This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Educational Opportunities for Families is calling for a “more cohesive system” for Philadelphia’s school application process.
The education advocacy nonprofit, which prioritizes maximum school choice for parents, released a new report examining the application and selection processes of Philadelphia schools, based on feedback sessions and interviews with parents and other stakeholders. The authors of the report recommend steps for a streamlined process across all school types, though the focus is on traditional public schools and charter schools, increased availability and access to school information, and improved access to transportation.
Sylvia Simms, executive director of EOF, said the recommendations in the report are intended to help parents who don’t “know how to navigate the system, don’t know what they don’t know, but want the best results for their children like everybody else does.”
In Philadelphia, families looking to send their 8th-grade students to a high school outside of their neighborhood must apply through different systems for District, charter, and private schools. This can involve multiple applications, lottery systems, and acceptance and enrollment processes.
The report looked at best practices in other cities and found that “more than 10 other cities use some sort of common or unified school application and selection process.”
Its recommendation for a unified application system is similar to one proposed in 2013 by the Philadelphia School Partnership that was developed by the Great Schools Compact. The compact is a committee of local school leaders led by the Mayor’s Office and managed by PSP. The following year, the School Reform Commission considered, but never adopted that proposal, which would have matched each student to just one school using an algorithm.
At the time, some countered that this change would restrict options for students, not expand them. The EOF recommendations, which originated with the parents, suggest using a single application for all school types involved, but not matching each student with just one school.
Other recommendations include better transportation, common deadlines for applications and acceptances, more support for parents, multiple ways to apply to accommodate people who don’t have easy access to the internet, an interactive database of schools that can be sorted based on criteria, and more participation by schools in fairs and expos.
To develop its recommendations, the report used feedback from six sessions with more than 40 local parents representing 20 different zip codes who have students in charters and District-run neighborhood and special admission schools.
Nearly half of these parents took part in the application process for admission in the current school year to District special admission, citywide, charter, and private schools. More than 60 percent of the participants in the focus groups didn’t receive acceptance offers.
“A lot of families say that this process is very frustrating, overwhelming … for them,” said Simms.
Stakeholders were interviewed as well. Sixteen public school representatives, policymakers, and “leaders of community organizations” were asked about the city’s current school application process.
Systems in other cities
Feedback sessions indicated that parents preferred a system that resembled those in cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C., which streamline their application process by using single applications, aligned deadlines, and mostly centralized information about that city’s schools.
The systems in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Washington include only district-run and charter schools. Chicago’s system, called GoCPS, is run by the Chicago school district, along with some charters. The system in Indianapolis is run by a nonprofit organization with a board that includes representatives of the school district, the city, and the state charter school board. My School DC is staffed by the office of the state school superintendent and overseen by a board with representatives from the mayor’s office, the district, and charter schools.
As far as could be determined, none of the other systems cited include private schools, as this proposal does. Camden, a much smaller district, has a unified application system for its district-run and charter schools, but not its Catholic schools.
“At some point, we have to level the playing field,” Simms said, so that “what’s good for you and yours is good for me and mine.”
In response to the report, the District issued a statement saying its leadership is “committed to exploring what we can do to ensure all families can participate in school selection and increase the equity, efficiency, and transparency of the selection process. We want to work collaboratively with others to make school selection better for families in Philadelphia.”
EOF is funded by Excellent Schools PA, which has been at odds with the District over charter school regulation and sued it earlier this year.
Pew documents inequities in access
Last year, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report that found that many students qualified for selective and citywide admission schools did not apply to them. Latino students especially did not participate in the complex selection process. That meant that they attended neighborhood schools, many of which have lower graduation rates and less access to advanced courses.
That report also found that some students got into selective admission schools even though they didn’t have the required test scores, while others who did have the test scores were rejected. Overall, Asians and whites were overrepresented in selective admission schools, and black and Latino students where underrepresented.
In response to some of Pew’s findings, Superintendent William Hite sought to make the process easier for students to get into some citywide admission schools, especially those that focus on career and technical education (CTE). For example, the Pew report found that principals were largely screening out students because of old disciplinary infractions who might nevertheless benefit from the schools’ programs.
Charter schools are required by law to conduct a lottery and not screen students out based on academic or disciplinary records, special education status, or English proficiency.
The Pew study did not analyze patterns of who was applying to or being admitted to charter schools.
For the last several years, most charter schools in the city have agreed to a unified K-12 application system called Applyphillycharter.