In a great understatement combined with much-needed empathy, a school administrator at one of the city’s special-admit magnet schools this week summed up this year’s District School Selection Process thusly:
“Admissions is super weird this year. We are still figuring it out, too. My heart goes out to you.”
Parents, your freakout has been seen. Commence freaking out.
That this is an actual comment from an actual Philadelphia educator is a sign of just how baffling the process of high school admissions is this year. It’s also a sign of how the struggle to achieve equity can leave us with a whole different set of problems—and can fail to ultimately solve real ones. Will changing the way students are admitted into high schools with high standards really open the floodgates to a different, needier population of kids? Will it really make for a more just educational system? Or are we sort of solving one small problem while looking past the bigger issues at hand?
It’s not always the case that people have to lose in order for others to win; but it is, sometimes. That is hard. And it’s unfair in its own way.
Let me back up: Just weeks into the start of another pandemic school year, the School District of Philadelphia announced in October that it was changing the way public school 8th graders would be admitted to the city’s magnet high schools for the 2022-23 school year. In addition to near perfect 7th grade grades and attendance, this year’s applicants to five of the top-rated criteria-based schools—Masterman; Central; Academy at Palumbo; Carver High School of Engineering and Science; and Parkway Center City Middle College—will be required to submit a proctored essay, which will be graded by a computer to (apparently) avoid bias.
Then, for the first time, the pool of applicants who qualify will be entered into a lottery, which will be weighted so students from six underrepresented zip codes will be prioritized. (Previously principals or school advisory groups selected students, mostly based on test scores and grades.) Because of the pandemic, this is the second year that no schools require PSSA scores.
The goal, as explained by the School Board, is laudable: In a district that is 47 percent Black and 23 percent Hispanic, the city’s top-rated academic high schools are overwhelmingly White and Asian. At Masterman, for example, 43 percent of students are White and 27 percent Asian; at Central, it’s 30 percent White and 39 percent Asian—according to the district, 62 percent of those students are economically disadvantaged, but it is also apparently true that a disproportionate number hail from certain neighborhoods.
The change, part of the School Board’s Goals and Guardrails plan, is intended to even out those numbers, providing access to the city’s most academically rigorous schools to children of all neighborhoods. (And, indeed, at least one analysis of magnet school research, by the nonprofit think tank Learning Policy Institute, declared that a lottery system is one of the best ways to ensure magnets are integrated.) It is also, district spokeswoman Monica Lewis says, intended to remove the perception that the School Selection Process is biased towards certain affluent neighborhoods, or influenced by parents who may know someone who works for the district.
“As a district, we have made a commitment to being an antiracist organization,” Sabriya Jubilee, the district’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion said in the Inquirer last month. “We recognize that there will be people who are uncomfortable, but we’re leaning into that discomfort, and we’re going to do what we need to do to do right by our schools.”
To be clear: Only about 5,000 young people attend these particular magnet schools, so this affects a small percentage of public school students in the city. Other, more widespread changes—like who our new superintendent will be, and how tens of thousands of students will be admitted to the other 30-plus special admit schools—are more pressing for more students in the city. But the issue these changes have raised is a microcosm of the struggles inherent in the Philadelphia School District, and that accompany a push for equity.
At the time of the announcement, District officials were heavy on purpose but shockingly light on details. A couple weeks later, during a Zoom town hall designed to explain the process, that was still the case. Parents had so many questions: How will students access the essay? When will they have to take it? Which neighborhoods will get a preference? What will happen if my child doesn’t get into the school of her choice? How does a computer grade an essay? What kind of help will you give to students from less strong schools who might struggle to keep up with advanced work? Why are you doing this now?
To most of those questions, the answer was: We are still working on that. Which is, let’s be honest, pretty slipshod. After a year of remote learning, followed by a messy start to the new school year, the district drops a monumental change on parents without first having a plan for executing it? That is poor management, compounded by poor customer service, and speaks again to the district’s deafness to how little trust many families already have about its ability to get things done. (See: 2019’s Science Leadership Academy construction mishaps, still front of mind for many of these same parents.)
Some schools are, frankly, better than others at educating Philadelphia children. And this is the real crux here. Students from elementary schools in underserved neighborhoods deserve to be able to have seats in Masterman and Central and Carver. But many of those elementary schools are not preparing students to succeed at the highest academic levels.
This was, predictably, followed shortly after by a petition on Change.org for “A better School Selection Process to BOTH promote equity AND support the needs of students” that was signed within 48 hours by 900 people (and now by over 1,300) demanding the district delay implementation of the changes. The petition reads, in part:
We are parents of school-aged children living in Philadelphia. All of us strongly share the School District of Philadelphia’s concerns about the lack of equity in the Philadelphia public school system, and we fully recognize the need for proactive change to dramatically improve equity for all Philadelphia school children.
However, we are very disappointed that the District has proceeded to push forward major changes to the School Selection Process in an unduly rushed manner; without prior notice before the start of the Selection Process; and without engaging community stakeholders in a thoughtful, deliberative, transparent, and accountable manner. As a result, we are very concerned that the entire process is fundamentally flawed and will not be one that supports the best interests of the children of Philadelphia, many of whom are still recovering from the mental toll of the pandemic and remote learning.
It does seem reasonable, as one parent suggested in the town hall, to wait to make the change until the details have been ironed out, to give families some lead time on figuring out an alternative, and to give shell-shocked 8th graders still recovering from pandemic schooling a break. Some questions have since been cleared up on the District’s website; many remain, like how a computer is a good gauge of writing quality, though Lewis says Parkway has used this essay system for admissions for several years.
It is also true, though, that any change to the system, at any time, will anger some people, be celebrated by some people, and seem besides the point to still others. And we’ve actually already seen this once in Philly, in 2010, when then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman proposed changes to the school selection process for the sake of diversity, only to reverse direction because of public outcry.
Then, as now, the idea of equal access to high-quality education for all came face to face with the reality of parenting while progressive. For all the last couple years’ push for equity—in the workplace, in criminal justice, in finance—it’s the realm of education which is the most fraught in cities like Philadelphia. It’s not just that our education system is horribly, unfairly unequal, with quality dependent on zip code. Or that schools’ resources are defined by the amount of money parents are able to contribute. Or that the people who teach in our mostly Black and Brown district don’t look like their students, or come from their backgrounds. Or that choice often looks like picking between two lesser options.
It’s also that we’re talking about the future of entire generations of Philadelphians, and their families. The reality is that most of the city’s neighborhood high schools are not the schools of choice for people who have a choice. That is shameful. Every student should be able to go to school in their neighborhoods and leave with an education that has prepared them for college or well-paying work. As Lewis at the District puts it, “We’ve also got to work to ensure that all of our schools are schools that students want to aspire to.”
For now, many middle class families with options, magnet schools are a reason to stay in Philly, an assurance that not moving to the suburbs for education can be a good and right choice. That’s important, for the health and success of Philly. For less affluent, predominantly Black and Latino Philadelphians, magnet schools can seem like a way out and up. That is, after all, their whole raison d’etre: Philly’s magnet schools came about in the mid-20th Century as a way to ensure that high-achieving poor students had the same educational opportunity as their wealthier peers in private schools. But there are limited seats in these schools, which inevitably sets students up in opposition to each other.
“Admissions is super weird this year. We are still figuring it out, too. My heart goes out to you.”
If you want to see how hard this issue can be, look to New York, where the top-rated special admit schools are almost entirely white and Asian, despite Black students and Hispanic students making up 70 percent of the district. Mayor Di Blasio has made some attempts to change that, but the ensuing outcry has put a halt to any real progress. And in truth, it is complicated: It’s hard to fault immigrant Asian families of little means who spend what they have on tutoring programs to help their children do well on school entrance exams.
This conversation about school integration goes back 60 years in America, and its modern iteration was the subject of the 2019 New York Times podcast “Nice White Parents,” about the racial divide in a Brooklyn public school—in a city that otherwise is the heart of urban progressivism. But progressivism has its limits, too, as Richard Buery, president of charter school network Achievement First, laid out in a conversation in the Times after the podcast aired:
Desegregation has failed because America has not really tried. And the reason why no one in America has really tried is because, I think, the majority of Americans are not actually interested in integration.
They fear sending their children to school with Black and Latino children, or because they fear sharing resources with those students, and/or because they view education essentially as a zero-sum game and worry that, If I do something that expands opportunity for some other kid, my child may suffer in their access to privilege or access to opportunities or access to resources. And most humans are not willing to risk their own children for their values and ideals.
Similarly, during the town hall in progressive-minded Philly, you could almost hear the agony in parent’s voices, as they struggled to come to grips with the knowledge that their own children—who worked hard, have the grades, and expected to face the same admissions process as they were promised—might now be on the outside. It’s not always the case that people have to lose in order for others to win; but it is, sometimes. That is hard. And it’s unfair in its own way.
What’s most unfair, though, is what the minutiae of school admissions side-steps: That some schools are, frankly, better than others at educating Philadelphia children. And this is the real crux here. Students from elementary schools in underserved neighborhoods deserve to be able to have seats in Masterman and Central and Carver. But many of those elementary schools are not preparing students to succeed at the highest academic levels. Creating a system that makes their chances of admission easier doesn’t change that fact.
Lewis, though, contends that argument is short-sighted. “We don’t know what that child from that school is capable of,” she says. “People think that just because you go to a certain school you’re only able to accomplish so much. Maybe we haven’t given students from certain neighborhoods and certain schools the opportunity to thrive. Why not use this as an opportunity to see what that child can do?”
Lewis says the goal, though it “won’t happen overnight” is for every school to be a high-quality school that prepares its students for success. Of course that’s the goal. And it should be possible. A report released last summer found better-than-expected academic progress at several urban school districts around the country over the last decade. You’ll be disappointed—though maybe not surprised—to hear that Philly was not among them. In Washington, D.C., Detroit, Charlotte and other cities, progress has been steady, if still slow, in reading and math among 4th and 8th graders, with the racial disparity also narrowing. Philly elementary and middle school students, by the metric used in the study, fared worse in 2019 than 2009.
It’s this—the 33 percent proficiency rate in reading among 3rd graders, for starters—that is where real change must happen in Philadelphia schools.
The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic mobility. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
Header Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash