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Applying to high school is a family affair

Having information about the options is key. Then parents and students can navigate the process more smoothly.

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

Maria DeJesus*, 42, emigrated from the Dominican Republic three years ago. Having no knowledge of the range of options, she enrolled her son in the 9th grade at South Philadelphia High, his neighborhood school.

She was never informed that she and her son had many other choices, nor did she receive help with the application process. When she opted for Southern, she had no idea it was rife with ethnic tension.

She said her son was assaulted there on two occasions. In December 2009, Southern’s problems gained national headlines when Asian students were attacked en masse by schoolmates.

Ultimately, DeJesus found support from the immigrant parent support group JUNTOS and was able to transfer her son to Furness High School, from which he graduated in June.

Looking back on the experience, DeJesus said she wishes the District had taken more initiative to inform immigrant parents about school options because it might have meant a different outcome for her son.

"I didn’t know my rights," she said.

Navigating the high school application process can be daunting. The District has 61 special admission, citywide admission, and neighborhood high schools. More than 30 Philadelphia charter schools also offer a high school program.

Depending on the school, applicants must wade through paperwork, go to auditions, enroll in lotteries, and interview with school staff to be admitted. While students and their school counselors take the lead, parents are just as much a part of the process.

Some parents have the system down pat. But many find themselves struggling to get a handle on what’s required. They don’t know the options or where to access meaningful information. Parents with limited English and with special needs children are often at a particular disadvantage.

Understanding the different categories of high schools is the first step. Neighborhood high schools have geographic boundaries, and students are guaranteed admission if the school they attended in 8th grade falls within the feeder pattern. Students living outside the feeder pattern can also apply, but admission is based on available space and is determined through a lottery.

The District’s citywide admission and special admission schools have requirements for grades, test scores, and attendance and behavior records.

Charters are open to all and must hold lotteries if there are more applicants than slots. But they each have their own application process, and many of them have application forms just to be entered in a lottery.

"We work to say to middle school parents that these are the types of schools and opportunities that will be available to your child … and these are the types of questions you should be asking," said Karren Dunkley, deputy chief of the Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement, and Faith-based Partnerships.

One place to learn about the process is Parent University, one of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s key initiatives.

Parent University provides information about the application process in addition to offering classes for parents to improve their work-life skills. The Office of Counseling and Promotion Standards both supports the school counselors and works with Dunkley’s office to educate parents about finding a good school match.

Parent ombudsmen – though recent budget cuts have reduced the number districtwide – are also information hubs for specifics on the process.

Other services for families include high school information meetings, which are conducted in several languages to accommodate non-English-speaking families. Web pages called FamilyNet and StudentNet allow parents and students to access their records, track their academic progress, and conduct research on a variety of high school-related topics, including how to transfer.

Parents can also attend the District’s annual High School Expo, which this year will be held on October 22 and 23 at 440 North Broad Street.

The Notebook asked several parents how they handled the application process. They agreed that it is important to start early, maintain communication, and stay informed.

Starting early

Cathy Roccia-Meier, who lives in South Philadelphia, is a longtime parent advocate.

But, she said, "even with the proper access and information, the process can be a challenge."

Roccia-Meier, 43, is the parent of a special needs child who will attend Science Leadership Academy in September. Her son Pierce was diagnosed with autism in the 4th grade. Since that time Roccia-Meier has worked closely with staff at Nebinger, her son’s elementary school, to understand his academic and social needs.

Roccia-Meier began looking at high schools when Pierce was in 8th grade and considered Constitution High School, Arts Academy at Rush, and Girard Academic Music Program, but SLA seemed to be the best fit. Roccia-Meier said she wishes she started her search a year earlier, though, because the paperwork required for a special-needs student application can be overwhelming.

"Starting in 8th grade is already too late. You really need to start earlier and pace yourself," she said.

Having worked closely with Nebinger, Roccia-Meier knew which high schools presented the best options for special-needs children and understood the application process itself. Even though she wished she had started earlier, she was able to gather the required documents in September and October of Pierce’s 8th grade year, including letters of recommendation and evaluations. She made the application deadline.

While her experience was positive, Roccia-Meier said she realizes that not all parents with special-needs children have the same outcome.

"It varies because one school could be good at getting information to families and another school may not be," she said. "I think for special-needs children, the family has to be become completely involved because there’s a lot of decision-making."

Collecting information

For Tamara Foy of North Philadelphia, the first step to the process was contacting a parent ombudsman. Foy also attended informational meetings at several different high schools, and talked with her daughter Tishae to determine which school she thought would be the best choice.

Tishae wanted to go to Audenried High School – now a charter operated by Universal Companies, Inc. – because that’s where her friends were going. Foy wasn’t opposed, and through the parent ombudsman she learned how Parent University might be able to help her obtain information.

Foy also used Parent University as a resource to sharpen her own academic skills. She said all the knowledge she gained has allowed her to be engaged in her daughter’s education. Foy has taken classes covering a variety of topics, including how to use the Internet, strategies for mediating disputes between children, and time management tips.

Tishae, now 16, is a sophomore at Audenried. Foy said she made a good choice and applauds the District for providing information about the application process through the Parent University. She said it has given her the guidance she and her daughter needed.

"These classes helped me to help her," said Foy.

*a pseudonym