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Reports urge changes in high school admissions

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

Philadelphia’s high school admissions process is complex, stratified, inequitable, and further destabilizes already struggling neighborhood high schools, according to a series of reports released this winter by Research for Action.

The District could take some immediate action that would improve the situation: speeding up the admissions timeline for selective schools, making the process more informative for families, and improving record-keeping so that neighborhood high schools can plan better for their incoming class, the reports said.

RFA also recommended that the School Reform Commission convene a citywide body to examine the politically dicey issues involved in high school admissions, including whether standards should be changed and the process centralized. Now, principals at selective schools have final say on whom to admit.

However, the chance of any change may have been jeopardized by a false start in March, when circulation of a draft District proposal slated for discussion by a focus group caused a furor among parents at special admissions schools. The document recommended centralizing the process and using a point system that would rate students on criteria including neighborhood and income level along with academic and behavior records.

In response, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said that changing the admissions criteria was not a priority for her, although after seeing the RFA report she had ordered her staff to present her a plan by early March.

Kate Shaw, executive director of Research for Action, said the District’s “troubling” sorting policy contributes to the “concentration of poor Black, Latino and special education students in neighborhood high schools,” some of which graduate less than a third of their entering ninth graders.

Shaw said that implementing a shortened admissions timeline would help neighborhood schools know earlier who will be attending. She said 17 percent of students in those schools start after the year has begun.

“The larger issue of how to address the sorting pattern itself is a thornier issue,” Shaw said. “As we saw, it is not an issue that can be dealt with in a topdown fashion or quickly.”