Selecting a high school: Not a level playing field
by Dale Mezzacappa
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.