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Guest Commentary: Show Magnet Schools Some Love

Special admit high schools provide the kind of education city parents want for their kids. So why aren’t we doing more to ensure they succeed?

Guest Commentary: Show Magnet Schools Some Love

Special admit high schools provide the kind of education city parents want for their kids. So why aren’t we doing more to ensure they succeed?

For many parents whose children are approaching high school age, Philadelphia’s magnet schools provide a reason to hope that their children can obtain a decent education and remain Philadelphia public school students. Concerned about both safety and academic quality, these parents would not consider sending their children to most neighborhood high schools. If these students are not lucky and are not admitted to a magnet school of their choice, they typically end up at Catholic school, an independent school or a school outside the city, even if it means faking the family’s address to establish residency in the suburbs — or moving altogether. High school admissions in Philadelphia is serious business for families.

Still, many families simply are unaware of some of the many successful schools that are open to all Philadelphia students. The Philadelphia School District has 22 criteria-based (also known as special admit or magnet) high schools (not just Central and Masterman) and an additional 13 citywide high schools, each of which features special programs for select students interested in what the school has to offer. These schools consistently outperform neighborhood high schools when it comes to rates of graduation and college acceptance. And yet, not only is the School District doing an inadequate job of exposing families of future high school students to them — it’s increasingly defunding them.

The special admit schools have academic and other criteria, like high grades (no C’s or only one or two in four core subjects), good behavior, test scores roughly at the 80 percent level, and regular attendance. With those boxes checked, students can qualify for an admission lottery.d. Citywide schools have no special criteria; anyone can apply, and admission is entirely a matter of luck.

If the School District is serious about providing the best possible education for its students, it needs to show its magnet schools some love.

Some of the criteria-based schools, like the Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP), the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush High School, The William W Bodine High School for International Affairs, Northeast Medical, Engineering and Aerospace Magnet, and Walter Biddle Saul High School of Agricultural Science have been designed to appeal to students with special talents and interests. Parents and students seek them out because they also tend to be smaller, offering more attention to individual students, and are more academically focused.

Although they can apply to transfer to another catchment school, the citywide schools often appeal to families whose children don’t feel comfortable or don’t seem to fit well in their neighborhood (aka catchment) high school. They are perfect for students who need a new start as well as those attracted to programs and classes not available in their neighborhood schools. Charter schools, which currently enroll roughly 40 percent of Philadelphia students, provide other options. As a result, In the 2022 to 2023 school year, fewer than 38 percent of students attended their assigned catchment school.

How the types of schools stack up

Using the Philadelphia School District’s school profiles from 2021 to 2022, which are readily available online, to gather information, we can compare catchment high school and magnet school statistics, which clearly reveal why parents and students would seek an alternative to their neighborhood schools. Many of the criteria-based and citywide enrollment high schools boast results far superior to catchment high schools’. While Overbrook High School, a catchment school, has a four-year graduation rate of 72 percent and a college matriculation rate of 19 percent, criteria-based Science Leadership Academy@Beeber located nearby has a 96 percent 4-year graduation rate and a college matriculation rate of 75 percent. Thomas Edison High School, also a catchment school, has a four-year graduation rate of 55 percent and a college matriculation rate of just 17 percent while criteria-based Bodine has a 94 percent four-year graduation rate and a 65 percent college matriculation rate.

The less selective citywide admission high schools also produce noticeably better results than catchment high schools. Robeson High School has a 96 percent four-year graduation rate and a 39 percent college matriculation rate. Citywide Constitution High School has a 96 percent four-year graduation rate and a 56 percent college matriculation rate, while South Philadelphia High School, a catchment school, has a four-year graduation rate of 62 percent, and only 12 percent of the students move on to college.

In spite of the academic superiority of Philadelphia’s magnet and citywide high school programs, in spite of the fact that students — mostly students of color, many students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds — who attend those schools have a much greater chance of graduating from high school and attending college, since the advent of the school lottery, a number of them are under-enrolled and experiencing yearly budget cuts.

The programs that have attracted students to the schools and assisted them in achieving such comparatively impressive results are being slowly starved to death. An April 2024 article in The Inquirer reported on the drop in enrollment and severe budget cuts at Philadelphia High School for Girls, which has a 93 percent four-year graduation rate and a 76 percent college matriculation rate. A mother of a student in the prestigious International Baccalaureate program told me those cuts included laying off the math teacher who teaches the high-level mathematics required of students seeking the IB certificate. Fortunately, pressure from alumni and parents forced the District to retain the teachers they had planned to lay off.

Given their record, reasonable people might wonder what the School District is thinking when, instead of building on their success, it makes it a practice to withdraw funds from and dilute programs in its highest-performing high schools. Why isn’t the District touting the success of these schools and doing everything it can to ensure that every seat is filled? To take it one step further, we might ask why the District doesn’t abandon its decades-old policy of trying unsuccessfully to bolster the catchment schools and instead make every high school a magnet school.

The lottery has been blamed for the decline in enrollment in many criteria-based schools. Because students can apply to only five criteria-based schools and tend to apply to the best-known and most popular schools, they don’t consider options with which they are less familiar. Last year 700 seats in special admit schools remained open as the lottery concluded, seats that were not expected to be filled. As a result, a few schools are overpopulated and have long waiting lists, while there is plenty of room in others, which might attract students if they had more information about them. Hundreds of students who enter the lottery, hoping for admission to criteria-based schools are unlucky and are not admitted to any of the schools they select. In the past, they were not given any other options. This year for the first time, the District offered these students seats in schools they did not select. We don’t yet know how many took advantage of that offer.

It’s more than time to realize that magnet schools have discovered more than one formula for success that all high schools need to emulate. 

Building on magnet school success

There are impediments for families considering schools in other parts of the city. Transportation can be an issue, a challenge the School District might need to address. Understandably, some students prefer the safety of their own neighborhoods and the comfort of their local friends. Still, more information and more encouragement could motivate many more families to seek enhanced educational opportunity.

Most importantly, empowering schools to make exceptions for students who don’t meet the qualifications for the lottery for trivial or temporary reasons (illness resulting in poor attendance for a time or a lowered grade point average for one semester when the family moved or there was a family crisis) could make a big difference for many middle schoolers seeking better opportunities in high school. Even those who don’t reach the bar set by criteria-based schools deserve options and choices and a chance to succeed in a different environment that might better appeal to their interests or meet their needs.

If the School District is serious about providing the best possible education for its students, it needs to show its magnet schools some love. Instead of cutting their budgets and requiring them to scale back their special programs, they need to assist the schools in filling all available seats. Surely the distrust that led the District to take authority to admit students away from school principals and school-based committees can be repaired, the process monitored, and more flexibility enabled. This isn’t about enabling bias or keeping deserving students of color out of elite schools but seizing the opportunity to give as many students as possible a chance.

As is often true of the School District, they see allocating resources as a zero-sum game. If magnet schools benefit, catchment schools, which a majority of students attend, suffer, but such thinking creates major barriers to improvement. It’s more than time to realize that magnet schools have discovered more than one formula for success that all high schools need to emulate. The problem of how to improve high schools has challenged the School District for decades. In the short term, providing more opportunities for more students across the city seems like a no-brainer. Moving forward, supporting and learning from what works, rather than trying to shore up what doesn’t, seems like an obvious strategy to take us in the right direction.

Peshe C Kuriloff, Ph.D. was a professor of practice at Temple University, and is now retired. She has five grandchildren currently attending Philadelphia public schools.

The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who represent that it is their own work and their own opinion based on true facts that they know firsthand.


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