What insiders say about applying to high schools
Starting early, visiting schools, and showing enthusiasm can all make a difference.
by Ruth Rouff
When it comes to learning about and applying to high schools in the School District of Philadelphia, what you need to know might not be found in the official guide, the District’s High School Directory.
Principals and guidance counselors interviewed by the Notebook offered advice, tips, and strategies – the most repeated one being the importance of getting an early start.
“Parents have to begin researching the schools long before the 8th or 7th grades,” says Johnny C. Whaley, Jr., the principal at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), a special admission school. “It’s incumbent upon parents to know how to read standardized test [results] and to identify areas where students need to improve.” Whaley believes that “the proactive way to go about high school selection is to identify what your child needs academically long before 7th or 8th grade.”
Faith Zaback, a counselor at Meredith, a K-8 school, said she talks with 7th graders at the beginning of the school year to impress on them that high school principals will be looking at their grades, behavior, test scores, attendance, and lateness record for that year. At the end of 7th grade, she hands out the directory and assigns students a “scavenger hunt” to familiarize them with the requirements for various schools.
Zaback prepares 8th graders for the interview process by having them brainstorm questions and do practice interviews “to feel comfortable talking about themselves.”
The directory doesn’t emphasize that students may visit many of the schools to get a feel for whether they would fit. Tom Davidson, principal at Constitution, a citywide admission school with a civics/government focus, advertises his school’s open house at the District’s High School Expo in late September. Prospective students may “shadow” Constitution students from class to class for a half-day.
Similarly, principal Chris Lehmann at the special-admission Science Leadership Academy encourages students and their parents to visit and get “a sense of the flavor of the school.” Later on, if a student applies to SLA, that student must call the school to schedule an interview. Lehmann believes the interview is very important. “It’s the student’s chance to shine,” he says.
Principals stressed that they place a high value on the recommendations of counselors, teachers, and elementary or middle school principals. “We do make phone calls to guidance counselors to get recommendations,” said Davidson. He added that principals will often point him toward a particular student – input he welcomes.
Lehmann said his school also calls counselors “to get as rich a picture of every student as we can.”
It is not widely known that citywide and special admission schools are somewhat flexible about their admissions criteria. Although all the principals interviewed stated that all the students they admit are well qualified to attend, there appears to be some “wiggle room” in meeting specific criteria. While Davidson said that Constitution only accepts students who meet its stated admissions criteria, he noted, “We look at the criteria in a holistic fashion. If a student happens to be weak in one area but strong in other areas, that doesn’t necessarily preclude admission.”
Principal Adrienne Wallace-Chew at the Academy at Palumbo was more direct. “Sometimes you go outside the criteria,” she said. Of critical importance at Palumbo, which doesn’t require an interview, is a handwritten essay that prospective students are required to submit on a topic of their choice.