September 24 — 12:03 pm, 2019

High school selection process rewards the privileged and punishes the vulnerable

"The branding of the “Find Your Fit” campaign suggests that the process of matching nearly half of the students in Philadelphia into high schools that require intervention is intentional."

AJ Ernst

bartram high Bartram High School. Photo from Google Street View

The School District of Philadelphia started its high school selection process on Friday, disingenuously inviting students to “find their fit.” Although there have been many improvements across the city, the branding of the “Find Your Fit” campaign implies the work is done when nearly half of the public high schools earned the lowest rating on the Districts’ own School Performance Profile Index in 2018. These schools “require immediate attention and assistance” to address chronically low academic performance and safety concerns. So, how could these schools possibly be considered “fit” for students?

Disparities between schools are neither a new phenomenon or unique to Philadelphia. Still, this misleading marketing strategy distracts us from confronting hard truths about race and class, and how the concomitant burdens ultimately define the lived-experience of students daily. Instead of dismantling barriers to access, the District is endorsing a process that calcifies two educational tracks: one that rewards the privileged and one that punishes the vulnerable.

Before examining the selective admissions process, it is worth asking why it exists in the first place. Attractive magnet programs were originally created to incentivize white families to remain in the city instead of fleeing to the suburbs as public schools began to integrate in the 1960s. Policies that were once blatantly racist have evolved into performance thresholds that achieve the same result. Schools are now more segregated than before Brown vs. the Board of Education 65 years ago.

The branding of the “Find Your Fit” campaign suggests that the process of matching nearly half of the students in Philadelphia into high schools that require intervention is intentional. We know all students do not have equal access to resources that would help them gain admission into selective magnet programs. Even if they had such access, should any student have to earn the right to a high-quality education?

There is danger within the current process since it removes the urgency leaders should feel. In many schools, truly dire conditions plague teachers and students every day: exposure to toxins, lack of resources, overcrowded classrooms, low-quality academics, persistent violence.

The fact that the Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School and John S. Bartram High School exist within the same district, about five miles apart, illustrates how normalized disparity has become in Philadelphia.

Masterman is ranked the second-best public school in Pennsylvania by U.S. News & Report, graduating nearly all students to college. Seventy percent of the students are white or Asian, while African American and Hispanic students make up only 21 percent combined. Merely 31 percent of students are classified as economically disadvantaged even though Philadelphia is the poorest large city in the country.

Meanwhile, Bartram High School attempts to serve a very different demographic population of students, most of whom fall below the poverty line. Ninety-two percent of the students are African American. Only 67% of students graduate from Bartram and a paltry 24% pursue post-secondary education.

The current system continues to segregate students by race and class within the same public system. Bartram should be equipped with the same dynamic resources and programming as Masterman; especially if both schools are to be deemed as a “fit” for students. The glaring gap between these two schools is emblematic of a national problem.

New York is one of the many cities grappling with this challenge. Though 70% of its school system is composed of African American and Hispanic students, they only make up 10% of the enrollment in specialized schools. A panel appointed by the mayor’s office has just advised the elimination of all selective programs in order to encourage desegregation. Mayor Bill de Blasio could reignite a national conversation about structural inequities built into our public school systems when he acts on this recommendation.

Social stratification has a long and complicated history, and tracking in schools has only made the situation worse. Though there are no simple solutions, at least New York is attempting to fix a flawed system. We should at least acknowledge we have a problem. Philadelphia is upholding a system that rewards the privileged and penalizes the vulnerable by endorsing kitschy slogans. Our students deserve better; perhaps leaders better ‘fit’ to serve.

AJ Ernst is dean of the High School Academy at Girard College and a former charter middle school educator. He is pursuing a doctorate at the Penn Graduate School of Education, where he is studying the link between high school admissions and the school-to-prison pipeline. 

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