 

Jones said that the District is preparing a new middle school guide for students in 6th and 7th grade that will drive home more clearly, as an example, that the 7th grade academic and behavior record is the one that will determine the student’s high school options.

Counselors also differ widely in their own knowledge of what high schools offer, in their ability and willingness to advocate for students, and in the number of responsibilities they have at the school. Using federal stimulus money, Ackerman is hiring more counselors for 7th and 8th grade. Ortiz said the new hires will reduce the student-to-counselor ratio and improve services for families. He also said that his office plans to set standards for counselors and monitor their work more closely.

However, District officials say that counselors are only partially responsible and that parents should be “vigilant,” about getting information and keeping on top of what they must do.  

Soon, the nerve-wracking process will begin again. The High School Expo this year is scheduled for Sept. 25, 26, and 27 in Temple University’s Liacouras Center. The deadline for submitting the application is October 30.

When they returned to school this year, students found a larger cadre of counselors who can help them figure it all out. But major changes are not likely to occur before next year.  

In any case, said Ortiz: “We need to focus on how to make the process seamless so everyone understands it better.”

About the Author

Dale Mezzacappa is a contributing editor at the Notebook.

Comments (31)

Submitted by Jeff Jefferjeff (not verified) on September 5, 2009 8:04 am

There is so much wrong with this article, I barely know where to begin. Students in Philadelphia have many choices of high schools to apply to attend. They can choose five of nearly 60 School District run high schools. In addition, There are over two dozen charter high schools within the city limits. Granted, admissions to most of these schools are tough. I get that. But, so what? The fact is that there are close to 100 schools in this city alone, that students may be able to attend free of charge. What are the high school options for students in Upper Darby, Chester, Havertown, and the overwhelming majority of students in this country? The answer would be one school. If they are lucky, there might be a good charter high school that is not too far away. So for Philly and parents to complain about lack of options is absurd.
You said, "Some have parents and counselors who guide them and advocate for them, but others get little or no help". This statement is not only misleading and wrong, but offensive to the counselors of 8th graders in this city. While of course, the levels of help varies, MOST (if not all) of the school district counselors spend a great deal of time helping students choose schools to apply to both individually and in groups, help them fill out the forms, invite high schools in to speak to students, and inform them about the Fall high school fair. There is really nothing a school counselor can do if a students parent shows little or no interest in the high school selection process. That's not the fault of the school district. It's just life.
In terms of acceptance criteria, while it is true not every child can (or should) meet the criteria to get into Central, the fact remains that if a student in elementary school shows up to school everyday, shows up on time, shows appropriate deportment, and does their work they will get into an appropriate high school for them. If a student shows all those traits (having nothing to do with intelligence, just doing there best) they will meet the criteria for many of the high schools. In my experience most students have been disqualified for most high schools for poor attendance. I should also note that the school district has strict legal criteria for students with special needs (LeGare decree). This article glossed over that part.
You talk about the role of a School District counselor working with charter school applications. You interview a student, and don't ask the school district? Again, that is the parents responsiblity. If a charter school requests grades, attendance, or needs a letter of recommendation from a counselor I am certain any school district counselor would be more than happy to assist. I should also add that charter schools compete with the district and vice versa. Would you call Delta Airlines and ask about flights on Southwest? If a student were to ask a counselor about a charter schools or charter schools in general any counselor would do the right thing, and that is give the student the contact information, and inform them about the high school fair every Fall at Temple University.
The overwhelming majority of 8th grade counselors in this city go above and beyond of what is asked of them in terms of navigating the application process. The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of students who work to their potential are in high schools that are a good fit for them. Letting a student with multiple suspensions for violent acts, all F's on their report card, and 147 absences into a Central High School, a Science Leadership Academy, Saul High School, etc because that student wants to go there would basically turn all the special admit schools into neighborhood high schools. When that happens, there would be no real choice at all in this city.

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Submitted by Paul Socolar on September 5, 2009 2:34 pm

Thanks for your feedback.

We did begin the article by acknowledging that Philadelphia has more choices than ever. But we also reported that a majority of students who apply to District high schools other than their own do not get accepted to any.

That suggests that a large number of students are in neighborhood high schools that they don't want to be in, and where the outcomes for huge numbers of students are abysmal. Perhaps the fact that students are in a school they didn't choose contributes to the abysmal outcomes.

If a "high school choice" system results in a majority of District students not getting one of their choices, that seems like a problem.

If you think the counselors are doing all they can, do you think maybe there's some other way for the system to do better at matching students with high schools of their choosing?


Submitted by R.Phillips (not verified) on September 6, 2009 4:24 pm

The numbers don't lie. If there are 80% of the students applying to go elsewhere then someone should be looking at the real reasons why and not make up things. The public school system is broken everywhere. casino

Submitted by monica (not verified) on September 6, 2009 7:36 pm

Leave special admission school alone. If you do not have the grades or the acceptable behavior, too bad and welcome to the real world. Schools that are catering to high achiever are not the blame. Minority students who are not meeting criteria for admission should talk to their teachers and question them for the lack of educational guidance. You can not get into Harvard unless you are Harvard material. The real break down is elementary and middle schools not preparing children to compete on a higher curve. And by the way, I am black. I went to an inferior public school. I took remedial classes in college. School choice please, get another excuse. Philadelphia students not achieving because of lack of choice I am not buying this one.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2009 7:11 am

You are correct, Monica. If a student at a Philadelphia elementary school, works hard, comes to school everyday (ON TIME!), and doesn't get suspended, they WILL have options. Is it the option they want? No. But as you said, welcome to the real world. How many people out there are in their dream job? You know, come to think of it, I am calling the NFL! If one million people want to be quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, let them!

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2009 10:46 pm

R. Phillips...the public school systems in the suburbs are just fine...

Submitted by monica (not verified) on September 7, 2009 9:28 am

Wow really ? Did you now as whole that all American students are behind in Math and Science and it is predicted that in the future Americans will be behind globally. You can't just worry about your suburbanized children. You have to make sure all American children are on an equal playing field. So, stop being so smudge if it was not for the racism system in this country, many of our children would not feel that education was a waste of time.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on September 8, 2009 7:57 pm

As I said...the suburban schools, by and large, are just fine...

Any suburban school could compete just peachy keen with any Taiwanese or South Korean or Finnish or Danish school...


What is smudge?

Submitted by monica (not verified) on September 8, 2009 7:54 pm

OH I am so impress that you picked up on a misspelled word.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 8, 2009 8:49 pm

It's not misspelled, but a totally different word which makes no sense in the context in which you used it. Don't kill the messenger for speaking the truth.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on September 9, 2009 6:55 am

Monica is easily impressed...

Submitted by Helen Gym on September 9, 2009 9:00 am

Jan and Monica and the other poster: I think all of you have made your points clear. Let's leave it at that. Monica's typo is hardly worth the back and forth mockery, and it doesn't do much for adding to the central arguments you are trying to make.

Submitted by monica (not verified) on September 7, 2009 10:32 am

Wow really ? Did you now as whole that all American students are behind in Math and Science and it is predicted that in the future Americans will be behind globally. You can't just worry about your suburbanized children. You have to make sure all American children are on an equal playing field. So, stop being so smudge if it was not for the racism system in this country, many of our children would not feel that education was a waste of time.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2009 11:16 am

"Stop being so smudge"?! Is that anything like being "so smug"? Before we use racism as the all purpose cop-out for academic failure children have to at least try to tackle the work. This is done by listening to their teachers and at least attempting to do the work. Too many children are coming to school with an "entertain me" mentality that they have gotten from MIA parents.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 8, 2009 12:15 pm

Waiting until your child brings home the high school choices book in 8th grade to figure things out is usually too late. So many parents that I speak to don't know that schools look at 7th grade when making admissions decisions. But even then, with the top schools getting thousands of applications for maybe a couple hundred openings each, the vast majority of kids won't get in the schools of their choice. This wouldn't be so bad if the majority of neighborhood schools weren't so abysmal. And most charter schools aren't much better in my opinion academically, they just have a better environment. It's like being a vegetarian at a Mongolian BBQ. Lots of choices, but are there really?
I consider my son very lucky in that he was accepted into all the high schools he applied to and really did have a choice. Out of the 5 high schools he applied to, only the first 3 were really ones that interested him. The other 2 were there as alternatives to his neighborhood school which he would NOT have attended under any circumstances. His scores and grades were fantastic, but how can you be certain if/where your child will be accepted. The whole process seemed almost like college admissions to me, with the top schools being HYPS.

Submitted by M. Davidson (not verified) on September 17, 2009 10:40 am

Hi, I am from a local charter middle school. We have not recieved the high school choices book for our 8th grade.. Can someone please inform me of how to go about getting that information or who I should contact. I am told it is a seperate company from the school district. Thank You very much!!

Submitted by Paul Socolar on September 17, 2009 7:58 pm

The District's high school directory is not out yet.  The Notebook has published a fall guide which focuses on high schools this year (I assume we're the "separate company," though we're a nonprofit organization). This guide is meant to supplement the District's guide.

Bundles are sent to every Philadelphia charter school (except one that has asked to be taken off our distribution list for unknown reasons). So there should be a bundle in your school. If the initial copies are not sufficient, contact to inquire about picking up additional copies from our office.

Submitted by M. Davidson (not verified) on September 18, 2009 11:13 am

Thank You very much for your help! However, we haven't received any bundles. A lot has changed this school year, as far as staff goes, which may be the issue. I will contact them and keep you updated if I have any further unanswered questions. Thank You again!

Submitted by Gretchen Cowell (not verified) on September 22, 2009 11:21 pm

Thank you for your much-needed coverage of the high school selection process.

I would like to respond however, to school district officials’ suggestion that eliminating multiple acceptances would make the process more equitable. According to them, if you are accepted at all five schools to which you apply, you prevent other students from getting into those schools. But of course that is not true. Those spots are held for only a very short time (the deadline is only a few days after receipt of the acceptance letter), and then those spots are open for other students. So no one is prevented from getting into a special admission or any other school because of multiple admissions.

Given the imperfect information system and inconsistencies in counseling, requiring students to know all their choices in order by the fall deadline, before students have been able to visit schools or hear from visiting representatives, would effectively limit choices and students with less information or less active counselors for whatever reason would suffer the most, making the system less equitable than it is now.

A better way to improve the process for everyone is to give the 8th grade counselors guidelines for helping students with the process and making sure such guidelines are followed, and by insisting that high schools provide information, not just at the high school fair but allowing tours or shadowing or both, and by informing parents when high school representatives are scheduled to visit 8th grade classes, something which rarely happens now.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on September 23, 2009 12:10 am

The inequity that I was unaware of until researching this issue is that the only group that gets multiple acceptances is those who get into multiple schools in the first round. What that means is that maybe 10-20% of students are getting their choice of schools and getting most of the 8th grade year to mull over that decision. And many of these students are holding down 4 or 5 slots.

The other 80% or more who do not get in anywhere on the first round do not get a choice of schools.  And the delay for those students to hear where they get in is more than a few days.

Those of us who worked on this edition concluded It makes far more sense to push for a streamlined application process that allows students to apply later in eighth grade than to fight to retain a multiple acceptance system that further privileges the District's more privileged students.



Submitted by Gretchen Cowell (not verified) on September 29, 2009 8:04 pm

When you say the inequity is that only students who get into more than one school in the first round receive multiple acceptances, are you saying that a student whose true first choice is Central but who gets into only his third choice in the first round but who is, unknown to himself, first on Central’s waiting list, never gets the chance to go to Central in the current system because he is assigned to his third choice (actually given a few days to decide between his neighborhood school and the single selective school to which he was accepted)? I can see how that could be an inequity, but there are other ways to remedy it than having a rigid choice system. Students could be given information about approximately where they are on a waiting list and allowed to switch to their most favored school if a space opened to them in the second round. Or another idea is students could list five choices at the beginning of the process, and then list them in order by a second deadline shortly before the acceptances came out.

If students don’t get into any school, and for some the criteria is not all that high (essentially showing up consistently, appropriate deportment, and some work), then changing the admissions process would not help, unless it involved lowering the standards for admission. Abolishing multiple acceptances would not help students who do not get in anywhere.

You said having a streamlined/no multiple acceptances/rigid choice order process with the deadline later in 8th grade made more sense than the current system. How much later do you think the deadline could be? Remember the admitting schools need a lot of time to review thousands of applications, in some cases tens of thousands, and in some cases to interview applicants. Also remember that the last time the District wanted to abolish multiple acceptances, it set the application deadline for two days after the high school fair, before the high school guide had been translated into Spanish, and before students had a chance to visit schools. Remember that the interview process, which takes place after applications, is a chance to learn about the prospective schools. It would be a shame for that to take place after the student had submitted a rigid list of choices he couldn’t change.

You said the multiple acceptance process “further privileges the District’s more privileged students.” Although more privileged students tend to be better students, the terms are not synonymous and should not be used as synonyms.

Now I have a question for you. The article said there were a number of students in the selective schools who did not meet the admission criteria. Why is that? Are there not enough students who meet the criteria to fill these schools? That seems hard to believe. Are there students rejected who meet the criteria while others students who do not meet it are admitted? Is it because special needs students and English Language Learners have an in? Is there some other sort of preferential treatment going on?

Submitted by Paul Socolar on September 30, 2009 2:04 am

Gretchen - your idea that a student could pick which schools they apply to in October and rank their choices later is an interesting one, but unfortunately not very likely to be adopted by a system that struggles to manage the single set of applications used now.

The forthcoming Research for Action report will have more data, but I can try to illustrate the problem around multiple acceptances - which is with the fact that with regards to the top high schools, only a small number of students are even players in the first round..

Let's say there are 5,000 slots in the city's special admissions schools, and perhaps 20,000 students applying to high school, many of whom take a crack at one or more special admit schools (these are very rough guesses). It's plausible in the current system that all the 5,000 slots at those special admissions schools in the first round are going to be awarded to fewer than 2,000 students with the highest scores and grades who are given multiple acceptances to 2-5 schools apiece. While these 2,000 students get to decide which school they're going to, everyone else has to wait. Then the dust settles and there are still 3,000 empty slots in special admit schools and thousands more applicants who still haven't gotten in. We learned that at this point, while there could be another round of multiple acceptances, there's not.

So  if you didn't get in on the first try, you don't get a choice - you're stuck with the ranking you gave on your application back in October.  So a tiny fraction of the total number of applicants actually benefits from the multiple acceptance system, while the vast majority are admitted to a single school. And historically that tiny group getting multiple acceptances has been mostly White, middle income, and many of them coming in from private schools.

On your other question, we don't believe that students are being denied admission who meet the criteria. There are not enough students in the system to meet the criteria at all the schools with admissions criteria. As a result, at least some schools are getting to pick and choose from among students who fall short of the criteria. The RFA report will have more details on this. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 18, 2009 3:28 pm

When I went to George Washington High School back in 1972-1976, it was because I lived in that zone. That's why my parents moved there to begin with. Bussing never has worked and never will work! It serves only to devalue the school, its neighborhood and their values. I remember when GWHS was great to send your child to. I drove by it six years ago when I was up from the South for a visit and it looked more like a prison than a school! I honestly couldn't believe what I was looking at. Razor wire line the very roof of the school! I wanted to cry. Do away with bussing and you'll do away with the Frankenstein monster that you've Created and are perpetually forced to deal with now. It's called COMMON SENSE!!!

Submitted by jack barr (not verified) on May 2, 2010 12:46 pm

My child applied for 4 high schools.And she was denied based on her attendance.
The school board selected her to go to Motivation High which is some 22 miles
distant from her home.Her marks on her core subjects were A' ,one C in gym,
one in social studies.Thoughout pre K to to the present she as been mert/dish.
student.There are over 50+ schools in the city.I sent the board a letter of my
dissapproval and received notice she still has to attend that school.What options
to I have? Is there any advocate I can talk to regards to this?Apreciate all



Submitted by Donna Jordan (not verified) on August 3, 2012 8:52 pm

my child applied to several special admission high schools.Her first school of choice she was placed on a waiting list. We kept calling the school to check on the status but after numerous phone calls,emails,and letters for 7 months no one had the professional courteous to reply.My daughter and I then decided to go to the school during one of there open houses knowing that they couldn't avoid us then.After speaking then to one of the assistant principals and explained the situation and knowing that students had left the school for numerous reasons which opened up spots for other students. We were then told that she had a spot for my daughter.when it became time for her to confirm this with the office of student placement as per our prior conversation,her attitude wasn't as positive or concerning as it was previously.Needless to say my daughter didn't get accepted. So much for the waiting list,what a joke.

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