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‘I’m very worried’ — Virtual high school admissions in Philadelphia: Nothing like the real thing

Some fear high school selection will be yet another means through which the pandemic exposes and exacerbates inequities, putting this year’s eighth graders at a permanent disadvantage.

Tanya Lopez flanked by her two sons.
Tanya Lopez with sons Christian (left), and Christopher.
Courtesy of Tanya Lopez

Two years ago, Tanya Lopez’s son Christopher, then in eighth grade, thought he knew exactly where he wanted to attend high school: Central. Science Leadership Academy-Beeber was on his list, but not under heavy consideration.

Then he visited the two schools. He found Central, with more than 2,400 students, too big and intimidating, his mom said. At SLA-Beeber, with an enrollment of just 600, he visited classes and shadowed students. He and his mom spent time talking to the principal, Chris Johnson, about the school’s project-based approach and its philosophy.

Christopher changed his mind on the spot, and is now a sophomore at SLA-Beeber.

“He’s incredibly happy,” Lopez said.

It is high school selection time in Philadelphia, a period of decision-making for students and families that can have a profound effect on their futures. But this year some fear that high school selection will be yet another means through which the pandemic exposes and exacerbates inequities, putting this year’s eighth graders at a permanent disadvantage.

The school district has an array of choices, including Central and Masterman, two of the highest-ranked high schools in the state. It has themed schools, including ones focused on science, the arts, civic engagement, and foreign affairs. It offers schools like SLA that take a project-based approach to learning and about 40 different career and technical education programs from barbering to welding to graphic arts and high-tech specialties.

The district wants all students to participate in the admissions process, even if they plan to attend the default option, their neighborhood school. It is called “find your fit.” The deadline is Nov. 6, just two weeks away.

Counselors are stressed, with some saying that they are having a harder time engaging their students in the virtual world.

Jennifer Dougherty, one of two counselors for 150 eighth graders at Wagner Middle School in East Oak Lane, is worried that this year’s process will not serve her students well.

“The district needs to do a big push,” Dougherty said. “If this was a regular school year, I’d just be meeting with kids constantly, I’d be in their face.”

Instead, she tries to interest them by dropping in on Zoom classes. “We go into classrooms and no one comments. It’s quiet, radio silence,” she said. “It doesn’t seem real to them. Our eighth graders don’t put on their cameras and they don’t speak. It’s so hard to communicate.”

Normally, she said when there were three weeks to go, she would have gone through the process with half to three-quarters of her students. Instead, at that point this year, she had met with only 30.

To speed things up, she planned socially-distanced outdoor conferences on school grounds with her students for last Friday. She penciled in 20 slots, and 13 were filled. But then it rained, and the meetings were canceled.

“I can’t imagine we’re the only school in this situation,” she said. “I’m very worried, but we’ll make it happen somehow.”

The school district did not respond to inquiries about whether the pace of applications this year is slower than prior years and whether officials have any concerns.

Kate Rodgers, the counselor at Dobson elementary, has only 25 eighth graders. Still, even with that small number “this year is a whole new level of difficulty” in connecting with students, discussing their options, and making sure they complete the application, she said.

For one thing, admissions criteria are murky – for instance, it is unclear whether some schools still require an essay. “Information changes all the time,” she said.

Both Dougherty and Rodgers are especially concerned that the district has chosen to use fifth and sixth grade test scores in evaluating applications. Usually, it uses seventh grade scores, but no test was administered last year after school buildings closed down during the pandemic.

“It just doesn’t seem right that what you did as a 10-year-old kid could affect a huge chunk of your life,” said Rodgers. “Where you go to high school impacts your post-secondary options. There are other ways to learn about kids than test scores.” She pointed out that many selective colleges have chosen to forego consideration of SAT and ACT scores in their admissions processes, at least temporarily.

Dougherty agrees, “My students have grown,” she said. “They’re not even the same person and we’re looking at how they did…when they were babies.”

Superintendent William Hite has said he wants to increase equity in the admissions process, and the district’s own research pinpoints test scores as the main barrier to achieving it. The admissions process has recently come under increasing scrutiny for its fairness and potential inherent bias, with critics citing the underrepresentation of Black students at some of the most selective schools and programs.

The district has promised more outreach to schools like Wagner where students rarely make it into the most selective schools, and some of that has occurred, Dougherty said. But the virtual nature of the interactions blunts the potential impact.

Beyond that, students and their parents worry, despite some schools’ best efforts, that they are missing out on vital information, especially because they cannot actually visit schools.

“It’s kind of weird,” said Eleanor Palmer, an eighth grader at J.S. Jenks Elementary in Chestnut Hill, about the admissions process. “You can’t really go into the school and see what it’s really like and get a feel of the environment that the school has.” Virtual “open house” doesn’t quite cut it, she said.

“Sometimes there are kids on it that answer questions and tell you about their experiences,” she said. “That’s pretty cool. But some are just teachers and counselors talking.”

Lopez’s younger son, Christian, also an eighth grader at J.S. Jenks, is going through the process this year. Mindful about how the visit totally changed things for her older son, she is ”concerned.”

A bunch of virtual open houses are “crammed in at the end of October,” she said, and they are trying to fit them all in. “but it’s not as easy as it was with my older son.” A lot of the open houses are made up primarily of pre-recorded messages, she said.

Lee Carpenter, Eleanor’s mom, said no one gets the same feeling from a virtual setting, although Zoom meetings can yield some insights.

“Some schools talk about their more stringent entrance requirements, others more on building community, others focus on one areas of study. Some involve students in the presentation. You can get a sense of what the philosophy of the school is, but of course there is no substitute for being able to visit,” she said.

Eleanor interjected: “There is no way to tell if you like a school if you can’t interact with people or be in the school,” she said. “That’s frustrating.”

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