This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A controversial new policy on student transfers adopted by the School Reform Commission may make it easier next year for families in the District’s Center City Region to gain admission to any of the elementary schools in the region.
A 3-2 SRC vote in February gave priority to pupil transfer requests that are within a region over transfers from outside. The vote left advocates for educational equity troubled that the District has not adequately addressed questions about who might lose access to Center City schools and whether the policy is fair to all regions.
Center City has been the focus of discussion about the new transfer policy. The regional preference policy, as written, applies districtwide, but District officials say it will be implemented first in the Center City Region. It was strongly advocated by the Center City District, a community development corporation that was also influential in the District’s decision to create a Center City Region.
In Philadelphia, students within a neighborhood school’s immediate catchment area are always guaranteed a seat. Under the old admissions policies, transfer applicants from the rest of the city competed on an equal footing for any remaining seats – normally through a lottery – no matter how far away they might live.
The new policy states that the remaining seats at a school will go first to student transfers under the No Child Left Behind law’s school choice provisions. NCLB allows students to transfer out of certain schools that have been identified as needing improvement or persistently dangerous. Next in line for transfer slots are students transferring from other schools within the same region. Any remaining slots at schools will be open to students transferring from outside the region.
Under School District desegregation guidelines, transfers are limited when they harm a school’s racial balance.
In voting against the regional choice resolution, Commissioner Sandra Dungee Glenn argued that the District should first address the factors that are causing families from some regions to flock to other regions like Center City. Dungee Glenn said that until there is greater equity in educational quality among regions, it is unfair to narrow the options of families that feel they cannot find a good school option close to home.
“We have some real disparities. There are many more of what I as a parent would consider good choices in some of our regions than in others,” Dungee Glenn explained.
Len Rieser, co-director of the Education Law Center, who testified on the policy to the School Reform Commission, commented, “If we’re going to move to a system of regional choice, we need to look closely at the extent to which the regions offer equitable opportunities across the city, and that has not been done.”
“No data was shared publicly until two days before the policy was adopted, and the data that was shared didn’t begin to address the issues this policy poses,” Rieser added.
Defending the new transfer policy, CEO Paul Vallas pointed out that the Center City Region’s boundaries are broad and the population reflects that of the District as a whole. He cited a number of steps the District has taken to equalize resources between regions, including mandating extended day, accelerated and gifted programs in every school. He pointed to his administration’s commitment to providing quality options in every neighborhood by “mandating that each region have anywhere from three to six accelerated academies.”
But a District chart on its “accelerated academies” – new magnet programs for K-8 students that are now being planned in over 40 schools – provided support for Dungee Glenn’s argument. While still more accelerated academies are to be identified, only one school has been identified for an academy in the Central Region in North Philadelphia, whereas the Center City Region has eight schools already named as accelerated academy sites.
Dungee Glenn is pushing to amend the new transfer policy to couple it with a new commitment to equalization among the regions.
The new transfer policy does not affect any students who are already enrolled, and sibling preference will continue to be offered in the transfer process. But some predict a significant change in enrollment at a few Center City elementary schools that now attract large numbers of transfer applications from across the city.
At Greenfield School on 22nd and Chestnut, two-thirds of the students transfer in from other regions. At Meredith on 5th and Fitzwater, 47% of students are from outside the region.
The Center City Region is the region with the highest overall percentage of K-8 students coming from outside it. District data show that 1,621 students in the Center City Region – more than one-third of its K-8 students – have transferred in from other regions. The data indicate that many of these students are transferring in from schools that have been chronically low-performing. Less than a tenth of the K-8 students in the region are transfers from elsewhere within the region.
At the February 8 SRC meeting, proponents offered a variety of arguments for giving families within a region preference in transfers over those coming from outside:
- The president of the Center City District, Paul Levy, stressed the importance to Philadelphia’s viability of keeping the booming population of young professionals in Center City. He pointed to research projecting a 43 percent increase in the number of school-age children in Center City and predicted that with this new transfer policy providing a greater array of public school choices within Center City, “we’ll have a dramatic increase in parents who are choosing public schools.”
- Jeff Friedman, co-chair of the East Falls Schools Committee, suggested that the regional choice approach could provide a basis for building stronger school-community partnerships in every region. “Proximity between families, students and their schools fosters a sense of community and mutual accountability that is diminished if not eviscerated if students travel long distances to schools that their families never get to,” he noted. Friedman said that a model of structured partnerships involving businesses, communities and schools was emerging in Center City that should be replicated as part of a regional choice program in each region.
- Three McCall parents said that Center City preference would boost parental involvement at their Society Hill school. “We need parents that will show up to plant flowers, to control the chaotic playground and the newly erected jungle gym, to discuss how McCall will make AYP this year and every year after,” said parent Mary Jo Cannon. “We are convinced that if more local parents had a better chance of sending their children to McCall, the numbers of involved families would increase.”
The neighborhood choice policy applies only to grades K-8, but CEO Vallas says he would support 25 percent regional set-asides at some of the District’s new high schools, though not at established special admissions schools such as Central and Masterman.
“The regions want local set-asides, even for some of their new high schools,” Vallas stated. The Center City Region will see three new high schools with high-profile partners opening in the fall: one in partnership with the Franklin Institute, one with the National Constitution Center, and one (the Academy at Palumbo) with Central High School.