September 24 — 11:00 pm, 2003

For many, the choice is another neighborhood’s high school

Students say diversity, greater academic opportunities make it worth going across the city


Latoya Shuler’s only complaint about her experience at Lincoln High School was the travel time.

Most mornings, she was out the door of her West Oak Lane home at 5:30 a.m. in order to catch the three buses that would get her to Lincoln by the time her 7 am "zero" period started.

One of thousands of Philadelphia high school students, most of them African American, who travel to comprehensive high schools outside of their neighborhood, Shuler said the early mornings and long SEPTA trips were worth the effort.

Roughly 20 percent of Philadelphia’s 55,000 high school students attend a comprehensive high school outside of their neighborhood boundaries, according to 2001 data. All told, over 40 percent of high school students travel around the city to attend schools outside of their neighborhood, counting students attending special admissions magnet and vocational/technical high schools.

At Lincoln High, Principal David Kipphut estimates that about 40 percent of the school’s roughly 2,000 students live outside of the school’s boundaries. The majority of those students, says Kipphut, attended the feeder middle schools to Lincoln as part of the District’s desegregation plan.

Similarly, recent Washington High graduate Lakesha Ruffin was young when she started commuting to schools in the far Northeast from North Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.

Ruffin transferred to Greenberg Elementary School, also in the Northeast, in the third grade. According to Ruffin, the decision was made by her mother, who "wanted me to go to a diverse school where I could meet new people [from] different cultures."

When it came time in eighth grade to decide where to attend high school, Ruffin said that Washington was the natural choice.

Washington was also the automatic choice for Ruffin according to the District’s high school admissions procedure, which states that a student who has transferred to a school outside of his or her feeder pattern has "the same guarantee of a place as a student who lives in the neighborhood."

Greater academic opportunities

Ruffin, Shuler and other students interviewed by the Notebook said their experiences at comprehensive high schools in the Northeast afforded them greater opportunities to take more academically rigorous courses, to interact with a diverse student body, and to attend school in an overall more positive environment.

The students’ reports of their academic experiences at these comprehensive high schools are backed up by the data.

According to State Department of Education statistics and the Inquirer’s 2003 Report Card on the Schools, high schools in the District’s Northeast and East regions offer more Advanced Placement classes and a wider variety of foreign language classes than the 18 other comprehensive high schools in the District.

The schools’ more rigorous course offerings may also be reflected in students’ future plans. Of the graduating seniors at these schools, 61 percent take the SAT, compared to an average of 43 percent at the District’s 18 other comprehensive high schools. Significantly more students at high schools in the Northeast and East Regions also say they intend to pursue some sort of postsecondary education.

Attendance rates, graduation rates, and standardized test scores are also significantly higher when compared to the average for the rest of the District’s comprehensive high schools.

Under CEO Paul Vallas, the District has taken steps to equalize opportunities in all of the city’s comprehensive high schools.

The District’s "Secondary Education Movement" includes plans to offer Advanced Placement courses at all neighborhood high schools, establish open enrollment International Baccalaureate programs at neighborhood high schools, and expand PSAT and SAT preparation programs for all high school students.

Unequal opportunities

While high schools in the Northeast and East Regions offer students more opportunities when compared to the city’s other comprehensive high schools, statistics also raise questions about whether students of color benefit fully from these opportunities.

These high schools have historically had higher percentages of White students in college preparatory classes. State standardized test scores also reveal inequities; higher proportions of African American and Latino students score Basic or Below Basic on the PSSA, while far more White students score in the Advanced category.

High schools in these regions have also been in the public eye in recent years for incidents of racially motivated harassment and violence.

In 2001, a District Attorney’s office investigation into a racially charged fight at Washington High revealed that three African American students were incarcerated unfairly, while White students involved in the fight who were connected with White supremacist activity at the school went unpunished.

Students interviewed by the Notebook, most of whom were African American, said they did not believe that their race influenced their experiences in school. Despite histories of racial inequities at their schools, the students said that they believed that classes at their schools were racially diverse and that students were given same chances regardless of race.

Students praise diversity

In fact, all of the students placed a high value on attending high schools that were racially and ethnically diverse, which often stood in stark contrast to the racially isolated high schools in their neighborhoods.

For Brandon Wallace, a junior at Washington High, the opportunity to be in a diverse setting was paramount. "I like being around a lot of mixed races. It’s good to be around a diverse group," said Wallace. "I’ve learned that it’s possible for a lot of people to be under one roof."

These students also said that rather than being a hindrance, the long distances traveled to and from school made them take school more seriously.

Selina Mouzon, who graduated from Northeast High in Spring 2003, guessed that she would have had a "nonchalant attitude" about school if she had attended her neighborhood school, simply because it would have been closer to home.

"When I was going out to the [Northeast], I would try to hurry up and do everything and leave on time," explained Mouzon. "And I think [in my neighborhood school], I would just be dragging along because it was right there."

In all, the students interviewed by the Notebook said the academic and personal opportunities they gained from traveling across the city to high school outweighed the potential negatives.

Shuler, who starts at Bloomsburg University this fall with plans to become a teacher for deaf children, says that attending Lincoln was a key to her future plans. "It was a big start [for my future]," she said. "Every opportunity you really wanted was there for you."

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