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Choosing a high school: New twists in the process

With fewer counselors and supports, students may find it harder to access their options.

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

Under the best of conditions, applying to high school in Philadelphia can be a trying exercise.

In this extraordinary year, the process will have new wrinkles, in large part because of unprecedented budget cuts and staffing shortages. There are some changed procedures and requirements, and several gaps caused by the funding crisis:

  • All 8th graders must fill out a high school application, even if they plan to attend their local neighborhood school.
  • In many District schools, 8th graders will be applying to high schools without the help of full-time school counselors, who usually lead the process.
  • For the first time in recent memory, the District will not print a high school directory; it will be available only online.
  • The District is not holding its annual High School Expo. However, there will be one on Nov. 16 at Drexel University, underwritten largely by the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP).
  • The District is encouraging each high school to conduct an open house during which prospective students and parents can visit.
  • The city’s Great Schools Compact is promoting a common deadline – Dec. 6 – for District and charter school applications, as well as a common application form for admission to charters. However, it is unclear how many charter schools will participate.

8th graders must fill out form

Students in Philadelphia have more than 80 public high school options, District and charter, not to mention the growing number of cyber schools.

Each year, most 8th graders participated in the selection process by filling out an application and listing their top District-run choices, and/or applying to one or more charters.

But many students didn’t do anything – and were automatically assigned to the local neighborhood school.

No longer.

“We’re asking every 8th grader to complete the application process,” said Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student services. Lynch said the change was made because the application process pushes students to think about their futures.

“It’s an opportunity to get students prepared for the college application process,” she said, “writing an essay, selecting schools, determining what you want to do in your career.”

But applying students will be confronted with a second big change.

Counselor shortage

Due to the District’s budget crisis, 283 school counselors were laid off last summer, and only 126 so far have been hired back. Most schools with fewer than 600 students were not assigned full-time counselors. That leaves 115 schools that are sharing a roving group of 16 “itinerant” counselors, who, on average, can spend time at each school only once every seven or eight days.

District officials acknowledge that families this year will face special challenges. But, for the most part, Lynch said she expected things to run smoothly.

“We’re going to have resources available so 8th graders who have challenges and questions or needs can receive assistance with completing the application,” she said. The District is urging schools to use class time for filling out applications and writing essays.

“Many schools do it now,” Lynch said. “Given the challenges we have otherwise, it’s a great way to complete the application.”

She said the District is seeking more help from outside organizations to work with students.

The view from the ground is less hopeful. Overburdened teachers and principals fear that the counselor shortage will stifle opportunities for students.

“We are overwhelmed,” said Amy Roat, an ESOL teacher at Feltonville School of the Arts and Sciences.

She pointed out that there is a separate process for English language learners and special education students applying to selective and citywide admission schools. Because of a 1995 lawsuit called LeGare, those schools must set aside a percentage of spots for qualified students within these categories. This year, that work with 8th graders is not getting done, she said.

“Usually, the counselor gets all the information and does the work,” Roat said. “But no one is there to take the lead.”

Plus, she said, “The counselor has the expertise, knows the students, knows the counselors at other schools, knows what schools accept what kind of students. They have the knowledge and connections.”

The situation is putting an added burden on principals, said Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan, who leads Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia, which does not have a full-time counselor.

“It’s very challenging,” she said.

Making sure that 8th graders apply to high school has become yet another task for principals who now also give out medications, prepare payrolls, patrol lunchrooms, distribute TransPasses, and intervene when students have crises.

The situation “is not really conducive for getting kids the leading edge, as far as applications go,” she said. “We’re managing because we have to, but it’s not easy.”

High school counselors used to visit elementary and middle schools to answer questions and urge students to apply, while the elementary and middle school counselors conducted trips for students who might shy away from applying to a school because they think it is hard to get there.

“Last year my counselor took a group to Central, showing them how they can travel by subway from South Philly,” Kaplan said. “So the students weren’t afraid, and Central became an option.”

Counselors know the students and advocate for them, she said, and not just by writing recommendations.

“If you have a kid that you know doesn’t test well because they are not a native English speaker, but is an amazing student, you make that connection with the high school counselor,” she said.

Expo, directory, and open houses

Citing financial concerns, the District canceled its annual High School Expo, which showcased District and charter schools. PSP is working with other organizations to hold one on Nov. 16 at Drexel University that would include District, charter, and Catholic schools. How many schools will participate was not clear as of late September.

To save printing costs, the District also decided to do only an online version of its high school directory.

Students are still encouraged to visit high schools they are interested in, but “shadowing” students for a day may be more difficult due to reduced personnel in schools. The District is encouraging high schools to hold open houses and plans to distribute a schedule.

Common application

The new high school application form and common deadline are first steps toward what the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact foresees as a “universal enrollment” system that would take effect next year. An effort to roll out the full process this year fell short.

The Compact is a working group that includes the District, the mayor’s office, two charter school coalitions, the state Department of Education and the Philadelphia Archdiocese. A committee working on this includes other groups, many of which are concerned about the fairness of the current system. According to one recent study, a majority of students do not get in to any of their top choices.

Universal enrollment, if it comes to pass, would be a significant change from how high school selection is now done.

For special admission schools like Central and Masterman, principals now have a major say in who is admitted. For citywide admission schools, the names of all qualified applicants are put into a lottery. For charter schools, students apply to each separately, and each holds a lottery, but deadlines and applications for each charter vary widely.

Under universal enrollment, students will list their top choices on a common form – District and charter – and then be matched to a school by a computerized formula. Each student would be admitted to just one school on their list.

“It is more fair,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, an advocate for the change. “It’s a matching system, based on an algorithm.”

He said the goal is to have the archdiocesan high schools participate – there are eight in the city – but how that will work has not been resolved. For now, the District and Archdiocese have agreed to a common application deadline, Dec. 6.

As of late September, it was unclear how many charter schools had agreed to use the common application and adhere to the Dec. 6 deadline.