Sweeping changes to Philadelphia’s selective school admissions process were supposed to bring equity, to open the doors of the city’s best schools to qualified students who have historically been underrepresented at Central, Masterman and elsewhere.
But for many families, the new policy — which created a lottery for criteria-based school admission, rather than allowing schools to choose which students they admit — has been problematic and fraught with missteps, introducing new inequities and shutting out some of the very students it was supposed to help. Information has been confusing, and answers have been in short supply.
Most recently, the process was snarled by a technical malfunction that left children in the dark about whether they might come off waiting lists and gain admission to their chosen schools.
“Every step has been unfair. Every step has provided some level of emotional and psychological damage to children. It’s inhumane,” said Sherice Sargent, parent of an eighth grader at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science.
Full admissions data have not yet been released, but Philadelphia School District officials have said that 62% of students who met admissions criteria are Black and Latino; that number was 40% last year.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who announced the admissions changes shortly after he said he would leave his post at the end of the 2021-22 school year, said last week that the district knew there would be bumps and that the challenges thus far have largely been technical and logistical.
“It’s a new process,” Hite said Thursday. “It is a process that we said going into this would inform how we will do this work going forward. The basis for the process is right in terms of creating more opportunities for young people, no matter where they are in the city of Philadelphia.”
Simon Hauger, cofounder of the Workshop School, a project-based, citywide admissions high school in West Philadelphia with no selective criteria, said the new admissions rules will likely harm schools such as his, stripping administrators of the ability to recruit and accept students who would thrive in the school’s small, nontraditional structure.
Unlike New York’s and Boston’s school systems, which revamped admissions processes after long, public-facing processes, Philadelphia announced it was instituting the lottery the day applications opened, in the middle of a pandemic, with virtually no community input, the facts that trouble Hauger and others.
“Why rush this? We can learn from other large school districts. These are children’s lives, and this is an untested process,” Hauger said. Diversifying magnet schools whose demographics don’t mirror the city’s is a must, he said, but the way the district has decided to attempt that is deeply flawed.
“There is no formal system to help children really find a fit. It relies a lot on the children and family having some agency, and thus the inequity,” Hauger said.
When Carver parent Sargent enrolled her daughter in middle school at the North Philadelphia magnet in seventh grade, she was told that Skye would get into the high school if she kept up her grades. Then the rug got pulled out from underneath Skye and her classmates.
Skye didn’t get into Carver or three other schools where she applied, despite strong grades and attendance. She was accepted to Saul, the district’s agricultural school, which lacks the tech programs that align with her interest. Her grades have suffered, and despite having a place on the Carver waiting list, that door is closed — the school over-enrolled its incoming freshman class and won’t be pulling anyone from the wings, the district said.
Skye “has a consolation prize, but it’s just not a good fit for my kid,” Sargent said.
Some qualified students were shut out completely. Liza Herzog’s son, a Masterman eighth grader, got zero acceptances, though he had stellar grades and a strong score on the computer-scored writing test that now factors into admissions.
Herzog, an education professor at Drexel University who has regularly worked with the district, can’t understand why it allowed a system that gives some qualified students multiple acceptances and some zero acceptances.
“There are so many better ways to do this,” Herzog said. “They’re caught in the crosshairs of a failed experiment, but they could start course correcting now.”
Herzog is unsure what she’ll do if her son doesn’t come off any waiting lists. She called Ben Franklin, the family’s neighborhood school, to ask about a tour to explore whether the school was a viable option. The person who answered the phone told Herzog no one had ever asked for a tour before.
“I am devoted to public education, we live in the city,” said Herzog, who has four children. “But I don’t know what I’m going to do after this. I think it’s going to be this slow drip of disenchantment.”
Mitchell Orenstein, who leads Philadelphians for Excellent Schools, a group organized around the magnet school admissions changes, believes based on outreach around the city that about 10% of qualified students received no acceptances — some with straight A’s, some from demographic groups and elementary schools the district purported to help. He described the new admissions process as “cruel and inept.”
Orenstein, father of a seventh grader at Masterman, said if his daughter does not gain admission to any of her choices next year, their neighborhood school — also Ben Franklin — is a nonstarter.
“My kid would never in a million years go to Ben Franklin. It’s not any sort of racial animus, it’s that she wants to go to college,” said Orenstein, who is white. Last year, 35% of Franklin graduates enrolled in college. He said he believes that the district’s pivot to the new process is a clear statement. “What they’re saying for the top-performing students is, ‘We abdicate our responsibility to provide you with an education to get you to college.”
There’s no question that the process has been divisive, with opponents of the revamped admissions process characterized as clinging to structural racism and privilege. For generations, the district denied opportunities to large swaths of children, largely black and brown, and now it’s attempting to change the mix, some say.
Shakeda Gaines, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, said the special admission changes were imperfect, but necessary.
“It was a step in the right direction,” Gaines said. “Do we still have to do a lot more stepping? Absolutely.”