The Philadelphia School District’s selective admissions system is changing fundamentally and immediately, with magnet schools moving away from a system where principals have influence to one that relies on a centralized lottery and, at some schools, favors students from historically underrepresented zip codes.

The changes — announced by district officials Wednesday morning — will affect tens of thousands of families and are being made in the name of equity. Historically, it’s tougher for Black students and other children of color to get into the city’s 39 magnet schools, a reality district leaders have said they are obliged to alter.

It’s a polarizing decision that some say brings needed changes to a district attempting a reckoning over issues of race, class, and resources, and that others say is a wedge that will drive families with greater means out of the district and out of Philadelphia altogether.

The school selection window for student placement for the fall of 2022 opened Wednesday afternoon and will close Nov. 21.

“As a district, we have made a commitment to being an antiracist organization,” said Sabriya Jubilee, the district’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, adding that “we recognize that there will be people who are uncomfortable, but we’re leaning into that discomfort, and we’re going to do what we need to do to do right by our schools.”

Officials said the changes were made after an “equity lens review” of admissions practices and with the input of a committee of students, parents, teachers, and central office staff.

In the past, principals and, more recently, some school-based committees, had the final say on who got into the city’s magnets, top schools that have historically been heavily populated by the children of well-connected city residents and children from a handful of schools in privileged neighborhoods.

Now, “school leaders will not make final decisions or manage waitlist for this process,” said Darnell Deans, the district’s executive director of student enrollment and placement.

Demographically, magnet schools have not matched the school system as a whole.

In the entire district, Black students make up 47% of district pupils; Hispanic students are 23%, white students 15%, and Asian students 10%.

The student body at one magnet, Masterman, though, is 43% white and 27% Asian, 15% Black, and 6% Hispanic; and while almost all Philadelphia pupils are economically disadvantaged, just 33% of Masterman students are. At another, Central, the student body is 62% economically disadvantaged, 39% Asian, 30% white, 18% Black, and 8% Hispanic.

Karyn Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services, said the move will bolster transparency and eliminate any notion that “there was a wizard behind the screen that was making a decision about the process.”

Philadelphia has two kinds of criteria-based, or magnet, schools: There are the top magnets like Masterman and Central, which require strong grades, good attendance and behavior marks, and sometimes other qualifications, like students having taken Algebra I before ninth grade, and citywide admissions schools, which have some admissions standards but whose requirements are less demanding. The city’s career and technical schools, like Dobbins and Swenson, use citywide admissions, as do a number of smaller schools like Robeson and the Workshop School.

In this new process, qualified students enter a lottery, but those from historically underrepresented zip codes would have preference in five of the criteria-based schools: Central, Masterman, Academy at Palumbo, Carver High School of Engineering and Science, and Parkway Center City.

(It was not immediately clear why those five schools were chosen for zip code preference and not others; officials did not respond to requests for comment on that process.)

In an email to staff, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said letters of recommendation and interviews will not be required for eligibility. (Some specialized schools will still have extra criteria — performance-based schools like the High School for Creative and Performing Arts will have auditions, and Science Leadership Academy, a project-based learning school, will ask applicants for project-based presentations.)

Some schools will ask students for a writing sample that will be scored by computer, a process that was piloted at Parkway Center City Middle College, officials said.

In the past, some magnets required students to have taken Algebra I and a language, a problem for children at under-resourced schools that didn’t offer those courses. Lynch said the language requirement has been dropped, and Algebra I will be available at every district school, and that work will continue to make sure that students across the city have access to the kind of coursework that prepares them for magnet experiences.

Wednesday’s announcement is not the first time changes to the magnet-school admissions process have been attempted. In 2010, officials in the administration of then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman floated the idea of a centralized lottery that took the admissions process out of schools’ hands and weighted diversity in admissions decisions.

That change, which drew immediate backlash, was quickly scuttled. City officials at the time said they wanted to ensure magnet schools’ standards remained high.

Officials said Wednesday that the specifics of the new critieria-based admissions policy are not fixed.

“We are going to continue to look critically at our school selection process,” Lynch said.

The announcement drew both plaudits and concern.

Edwin Mayorga, associate professor of educational studies, Latin American and Latino studies at Swarthmore College, said that while he applauded and appreciated efforts to remedy long-standing admissions imbalances, people needed to stay focused on the bigger picture.

“We can’t lose sight of the importance of making sure all high schools in fact have equitable resources,” said Mayorga. Most city children, he noted, attend not special-admissions schools but under-resourced neighborhood schools.

Kristin Luebbert, a teacher at the U School, a small Philadelphia citywide admissions school, said the policy changes feel like a good step. Luebbert used to teach at Bache-Martin, a K-8 school in Fairmount, and remembers the nerve-racking months when eighth graders were attempting to get into a handful of top schools that didn’t have room for every child who qualified.

“The process favored people who had a lot of resources, whether it’s parental resources or time to call the counselor three and four times to get the essay right,” said Luebbert. “It favors people of privilege of all different kinds. Anything we can do to smooth that out is good, because there’s great kids at every school in every neighborhood in this city that don’t have the access to the same resources that kids at some other schools have.”

But the announcement stunned some families who have built their city lives around the likelihood that their children will gain admittance to top public schools.

The mother of one current Masterman eighth grader said it felt as if the rug were being pulled out from under her child, who has strong grades and had hoped to win a spot at one of a number of magnets. To find out the day high school selection opened, during a pandemic, was “shocking,” said the parent, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal for her child.

“Kids who worked their butts off might not get a spot. If that’s the case, we’ll move,” said the parent, who by the end of the day had also already scheduled a tour at a private school, just in case.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.