September 24 — 11:00 pm, 2003

Student placement office: helping families navigate transfer maze

Most applications are rejected, but there are a few ways for families to improve the odds


Any Philadelphia public school student who wants to enroll in a school outside of his or her neighborhood boundaries is sure to cross paths with the Philadelphia School District’s Office of Student Placement, which oversees all forms of student transfer and placement within the District.

Originally founded in the 1970s as the Office of Desegregation, the Office of Student Placement’s relatively new name reflects its expanded focus and goals, including the coordination of a wide variety of student placement programs: regular student transfers, special admission magnet schools, criteria-based school admissions, and school choice under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal guidelines (for more information, see chart).

The Office of Student Placement faces the challenge of managing several unique processes, each with a separate set of principles, while also keeping families informed on how to navigate among various options. (Applications to charter schools are handled by each individual charter school.)

Programs’ goals conflict

Much of the misunderstanding about the District’s student placement process can be traced to the varying guiding goals of each separate placement program.

For example, the regular student placement process, which takes applicants in October and November, aims to achieve and maintain an appropriate racial balance at each school, with special consideration given to transfer students who will enhance a school’s desegregation status.

Also part of that process, special admissions magnet schools not only look to achieve racial balance, but also consider test scores, attendance records, behavior, and grades when deciding on admission.

The District also has numerous "criteria-based programs" within the neighborhood high schools and has just revamped its procedures; these programs have standards for grades, attendance, behavior, and lateness that are less stringent than the magnets.

Finally, No Child Left Behind federal transfer policies force the Office of Student Placement to ignore a transfer applicant’s race altogether, requiring that the lowest-performing students from low-income families be given the first opportunity to transfer out of schools that have failed to meet state standards, provided that there is space available in better performing schools.

Michael Churchill, Director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which filed the suit against the District that led to Philadelphia’s long-running school desegregation case, stated that the recent changes brought by NCLB must be "closely monitored."

"The School District has long had a policy that transfers are only permitted if they don’t upset the racial balance," said Churchill. "If that is now being disregarded, it is a significant change in the availability of schools, which will obviously have a major impact on racial balance in the schools."

Lack of information is obstacle

LeTretta Jones, director of the Office of Student Placement, readily admits that the District’s transfer programs are confusing for many people, and that getting factual information out is a major obstacle for her office.

A small staff of ten workers has to provide information to families and coordinate the extensive array of transfer options and the thousands of transfer applications that each program generates.

Jones is concerned by the lack of understanding about the types and requirements of the different transfer processes among parents and students.

"[Placing so many students is] a challenge, but a bigger challenge for me is explaining the programs to the public and getting the information out, and helping people to understand why they may not be granted a transfer."

For every transfer process, Jones says, the Office of Student Placement relies heavily on individual schools, particularly school counselors, to disseminate the necessary information to teachers, students, and parents.

School counselors act as the critical link between the office and parents; they provide information early on and assist with the initial phase of the transfer application process. Yet the complexity of the District’s student placement processes can be daunting for school counselors as well as parents.

Pat Beach, the only counselor at Elverson Middle School, assists approximately 300 students each year with all aspects of the transfer process in addition to her regular counseling duties. Beach predicts, "With NCLB, this year will be more difficult that ever" to give every student the special type of advising he or she may need.

In light of the District’s complex and parallel processes and the obstacles to getting information to families, it is no surprise that most students do not have a positive result after going through the transfer process.

Jones says that not receiving a transfer is far more common than receiving a placement.

"The space is very limited," she explains. "Unfortunately, most of the schools have to turn down the requests. It creates a lot of pressure on this office because when you go seeking another option for your child and you get a disapproval, it is very frustrating for parents."

Tips for success

Although this information may be very disheartening for parents about to begin the process, Jones lays out several actions parents can take to improve their child’s chances of obtaining a transfer:

1. Apply for transfer early in your child’s schooling: "The earlier you apply in grade, the better," says Jones. "If you’re applying for grade 1, 2 or 3, you have a greater chance of getting a transfer for those grades." Jones encourages parents to apply at the entry grade levels for each school.

2. Vary your choices: "Try to investigate the various programs throughout the city," advises Jones. "Most parents focus on a very few schools. You have to get information on a variety of schools, and apply to schools that don’t get 2,000 applications. You enhance your chances of getting selected in the lottery that way."

3. Become familiar with schools’ admission requirements and criteria: "For the special admission schools, you must stay on top of your student’s academic records. For high school admissions, the 7th grade year is the most important in terms of looking at grades and test scores," explains Jones.

She adds, "The biggest misunderstanding that I hear from parents is about admissions guidelines and criteria. Parents do not understand that special admissions schools have criteria that must be met by the children."

Jones encourages parents to gather information about admission guidelines from individual schools’ information sessions, the District’s Web page, and through flyers that the Office of Student Placement sends to schools each year.

4. Know the application timeline and apply early: For all transfers that are not NCLB-related, the process begins October 1. Jones adds, "Typically, we will honor only those requests of parents who had applications in during the regular transfer period [ending mid-November]. We give them priority over anyone else."

Overall, Jones encourages parents who want to successfully maneuver the transfer process to be proactive.

See the resources on Where else to go for school information for additional information about application deadlines and where to get more information. 

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