September 6 — 4:13 am, 2005

Center City preference needs SRC approval

A new “preferred choice” admissions policy built around academic regions will go before the School Reform Commission next month, a School District official said, opening the way for Center City students to be given preference in admissions to any elementary school located within the newly established Center City Academic Region.

Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton, during an August interview in which he explained the upcoming proposal, described “preferred choice” as an approach that would allow students “movement throughout a region to meet the needs of individual children and their families.”

He said the proposed SRC policy would not be limited to Center City. That region will “serve as a training ground, or laboratory, to begin exploring some of these options,” Thornton said.

A similar arrangement had been made in the high school being developed in partnership with Microsoft Corp., Thornton pointed out. In that case, he said the SRC had okayed a large regional catchment area for the school, providing first preference to students in that area but allowing admission to some students from other parts of the city.

“But more and more, as our schools become more highly specialized, it’s something we are going to have to begin to take a look at, as we begin the theme schools,” he said, referring to the establishment in elementary schools this school year of such school models as Montessori and International Baccalaureate.

The District has a history of court rulings that schools serving predominantly students of color do not offer their students equal educational opportunities. So a proposal to give Center City students an advantage in applying to some of the city’s most sought-after elementary schools has raised concerns among some education equity advocates about how to balance the needs of Center City with the rights of students in other neighborhoods.

District officials point out that the Center City region’s elementary schools are racially and economically quite diverse. Several rank among the District’s high-achievers, with all but one of the 13 schools scoring well enough on state tests in 2004 to meet No Child Left Behind targets for Adequate Yearly Progress. Bache-Martin, Greenfield, McCall, and Meredith, all in that region, typically receive hundreds of applications, sometimes for just a handful of transfer slots filled by a lottery process.

Advocates of the Center City preference maintain that it will boost the number of families that stay in Center City, strengthening both the tax base and the city’s public school system.

A study commissioned by the Center City District found a steady loss of families with school-age children, who choose to move from Center City to area suburbs to secure better academic and safety environments for their children, without the cost of private schooling.

The admissions preference is part of a broad Center City school-improvement initiative, for which the Center City District has secured a $250,000 grant. The effort supports the region’s schools with such resources as a website, mailings, additional marketing, establishment of admissions counselors, and the services of architects whose work will enhance the “curb appeal” of the schools.

Philadelphia students who wish to attend schools other than the school in their immediate neighborhood must submit an “EH-36” transfer application by November 19 for fall 2006.

Both the Notebook and more recently the Philadelphia Inquirer have previously reported that Center City students would receive preference in admissions transfers to the new region’s schools, except for special admissions schools such as Masterman.

But first, Thornton told the Notebook, “The whole issue around preferred choice has to go before the SRC.”

He explained, “That’s a paradigm shift as to how we assign kids to schools.”

The Center City District’s schools website for months has touted the proposed preference, promising Center City parents that beginning fall 2006, their children will receive “priority status” in admissions to any of the 13 elementary schools within the new region.

Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District, insisted that the information promising priority admissions on his organization’s website was “consistent with everything” the School District has established.

The planned change in Center City school admissions has suffered from missteps, miscommunication and lack of clarity since plans for it were revealed last year.

One controversy erupted last spring at the highly sought-after Masterman, a grade 5-12 school located in Center City that takes high-achieving students from across the city based on grades and test scores. After a letter alerting parents of the new preference plans drew angry protests from some Masterman parents, the District sent letters to parents clarifying that the Center City initiative’s priority admissions plan would not affect Masterman and other special admissions schools such as the High School for Creative and Performing Arts.

During a press briefing in May, Vallas said, acknowledged that there had been a push in Center City to establish a set-aside for neighborhood residents at the highly sought-after school.

"But we haven’t signed off on that, and I don’t anticipate that we will."

City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown told the Notebook that the School District had been unclear with her about its intentions for the new Center City region.

“When I first heard whispers in the spring (about the priority status), I began to inquire myself to see if the idea put forth was a major proposal,” she said. “They did not acknowledge that it was a real idea. So I had difficulty in putting my thumb on it. I got mixed signals.

“Now we know it’s real,” she said, after hearing of Thornton’s “preferred choice” proposal going to the SRC.

"Public school choice should be made first to parents who already have their children in the public school system," Blondell-Reynolds said. "If the School District is going to use this new test model proposal, then they need to give preference to parents who have always had faith that the system was going to get better. They never left."

Preference remains a topic some District officials seem uncomfortable in discussing.

Asked if a transfer slot in a Center City school would be offered first to a student from another part of Center City or one from Northeast Philadelphia, Center City Regional Superintendent Janet Samuels told a reporter, “I’m not going to talk about giving preference to anyone based on what the circumstances are, no matter how you ask the question.”

Samuels volunteered that, “Mr. Vallas’s goal is to look at placing all children based on their immediate catchment, region and then the larger city.”

District school choice provisions allow students to request transfers to other neighborhood schools as space allows through the EH-36 transfer process. Lotteries are held for schools where there are more applicants than seats. Applications are due in the fall and transfers announced in the spring.

Additional choice options are offered under No Child Left Behind provisions to students from schools that have not made ‘Adequate Yearly Progress.” Students may also transfer based on “extenuating circumstances,” approved on a case-by-case basis.

Thornton acknowledged, “Many schools in Center City happen to be schools of choice for children outside Center City.”

Samuels maintained that Center City was not getting singled out for special treatment. She said, “I know one of the big things people are interested in is the issue of equity. And certainly, it’s something I’m interested in as well. The notion of partnership schools, activities, and other programs — they’re the same kinds of things I know Mr. Vallas is hoping will happen in all areas of the city.”

Levy argued that critics of the Center City preference were “losing sight of this whole issue.”

More educational options in that region would entice more families with school-aged children to stay put and to contribute to the city’s tax base, and increase the number of well-heeled, highly educated parents who traditionally are more active in supporting schools.

“Clearly, the District, in creating an academic region, recognizes that a growth in the number of children in Center City is an extra opportunity for the School District and the city,” Levy said.

Laurada Byers, board chair for the Russell Byers Charter School at 19th and Spring Garden streets agrees. For more than a year, she’s been interested in the District establishing a catchment area for her school, and she said that for convenience’s sake, she would accept the same one drawn up for the Center City region.

How a catchment area for a charter school would be reconciled with state law is unclear; the charter school law does not provide for admission preferences based on neighborhood.

Byers said saving the Center City residential tax base was an issue important to her late husband, for whom the charter school is named.

“See what happened to the neighborhood around Sadie Alexander,” she offered, speaking of the University of Pennsylvania-assisted school whose presence sparked a spike in housing prices in its West Philadelphia and University City area.

Councilwoman Brown acknowledged that the tax base argument “has some sense of logic to it.”

“I believe in supporting the School District when public policy tells me what they’re doing is fair and right and equitable,” she said, “But I’m also prepared to let them know that I’ll be watchful in determing whether what what they’re doing is fair and equitable across the system.”

Notebook Editor Paul Socolar contributed to this report. Contact him at pauls@thenotebook.org or 215-951-0330, ext. 2107.
Contact Notebook staff writer Sheila Simmons at 215-951-0330 x156 or sheilas@thenotebook.org.

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