Magnet high admissions change for families in NW Philadelphia

by Tom Beck
Posted 10/13/21

Black students made up 33 percent of Central’s and 31 percent of Masterman’s student bodies during the 2011-12 school year. By the 2019-2020 school year, those numbers had dropped to 20 percent for Central and fifteen percent for Masterman.. Superintendent William Hite said the change is designed to address that gap. 

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Magnet high admissions change for families in NW Philadelphia

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The School District of Philadelphia’s announcement that it is changing its admission procedure for magnet high schools to give preference to students in disadvantaged zip codes hit families in Northwest Philadelphia like a bombshell last week. Chestnut Hill is one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, and Mt. Airy is not far behind, so the chances of students from these neighborhoods getting into one of the city’s magnet schools next year have suddenly decreased. 

The change, which the district says is designed to reduce inequality, means that magnet high schools will no longer decide which students to admit. Instead, students who qualify will enter a lottery, with priority given to students from “underrepresented” zip codes. The district has not yet said which zip codes will be given preference, or how it will decide which zip codes are underrepresented. Also, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation and interviews are no longer required for eligibility or admission.

For families with eight graders who are now in the process of applying for high school, the news throws a last-minute wrench into their plans. 

 Mt Airy resident Kate Feather, whose daughter is an eighth grader at Greene Street Friends school in Germantown and is now applying to city magnet schools, said she feels torn about the change. 

“As her mother, it is hard to be faced with uncertainty about her future,” she said. “But objectively, I feel it takes actions like these to fix the systemic racism kinds in underserved communities face every day.”

Chestnut Hill resident John Foley, who has a second grade son at Jenks Academy, and a daughter in pre-K, said he also feels unsure of how to weigh the importance of the city’s need for a more equitable school system against the future of his own children. Foley went to Masterman, and said his family had been “essentially banking on” his kids going there too.

“We have intentionally invested our time and children into this school because we believe in the neighborhood public school,” he said. “I wonder if we’ll be punished for that because we’re from an affluent zip code,” and “It makes me wonder. Did I make a wise choice?” he said. 

“If underprivileged kids are underrepresented that’s a real problem and that has to be fixed."

At the same time, Foley sees the need for change and understands why the district did it. “I’m a white male in America in 2021 and the words ‘not fair’ will never come out of my mouth,” he said. “If underprivileged kids are underrepresented that’s a real problem and that has to be fixed.

“My hope is that my kids will go to Masterman just like I did, but it’s not as though my kids are entitled to that school,” he said. “If [a more equitable school district] comes at the expense of my two kids, I don’t like it, but I understand you can’t have both.”

Since their oldest child is still only in second grade, Foley and his wife still have time to make plans for their son. But it might force them to do something they never thought they’d have to do. Move out of the city.

“That’s something you need to consider,” he said. “We never wanted to consider it. We wanted to be true to our commitment to public school education.”

Historically, the city’s five magnet high schools –  Masterman, Central, The Academy at Palumbo, Carver High School of Engineering and Science and Parkway Center City Middle College –  have admitted their own students based on their own admission requirements, with Masterman and Central historically being the most competitive. Masterman, located in Center City, is ranked the top high school in the state, while Central, which is in North Philadelphia, is ranked 10th. 

Central High School is the second oldest public high school in the nation and has long had a strong Alumni organization. In the past, that organization has resisted changes that it thinks could hurt the school’s academic excellence. Its alumni association declined to comment for this piece.

Art Slomine, a Central alumnus, said he’s fine with the change as long as it doesn’t “dilute the scholastic quality of the student body.”

“Back in my day, a student was required to take a placement test,” he said. “Students were ranked and admitted according to their scores.”

Black students made up 33 percent of Central’s and 31 percent of Masterman’s student bodies during the 2011-12 school year. By the 2019-2020 school year, those numbers had dropped to 20 percent for Central and fifteen percent for Masterman. During that same time frame, the percentage Black students went from 50 percent to 41 percent at Palumbo.

Superintendent William Hite said the change is designed to address that gap. 

“'An equity lens to this process is critical' to school selection,” he said in a statement. “It is our hope that this year's changes will start to create a more equitable academic experience for all students who choose to participate,” he said, “and improve their chances to attend the school of their choice.”

“We recognize that there will be people who will be uncomfortable with it,” said Sabriya Jubilee, head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the district. “But we’re leaning into that discomfort and we’re going to do what we need to do.”

Still, many parents are frustrated that little is being done to truly attack the root of the problem.

“It doesn’t correct the fundamental problem,” Foley said. “There should be ten Mastermans in whatever the zip codes. Our elementary schools should be better so we can have a second Masterman and a fifth and tenth Masterman.”

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