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Valedictorians find success despite school-choice struggles

In high school selection, the opportunities can be elusive.

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

Janette Rivera, the 2010 valedictorian of Kensington High School of Business and Finance, knows the difference between a good school and one that is not so good. A Philly native, she left the city at age seven for Massachusetts, only to return just in time for high school.

“Stuff we learned in two months there, we learn in six months here [in Philadelphia],” she said, sitting outside the skyscraper housing Independence Blue Cross/Blue Shield, where for the last three summers she has interned for its CEO, Joseph A. Frick.

Rivera stayed home for nearly a year after her family returned to Philadelphia. She had trouble enrolling anywhere while her family sorted out issues, and got no information about high school options.

“They gave my mom a rough time just getting me into Kensington. I said, ‘You know what, I’ll just go there,’” said Rivera.

There have

never been more high school choices in Philadelphia. Not even counting charters, the number of public high schools has doubled in the past decade. While some new schools long existed as programs within schools, most of the additional schools represent completely new opportunities.

Many students are never able to access those opportunities in what has become a complex application and admissions process. But interviews with eight valedictorians at non-elite high schools found that while choice eluded them, success did not.

Even at Kensington Business, a neighborhood high school where only 37 percent of students graduated on time in 2009, there are students like Rivera, who received a full scholarship to Connecticut College for this fall.

That success, however, does not mitigate the real problems with Philadelphia’s hierarchy of high school options, in which motivated, high-achieving students can get shortchanged educationally if they don’t have access to the right information and lack good advocates.

A series of policy briefs released this year by Research for Action showed that while 70 percent of students seek to go somewhere other than their neighborhood school, only 45 percent of those who apply ever enroll in one of their choices. Neighborhood schools, which must accept all students in their feeder area, are typically characterized by high teacher and student turnover, a large special needs enrollment, fewer challenging courses, and low graduation rates.

“High schools are selecting students rather than students choosing schools, robbing students and families of the agency that school choice is supposed to provide,” argued the first of these briefs, called Context, Conditions and Consequences: Freshman Year Transition in Philadelphia.

Of the students who entered high school in 2006, 57 percent graduated on time in 2010, the District reports. But graduation rates vary widely by school, from nearly 100 percent at some special admission high schools like Masterman to less than 30 percent at some neighborhood schools.

This means that the even the most diligent students who lose out in the choice process can enter an environment in which failure and dropping out, rather than excellence, represent the norm.

Many, like Rivera, learn to make the best of it.

“I had an internal motivation from the age of twelve,” she said. “Education became a refuge for me. Deep down, I knew education would take me far.”

Of the eight valedictorians interviewed, most had spent the majority of their academic career outside the District. Five of the eight were immigrants or first generation Americans.

One arrived in Philadelphia from West Africa in the middle of winter, and stepped out into the snowy city for the first time in a sundress. Two were limited in their choices because they needed to enroll in English for Speakers of Other Language (ESOL) programs.

Bruchette Myrtil emigrated from Haiti in 2006 and spent two years in high school in Tennessee before moving to Philadelphia. A month into classes, due to paperwork problems, she entered Olney High School as a junior.

As she walked through the metal detectors for the first time, she thought to herself, “Are we going to prison?”

By the time Myrtil discovered selective admission schools like Central, she was told they had no room.

After more paperwork, Myrtil was transferred to Roxborough High for AP and honors classes that were nonexistent at Olney. But even there, she said, classes were taught “straight out of the book.”

Myrtil, who is headed to Elizabethtown College in Lancaster on scholarship and wants to be a doctor, understood she had been put at a disadvantage. “I wish someone had told me about schools like Masterman and Central. They didn’t tell me about my options,” she said.

Myrtil and Rivera, who arrived after eighth grade, never had a shot in the high school admissions game. Asia Norton, on the other hand, had support, but was still a casualty.

She was enc

ouraged by her teachers at Clymer Elementary to apply to Masterman and Imhotep Charter, among others. But her standardized test scores didn’t pass muster for the most selective schools, and she lost out in the charter lottery. So she ended up at William Penn, which in recent years has graduated fewer than half its students.

She finished first in the 2010 graduating class and is attending Millersville University.

Norton’s break came when she was accepted into Philadelphia Futures, which recruits students primarily from neighborhood schools for afterschool enrichment, mentoring, and college preparation. There she met others who shared her college dreams. This summer, she took classes to boost her skills at the Futures-sponsored Drexel University Summer Institute.

“My high school didn’t get me to the level that I should be at [for college], but this is my back-up plan, to push me a little further,” said Norton.

Monique Pennington also had a rocky ride before ending up as valedictorian at Mastbaum Vocational High School.

Pennington applied to several citywide admission schools. She chose Mastbaum because she wanted to study cosmetology.

Subsequently, however, she found out that it was no longer offered. Instead, she concentrated on nursing and is headed to Community College of Philadelphia. She plans to get her nursing degree from Drexel University.

Pennington spent eight years at Ludlow Elementary, a District Empowerment School due to its poor performance. She had a counselor who helped her with applications, but her crucial 7th and 8th grade years were spent with substitute teachers. “If we had a steady teacher, we would have learned more” and had a better shot at selective schools, she said.

Theara Lanh, who emigrated from Cambodia at the beginning of 8th grade, had few choices because of his limited English.

“When I came, I didn’t know what was good so I just went where my teachers told me,” said Lanh, who graduated from Samuel Fels High. Teachers at Grover Washington Middle School directed him there for the school’s ESOL program.

“Good or better schools don’t have ESOL,” said Lanh, while at Fels one in 10 students is an English language learner.

The RFA briefs show that ELLs and special education students are underrepresented at the most selective schools; at Masterman and Central, for instance, the numbers are below 1 percent. Overall, Whites, Asians, girls, and higher-income students fare better in the choice process.

When RFA released its reports, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman seemed ready to take action. In a statement she said she agreed with most findings and had “already identified the revamping of the high school admission process as a priority.”

Soon after, administrators were seeking preliminary feedback on a point system that gave weight in admissions to zip code, income level, and diversity, along with traditional academic measures. But when the draft became public and parents with children in selective high schools protested, Ackerman said that she had “no intention” of changing the process.

Lanh was never able to transfer to a selective school because his English wasn’t good enough. But that didn’t stop him from taking Calculus 1 and 2 through a program at Community College, graduating as Fels’ valedictorian, and being admitted to Penn State University. He was motivated by his mother, who works in a meat factory and doesn’t want that for him. “She always told me I had to study hard,” he said.

Lanh, like the others, demonstrates that being a valedictorian means overcoming obstacles and surpassing expectations.

Rivera made Kensington Business what she wanted it to be, reaching out to Principal Eileen Maicon-Weissman for support and fighting to get the school to offer higher-level classes.

Norton explained, “I don’t need to go to this [or that] school to make something of myself. I can go to any school and make something of myself. It’s all on me.”

Myrtil described her academic career in Philadelphia, dotted with dramas such as evacuation of Olney for fear of an airborne toxin, “a preparation for life.”

“It’s not always going to be quiet and calm,” she said.

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