This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
For many Philadelphia families, a diploma from ultra-selective Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School is the holy grail of public education in the city.
But how do parents get their children into the prestigious magnet school at 17th and Spring Garden Streets?
A look at recent District data shows that the real competition takes place after 4th grade – and that students who attend one of a dozen District or charter elementary schools located in Center City, University City, and Northwest and Northeast Philadelphia have a significant leg up.
The race starts early
Over the next few weeks, thousands of Philadelphia students will learn whether they have been accepted into one of the District’s 25 special admission schools or programs.
None of those schools has more cachet than Masterman, ranked as the 45th best public high school in the country by U.S. News and World Report in 2010. All of the high school’s students are regularly accepted to four-year colleges, and 99 percent of Masterman’s students score proficient or above in both reading and math on state tests.
Masterman’s nearly 1,200 students – a racially diverse group, about 45 percent of whom are considered economically disadvantaged – are spread across a high school program (serving grades 9-12) and a middle school program (serving grades 5-8).
District data show that it is almost impossible to gain admission to the high school without first attending the middle school. Last year, only a handful of Masterman’s 110 9th grade seats went to students who were not already enrolled in the middle school program.
Masterman Principal Marjorie Neff puts it bluntly.
“If you’re interested in Masterman High School, you have to come in the 5th grade.”
By the numbers
So where does Masterman get its middle schoolers?
District data show that between 2009 and 2011, almost 1 in 5 incoming Masterman 5th graders came from private or parochial schools, or schools outside of Philadelphia.
The rest came from write my paper over 100 District and charter elementary schools spread across the city, from Patterson Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia to Comly Elementary in the Far Northeast.
But 74 of those schools sent only one student per year or less to Masterman, collectively accounting for less than a quarter of the school’s incoming 5th graders.
The 12 most popular feeders to Masterman during that stretch, meanwhile, accounted for more than a third of its incoming 5th graders. Meredith and Greenfield Elementary Schools in Center City and Penn Alexander Elementary in University City each sent more than 20 5th graders to Masterman during this time. So did Independence Charter School, also in Center City.
Some of the variation can be attributed to the size of elementary schools and how long they’ve been around. A large, well-established school that serves several hundred students, like Independence Charter, would be expected to send more students than a smaller school created only in the last year or two.
But not surprisingly, Neff says that some high-achieving elementary schools, like Meredith and Penn Alexander, tend to send far more applicants to Masterman than their counterparts around the city.
“In many of those schools, you have a parent population who knows how the system works and how to work the system,” she said.
Neff said that Masterman is also comparatively accessible for families from Center City and University City. Many parents in other parts of the city are leery of sending their elementary students on long commutes on public transportation.
Nevertheless, Neff said, Masterman makes a concerted effort to find the most talented students from across the city, especially those whose families might not be able to afford other options.
“I am always concerned that we make sure that we have spaces for those kids whose lives are going to be changed by this,” she said.
How the process works
Typically, parents hoping to get their children into special admission schools apply in October or November for the following school year.
Each year, Masterman receives “crates and crates” of applications for the school’s 165 5th grade seats, Neff said.
Many applicants never make it past an initial cut. Per District-established criteria, students who don’t score in the 88th percentile or above on state tests in 3rd grade, have more than one C in a major subject in 2nd or 3rd grade, or who were absent more than 10 times in a given school year don’t get a second look.
Those applications that do meet those minimum criteria are then grouped by school and reviewed by committees in what Neff described as a “blind process.”
“We do try to reach out across the city and make sure we are looking at the applications of kids who qualify from high-needs areas,” said Neff.
But other than that, she stressed, “We look for the most qualified students we can.”
And what about the persistent rumors that well-connected politicos and others often get special treatment during the admissions process?
“On very rare occasions, the District will through its administrative offices direct an admission,” Neff said.
“We haven’t had that happen for quite a while now, but it has happened.”
Room for expansion?
With its newly signed Great Schools Compact, the District is now embracing the notion of expanding the number of “high-performing seats” in the city. Some have speculated that could mean a push to expand or try to replicate magnets like Masterman.
“It is my desperate hope that we can do so,” said School Reform Commissioner Wendell Pritchett, whose two daughters attend Masterman.
Masterman is a “wonderfully diverse place,” said Pritchett, who emphasized that the District needs to expand access to such high-quality options.
“We have to work very hard to make sure children from every elementary school in the city have access to that opportunity, and to other opportunities around the District,” said Pritchett.
“We have to do a better job.“