This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
File this story under "wonky but important."
In an era when standardized test scores often determine a school’s reputation and, ultimately, its survival, comparing and judging schools based on results has become a commonplace practice.
Parents often use the scores to guide them in deciding where to enroll their kids. Districts often use them when considering which schools to shutter or turn over to new management.
Within this context, a toxicity has brewed between advocates of Philadelphia’s traditional District schools and proponents of charters — built mainly on the premise that the two sectors aren’t playing by the same rules.
Tension between the two has festered, especially in recent years. Steady student migration from traditional public schools to charters caused dozens of schools to close in 2012-13. Funding debates have become especially fraught since Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2011 budget, which cut the state aid that helped districts defray the added costs of charter schools.
But those debates often gloss over some of the important differences between and within the sectors that have a very real effect on a school’s perceived quality.
A prime example of this is the concept known as backfilling.
Hypothetically speaking, say a charter school is authorized to serve up to 500 students, but for whatever reason, 50 students leave through the course of a school year. A charter that "backfills" will enroll the next 50 kids on its wait list as space becomes available.
Other schools will replace those empty spots at the beginning of the next school year, including filling seats in the upper grades.
Charters that don’t do this will watch their total enrollment in a grade dwindle year by year — retaining only the students tenacious enough to persist.
In contrast, District-run neighborhood schools and Renaissance charters must enroll all students living within a prescribed catchment zone, no matter what time of year or grade, when they show up asking for a seat.
At first glance, this difference may seem a subtle nuance, but Philadelphia educators say the policy difference tremendously affects school culture and performance.
"Most of the time, the students that we start off with in 9th grade with us in September, they’re usually fine. That’s usually not the problem," said South Philadelphia High School principal Otis Hackney. "The most disruptive part is really getting new students throughout the year."
Hackney says his school enrolls new students almost daily. Some return from the District’s alternative placement schools; some have had chronic truancy issues. Many, he says, have been "coached" out of charter schools.
"And that’s a real experience. We do keep track of where students come from," he said. "They don’t always come with the most stellar grades or the behavioral disposition that you would want, but we work hard to make sure they understand quickly what they need to do here."
Hackney says his team does well with limited resources, but the constant influx of new, often more-challenged students, makes progress more difficult.
"Even if you have a school with a strong culture, new people coming in, they have to learn what the expectations are," said Hackney. "You have to constantly remind them: This is how we do things here in South Philadelphia High School. This is how we handle crisis. This is how we handle conflict."
Rigor and attrition
Charter schools, independent by design, cannot be painted with a broad brush. It’s no different when it comes to backfilling.
Some charters actively work to keep attrition rates low and backfill whenever possible — seeing it as a chance to whittle down long waiting lists. Others proudly defend the fact that they don’t take in new students, pointing to the rigor of their coursework and the monumental advances of the students who remain.
Kelly Davenport, head of school at Freire Charter, falls into the latter category.
Freire tests all students in reading and math before they enroll in order to plan for each student’s needs.
"If they come in the middle of the year," she said, "it’s like, how do we make sure that we’re addressing their needs, their skill deficits, where the holes and gaps are from the beginning?"
David Hardy, CEO of Boys’ Latin, subscribes to the same theory. He oversees a rigorous admissions process that begins well before the school year.
Boys’ Latin asks prospective 9th-graders to submit letters of intent in November, nearly a year before they would enroll. Staff members then interview students and parents to ensure that they understand the school’s rigor — classes run until 5 p.m., students must learn Latin, wear a uniform, and adhere to a strict code of conduct.