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Fall Guide 2012 Vol. 20. No. 1 Looking Ahead to High School

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Charter boom continues, with 35 high school options

But a draft District study found “significant barriers to entry” at numerous charters.

By by Connie Langland on Sep 27, 2012 11:37 AM
Photo: Benjamin Herold

Three of the city's longstanding neighborhood high schools - Audenried, Gratz and Olney - have been converted to charters. Gratz, on Hunting Park Avenue, is now run by Mastery Charter Schools.

In Philadelphia, gaining admission to a charter high school sometimes involves a scramble to gather burdensome paperwork – not to mention the luck of the draw.

But obstacles or not, thousands of students pursue the charter option. Notebook data show the city’s 35 charter high schools this year expected to enroll more than 15,000 students in grades 9-12.

Three of the District’s neighborhood high schools – Audenried, Olney, and Simon Gratz – are now run by charter groups as part of the District’s Renaissance initiative to turn around low-performing schools.

Those schools as well as three Mastery Charter Schools campuses – at Pickett, Thomas, and Shoemaker – function as neighborhood schools, accepting all students within geographic boundaries established by the District.

For parents and students sorting through options, frustrations abound.

While the District publishes information about neighborhood and special-admit high schools on its website, families must do their own homework to find information on charter schools using the Internet, visiting schools, or attending the High School Expo in late September.

“The high school option system in Philadelphia is more complicated and confusing than choosing a college or university,” said Ethan Bell, dean of students at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD).

Other cities such as Denver have created universal enrollment systems – basically, one-stop shopping for both district-run and charter schools. Such a system is being studied by the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact education initiative.

Charter schools are publicly funded and cannot discriminate but can – and do – establish criteria for admission, said David Lapp, attorney with the Education Law Center in Philadelphia. “What does it mean to have reasonable criteria but not discriminate? That’s really the fundamental question, and there’s not a clear answer by a court,” Lapp said.

A recent District review found “significant barriers to entry” at numerous charter schools, according to a draft report. Among concerns: the length of the application – 24 pages at one school; asking for sensitive information; requiring multiple documents; restricting access to the application form; and requiring face-to-face interviews. Several of the charters up for renewal in recent months have caught criticism from the School Reform Commission for application or enrollment practices.

The Architecture and Design Charter School streamlined its application form but still requires applicants to submit two drawings. “Coming to CHAD, you are choosing a high school major. If you’re not at least somewhat interested in art, you’re not going to be happy here,” Bell said.

Other charter schools make the same point: Families learn about a school’s policies and approach as they go through the application process.

According to the District, a simple application should suffice, one that only seeks information needed to contact a student’s parent or guardian, conduct a lottery if necessary, and place the student in the appropriate grade. The process also should not involve any fee or require summer school.

When applications exceed space, the schools hold lotteries – and about three-fourths of charter high schools now report waiting lists for admission. As the District report noted, both the application due dates and the lottery dates vary greatly, further confusing families.

For students interested in the year-old Renaissance charters – Audenried, Gratz or Olney -- enrolling is straightforward, and there are no waiting lists. Students seeking to attend Gratz, now run by Mastery, should be aware that school starts in August, not after Labor Day.

Olney has been drawing students from beyond its catchment area, many of them from Stetson Middle School, also run by ASPIRA.

“Kids in our catchment have priority, but we accept the others. We just do more with less if we surpass our enrollment cap,” said Alfredo Calderon, ASPIRA executive director.

Audenried also is seeing an uptick in enrollment, said Devon Allen, spokesman for Universal Companies, the school’s charter management organization.

Students are enthusiastic about new academies in health care, diesel/transportation, and culinary arts, including ties to chef Marc Vetri, as well as a partnership with Harcum College, he said.

The new managers at Audenried, Olney, and Gratz tout improved safety and academic performance since their takeovers in 2011.

“What I tell parents is this: First, your children will be safe; and second, they will excel,” said LaQuanda Jackson, Gratz principal.

Overall, however, the performance of charters here has been a mixed bag. The much-cited Stanford University/CREDO study of Pennsylvania charter school performance between 2007 and 2010 found that nearly half of charter schools have “significantly lower learning gains” than traditional public schools, while more than one quarter do better.

An earlier 2008 study by RAND and Research for Action found a “small positive effect on student achievement” for students attending charter schools in grades 9-12.

About the Author

Connie Langland writes about education issues in the Philadelphia region and is a freelance contributor to the Notebook.

Comments (12)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 28, 2012 11:13 am

Application requirements for charter school acceptance is a serious issue which needs to be proactively addressed by the SRC. Serious ethical and legal issues are involved concerning student and parent rights. There are both federal and state issues involved concerning a student's right to a free appropriate public education and their rights to inclusion.

Some of those issues rise to the level of constitutional questions.

These pesky little laws just never seem to go away, do they?

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on September 28, 2012 7:58 pm

Why does the Notebook (as well as other media outlets) KEEP reporting that "three Mastery Charter Schools campuses – at Pickett, Thomas, and Shoemaker – function as neighborhood schools, accepting all students within geographic boundaries established by the District" PLEASE see the quote below DIRECTLY from Mastery Pickett's website:

"If you are interested in our school please come to one of our information sessions. If you would like further information before applying please......."
Here is a quote from Shoemaker's site: "Accepting applications for students in 7th-12th grade for Waitlists."

"To enroll your child in a Mastery School High School, call to sign up for an orientation session."

A catchment area public school does NOT have information sessions or "applications", they have one simple registration form that simply asks for basic information, they do NOT have "waitlists".
Once again, different rules for different types of allegedly public schools. It would be great if reporters could report this and NOT just take the SDP's and Charter Schools' word for it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2012 6:09 am

Penn Alexander a cachment area school has a waitlist do they not?

They also have an application process that requires some pro-active parent involvement. Camping out overnight in front of the school is quite a bit more intensive than filling out some paperwork.

This is what you should expect from a good school.

It is a perverse world you guys live in where parents lining up around the block and putting in for waitlists is a bad thing- some urgent call for action to eliminate the "unfairness" of schools parents are excited to put their kids into.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on September 30, 2012 12:06 pm

Yes, they are the only "catchment area" school allowed to do this--it is also unfair, and is because they get extra funding from Penn. It is a perverse world where children are punished for having parents who are unable (for whatever reason) to be involved or camp out overnight. Public schools are supposed to serve all members of the public, not the select chosen few.

Submitted by annonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2012 12:30 pm

Penn Alexander gets a lot from Penn - $1350/per student more plus Penn fully paid for staffing and other costs to add a kindergarten class. This doesn't include the professional development, maintenance, etc. It is a crime that one so-called public schools gets so much more than other public schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 1, 2012 5:38 am

This is the core problem with the urban ed establishment- why people flee PSD schools for charters when given the opportunity.

This notion that if something isn't uniformly distributed, then no one should have it... Your commitment to this perverse definition of fairness is an ideological vanity that harms students. How does one school receiving extra resources harm other schools or students?

This perspective, which seems quite common, is exactly why urban schools are synonymous with lowest common denominator mediocrity.

You justify this nonsense by giving false choices, like stating Penn (or whoever) should just give money to all schools equally. Well, they won't. And why shouldn't they focus their resources on their immediate neighborhood given their mission?

Seriously, try to focus on what works rather than what fits your ideologically pre-conceived notions of fairness.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 1, 2012 8:57 am

If Penn (or Drexel, or Temple or any other institution) gives to one school, other schools lose out. Look at the inequity between Lea, Wilson and Penn Alexander - all within Penn's defined territory.

You may like inequity of resources but then there will be inequity of outcomes. Creating Penn Alexander perpetuates class stratification within a few blocks.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 3, 2012 4:48 am

There has been inequity of resources and inequity of outcomes since the beginning of human history.

You (the ed establishment) are fundamentally incapable of changing this- you can not create good parents for kids who don't have them. Or win the "drug war".

So instead, you try to create your "equity" by destruction and subtraction- take away some advantage that a school or a kid has to put them on "equal" footing. By what other logic does a voluntary contribution to one school cause another school to lose out? Really, that is a perverse logical distortion.

And in a high poverty city like Philly rife with disfunctional parents, your equity by subtraction ideology absolutely means the schools generally adopt standards suited to the lowest common denominator. This helps neither the needy or the well off (who more often than not just opt out of your system). This equity ideology is also behind the complete lack of discipline in Philly schools. God forbid you try to enforce bourgeois standards on disruptive kids.

Poor quality urban schools that repel the better-off flee are a direct, obvious result of your ideological indulgence- this self-aggrandizing view that your primary responsibility is to create a fair society when you should really focus on delivering the best education.

This equity obsession has been gospel for the urban ed establishment since the 1970's. The results you've produced have been anything but fair to the neediest. Stop blaming others and take some responsibility for your failure here.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 28, 2012 8:24 pm

I agree with the above poster as well note that Audenried and Gratz are not actually charter-schools but instead schools run by outside matter what their "owners" want to claim.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 28, 2012 8:07 pm

Anyone know anything about Education Works? I believe they're running after school programs in some schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 28, 2012 9:23 pm

What about fees charged by Charter Schools?
Administrative fees
Required book fees
$250 mandatory fee to play a sport
If "public schools" aren't charging these fees, why are "public Charter Schools"? Shouldn't these be considered barriers?

What happens when these neighborhood schools reach their enrollment cap? Is this when Wait lists are started and what happens to those children who live in the catchment area but can't get into their neighborhood school?

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