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Philly schools changed special admissions process in the name of equity, but some parents say it’s penalizing kids

Nerves are raw for thousands of families with children who hope to attend criteria-based middle and high schools as the deadline for the school selection process approaches.

Donna Bullock, a Pennsylvania state representative and parent of an eighth grader at Carver High School of Engineering and Science, says changes to the Philadelphia School District's special admissions policy are not well-thought-out and will harm children.
Donna Bullock, a Pennsylvania state representative and parent of an eighth grader at Carver High School of Engineering and Science, says changes to the Philadelphia School District's special admissions policy are not well-thought-out and will harm children.Read moreTim Tai / File Photograph

Walette Carter’s grandson was part of the first fifth-grade class to attend Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in West Philadelphia. The family chose the project-based school for Dallas in part because of a promise the district made.

“When we first came, we were informed that the children would go straight through, through 12th grade, so long as they performed well,” said Carter, who lives near the school in West Philadelphia.

That changed abruptly this fall when Dallas, now 13 and an eighth grader at the magnet school, learned that the Philadelphia School District was this year changing its criteria-based school admissions policy, shifting from a system where administrators have a say in shaping their incoming classes through recommendations and tests to one that operates by lottery for those who meet admissions criteria, with some schools giving more weight to the applications of children from historically underrepresented zip codes.

» READ MORE: Philly’s magnet school admissions are being overhauled — in the name of equity

Dallas was worried when he heard about the changes, announced the day the school selection window opened. Carter and Dallas’ mom were “livid,” said Carter.

For decades, demographics at many of Philadelphia’s 37 special admissions schools — which include Masterman, Central, and Science Leadership Academy — have not matched the district’s, with an overrepresentation of white students and children from families who are not economically disadvantaged. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said an immediate overhaul of the admissions policy is necessary to fix generations of systemic racism and inequities.

Carter, who is Black, gets that.

“But our school meets the demographics of the Philadelphia school system. We are predominantly Black,” Carter said of SLA Beeber. “We are multicultured. We have kids from just about every zip code in the city of Philadelphia. Why are we getting hit with this?” Carter is a member of the school board’s Family and Community Advisory Council.

District officials dispute the notion that middle-school families were ever promised preference for high school admissions.

Karyn Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services, said Thursday night that while principals may have used possible preference for high school admissions to incentivize middle-school students to keep good grades, “it’s not in any policy that there would be automatic admission for the eighth graders to go to the high school.”

Yet more than a dozen parents with children at special admissions middle schools interviewed by The Inquirer said they were told: If your child performs well at the middle school, they’re a shoo-in for the high school.

Nerves are raw for thousands of families with children who hope to attend criteria-based middle and high schools as the deadline for the school selection process approaches. Students must submit their completed applications, ranking up to five choices, by Sunday.

Several parents pleaded their cases to the school board Thursday night in written and live testimony, asking it to intervene on the criteria-based admissions policy.

One of the parents stressing out as the deadline approaches is State Rep. Donna Bullock (D., Philadelphia), whose son is an eighth grader at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science in North Philadelphia.

Bullock believes the district’s special admissions course correction is a misguided one-size-fits-all solution for a nuanced problem. She also thinks the fix will actually hurt some kids — including ones who have straight A’s and years of expectations that as long as they did well, they could have access to Philadelphia’s top schools. The change, she and other parents say, is especially tough for children now attending magnet middle schools that feed into high schools, such as Carver and SLA Beeber. (Masterman, Girard Academic Music Program, and Hill-Freedman World Academy have the same setup.)

“Adults made mistakes and had bias in the system, creating some school communities that weren’t as inclusive or reflective of the city of Philadelphia,” said Bullock, who lives in Strawberry Mansion. “Students are being punished for the actions of those adults.”

District officials’ commitment to being an antiracist organization necessitates the changes, officials said in October, when the changes were announced. Sabriya Jubilee, the district’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said at the time the organization recognized “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.”

The whole process has been controversial, and racially fraught. When some parents started a petition asking the district to pause the changes to allow for a more thought-out and transparent policy that incorporates wide family and community feedback, they received blowback on social media, labeled as racist and opposing equity.

Bullock, who is Black, lauds the district’s efforts to make top schools more accessible for all children but said this is the wrong way to do it. And though the district said community feedback helped inform the policy, no parents interviewed by The Inquirer said they were given an opportunity to weigh in, or even knew changes were coming.

“There was a broad stroke, ‘This is the policy,’ but not enough detailed answers to address the concerns of parents and students,” said Bullock. “Along the way, we have seen the School District make promises and break promises, not respond with transparency and accountability, and the process to this point seems to repeat the same mistakes.”

Jenny Aiello of Mount Airy has two children attending Carver, one in 10th grade and one in eighth. Her younger daughter, a “STEM kid through and through,” is now worried and scrambling: What if she doesn’t win a lottery spot at Carver, one of the five schools that gives preference to students from five North Philadelphia zip codes?

And it leaves Ailello like many parents, scratching her head over last-minute decisions — the zip codes chosen for preference weren’t announced until weeks after the changes were, and details about a new computer-scored writing prompt came late, too.

“Overall, this has not been a well-thought-out plan, with no transparency and no parent input, student input, teacher input,” said Aiello, who is white. “We love Carver, and that’s why we’re here; I can’t imagine going to a suburban school. Carver is perfect the way it is.”

Aiello and Tanya Folk, another Carver parent, said the timing for the changes is especially bad given the challenges of this pandemic, an already tough school year. And both said they feel the district should be looking harder at inequities in the city’s elementary schools, so all students are well-prepared for magnet admissions and children have more equal opportunities earlier in their school careers.

“It appears the district has conceded — ‘We can’t fix that,’ so they’re trying to jimmy the system at the top,” said Folk, who is Black and lives in East Oak Lane. “If we look more equitable on paper, that would make it look OK for the district, but I’m not sure we’re going to get where they want to go with these changes.”

If her son, who has top grades, doesn’t get into any special admissions schools, Folk said she would homeschool him rather than send him to Fels, their neighborhood high school.

“It’s very difficult to take the district seriously if it’s applying solutions to schools that are already beacons of what they’re trying to do,” said Folk.

Bullock’s son is still hoping for Carver and applying to other magnets. But the family is also now considering a private high school, an option that had previously been off the table.

But it’s been weighing on the family, especially her son.

“He said, ‘Wait, I can’t stay at my school?’ Now he feels like he’s done something wrong, and I feel like I lied to him because I made promises that were echoed by the administrator,” said Bullock. “This has just been a crushing blow to him and to his classmates, to students across the city.”