School & District Management

Study: High School Choices Elude Phila. Students

By Debra Viadero — March 30, 2010 3 min read
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A report that takes a comprehensive look at the critical transition that students make from middle to high school in Philadelphia finds that fewer than half of 8th graders end up attending their top-choice high schools.

“There are many young people who feel they are trying to select and get into a high school that has a strong reputation and is safe and where they do well,” said lead author Eva Gold, the founder of Research for Action, the Philadelphia-based research group that produced the report. “And,” she added, “they end up in the high school they were trying to avoid.”

Released last week, the 110-page report draws on districtwide data from 2006-07 on 8th graders’ public-school-selection choices; data from 2007-08 on student demographics, and high school enrollments across the city; teacher and student surveys from that same year; and in-depth interviews conducted over the next few years in 15 district-managed schools and four charter schools, among other information sources. But it does not include districtwide data for the city’s charter high schools, to which students apply separately.

As in Chicago, New York, and some other big-city school systems, the 163,000-student Philadelphia district allows 8th graders to indicate which high schools they would prefer to attend the next year. In 2006, 70 percent of 8th graders took up that option, listing up to five choices each from among the district’s 60 high schools. Yet only 45 percent of those students ended up enrolling in any of the schools on their lists, the report says.

The report blames the district’s high school selection process for contributing to a stratified school system. It also says the current process works against the district’s 31 neighborhood high schools, which typically have the lowest graduation rates and the highest dropout rates.

The report also finds that, while disconnected fragments of reform efforts once aimed at improving schooling in the freshman year still can be found in the city’s schools, efforts are needed to bring more of a focus on 9th grade, a make-or-break year for many high school students.

A Tiered System

Of the three types of district-managed high schools in Philadephia—special-admissions schools, citywide-admissions schools, and neighborhood schools—the highly selective special-admissions schools enroll the smallest percentages of male students, African-American students, low-income students, English-language learners, and special education students. To get into those schools, students must meet certain academic criteria and undergo interviews. At the citywide-admissions schools, students are admitted by lottery once they meet a minimum academic threshold.

By comparison, the neighborhood schools, which take all comers, enroll the smallest percentages of white, Asian, and female students, according to the report.

A smooth transition to high school is also being thwarted in neighborhood schools by the timelines used in the school-selection process, the report says.

“Because our selection process doesn’t end until May, there’s often a lot of activity that goes on over the summer as students come off waiting lists, ... so that registration for neighborhood schools doesn’t occur until August or September,” Ms. Gold said. “So essentially those schools don’t know who’s coming in their doors until September.” In Research for Action’s study, 17 percent of the students in neighborhood schools entered after the first day of school, compared with 2 percent at the citywide schools, and 1 percent for the special-admissions schools. The shifts in schools’ student populations, in turn, led to school-to-school shifts in teaching staffs, which means that, for many neighborhood schools, the instructional year may not truly get under way until October, Ms. Gold said.

The district reportedly responded to the study’s findings on the selection process, which it learned of in February, by drafting guidelines aimed at broadening access to more-selective schools. But after protests at those schools, city schools Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman in mid-March seemed to put a stop to that effort, canceling a meeting in which the changes were to be rolled out.

District spokesman Fernando A. Gallard did not respond to requests from Education Week for the district’s further reactions to the study.

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Study: Top High School Choices Elude Phila. Students


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