This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For many Philadelphia families, the city’s special admissions magnet schools are key resources that keep them from moving out of town.
But what would happen if one of these schools was suddenly required to drop its acceptance requirements and begin enrolling students performing at far lower academic standards?
One Northwest Philadelphia public school – Hill-Freedman World Academy – is on track to find out.
Demagnetizing a magnet
HIll-Freedman principal Anthony Majewski has been in a quandary over the last few years.
Parents at his high-performing special admissions middle school wanted the program to expand into a high school, but the building didn’t have enough space.
"I think we have one of the most amazing programs in the city," he said. "However, to sell it – and not have a home – is very difficult."
Majewski got the green light from the District to expand anyway – boosted by a grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership. But the solution was to put the high school kids in another building a mile away.
So last year and this year, he’s been running back and forth as principal at both.
"The feeling of community is rough," he said. "I feel like I can’t really delve into the school when I’m jumping back and forth every day."
In October, District leaders came up with a new solution for Hill-Freedman, unveiled as part of a slate of changes that Superintendent William Hite promises will increase opportunities for 5,000 students at 12 schools.
Hite proposed closing nearby Leeds Middle School – a long-struggling school that accepts all comers from the neighborhood – and moving the entire Hill-Freedman operation into the Leeds building.
But here’s where the proposal gets thorny for many Hill-Freedman parents: The 133 kids in Leeds’ current 6th and 7th grades would stay in the Leeds building next year and be mixed into the incoming classes of magnet school students.
"I have concerns, and I have questions," said Sandra Carter, whose daughter is a Hill-Freedman 7th grader.
"I’m all for giving kids an even opportunity, and I do believe that there are some situations where some kids were not afforded an opportunity because of whatever – bad school, bad neighborhood, bad parents. But the reality is, my child tested to come in. And by testing, she had to meet certain criteria," said Carter. "And I do have a question, as to, if you can’t meet those grades today, then why are you given an opportunity to come into this school?"
Unlike many debates about integrating schools, this one is not about race. Both schools have an overwhelmingly Black student population.
But they do differ significantly in terms of economic class, which often translates into access to additional supports, early literacy proficiency and perceived school quality.