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Negotiating the high school admissions maze

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In 2005, when Meade School’s first 8th grade class moved up to high school, less than 10 percent of those students were accepted to schools other than their neighborhood high school. This was a disappointing result for the many students who had sought admission to special admission schools. It was also disappointing for our teachers. Our staff decided that this was not an acceptable outcome. We resolved to do better in future years.

For the next five years we worked to develop systems and processes that would assist our students gain admission to the high schools of their choice. Our staff worked hard to figure out how to negotiate the high school admissions maze.

Initially, we took the time to try to figure out why so many of our students had received rejection notices. Many of them had done well in 8th grade. They had good grades and their PSSA test results were in the basic and proficient range. But when we looked more closely at their academic, attendance, and behavior records, we observed that their performance in 6th and 7th grade was not as strong as it should have been.

With this observation in mind, we put a greater emphasis on building our students’ high school awareness starting in the 6th grade.

  • We began to include these younger students in all of our middle school assemblies.
  • When representatives from various high schools came to promote their schools, we made sure that our 6th and 7th graders were at those presentations.
  • Whenever a middle school student was involved in a disciplinary infraction, we pointed out to the child and their parents that a history of poor behavior could affect what high school would accept them.
  • We explained to students and their parents that a poor attendance record would be considered as a negative in the high school admission process.
  • Teachers regularly reminded their students during lessons that it was their grades in 7th grade that received the most attention when a high school was considering whether or not to admit them.

Two years ago we realized that our initial efforts were not enough. So we significantly increased the supports provided to our incoming 8th graders. We formed a high school admissions support team. This group included the principal, counselor, members of the leadership team, and classroom teacher volunteers. Utilizing this team, we were able to assign one adult mentor to a group of five 8th graders. In these smaller group settings, each child was able to receive more personalized attention.

The staff mentors met individually with their assigned students several times during September and October. At these meetings, using a high school guide booklet, they helped the students to identify high schools that matched with their interests. They then assisted the students in filling out the application form. Mentors also discussed each student’s choices with their parents and made sure that the parent signed off on the application.

The role of the high school support team did not end with the submission of the application forms. The mentors:

  • Conducted writers workshops with mentees who needed to submit essays.
  • Assisted students to create and organize portfolios for the schools that required them.
  • Conducted mock interviews to help prepare the students to more comfortably deal with the real thing.
  • Practiced making introductions with the students.
  • Helped students figure out what to say about their interests and future objective.

Our staff kept track of the interview schedules of various high schools and reminded students about their appointments. Team members wrote letters of recommendation for mentees. Staff also gave fashion support as to appropriate dress for an interview.

On interview day, members of our support team helped students to tie their ties and tuck in their shirts. Someone helped them to figure out how to get to the school by public transportation. If they didn’t have the fare for Septa, we gave it to them. If the route was too confusing, we sent an adult along with them.

Even after the final decisions were made, we continued to support 8th graders. When parents became nervous about their child traveling to another neighborhood, we would call them and reassure them it would be all right. When a student who was doing well in 8th grade was not accepted to a high school due to a less than stellar 7th grade performance, I would contact the principal of the rejecting school and plead the student’s case.

Anyone who is truly interested in developing a deeper understanding of the obstacles that confront 8th graders in their attempts to obtain admission to the high school of their choice should read Meade School’s blog post. You will find there the comments of many Meade students. They will tell you, in their own voices, what the high school admission process was like for them.

This September, 19 of Meade’s 8th graders from the class of 2010 enrolled in either a citywide or special admission school. Out of a class of 31, this equals 61 percent of the students. This year, there was far less disappointment.

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