The Philadelphia School District will soon allow students to select a nonbinary gender option in its internal systems in what officials say is an important step to support children’s “physical, mental and emotional well-being.”
The change, coming Monday, “is an important step forward in our effort to become a more equitable and inclusive school district,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. told the school board Thursday night.
It comes amid a district push to provide welcoming school environments for LGBTQ students and schools that are generally welcoming to all. The district previously guaranteed at least one single-stall bathroom in every school for transgender and nonbinary students, and has been hailed for its groundbreaking policy that promises district students the right to use their preferred names and pronouns and play for the sports teams corresponding with their gender identity.
Students to do not need parental approval or evidence of medical transition to take advantage of the policies.
Board member Mallory Fix Lopez, who has pushed the district for more consistent enforcement of the policy around transgender and gender non-confirming students, welcomed the new change.
“I think that’s huge advancement for the work that’s been done,” said Fix Lopez.
The school board also heard impassioned pleas from students and parents upset with changes to the district’s special-admissions policy, with serious concerns raised about a new formula that uses a computer program to score essays.
In another change, the district is going to a lottery system for all schools, a marked shift from the prior methods that gave principals some flexibility in admissions decisions. Furthermore, Black and brown students have been under-represented in some district magnet schools, with demographics that don’t reflect the student population.
Nora Ouardi, an eighth grader at Mayfair Elementary School, applied to three schools that required a 22 on the writing prompt for admission. She received a 21.1, and received her score immediately after hitting submit on her essay, which was scored by a computer program. She was surrounded by classmates when she got the notice.
“It’s shocking how many tears have fallen down faces” and how low students’ feelings are because of a score that doesn’t register nuance or creativity, Ouardi said.
Students struggled through a year-plus of remote schooling, she said.
“Please have some empathy for us kids who are struggling enough,” said Ouardi.
The program, MI Write, was designed to be used to grade students, said the company that runs the program, Measurement Incorporated.
“It would be very unfair to assign a grade to a student based on its evaluation of an essay,” the company said on its website.
Joshua Wilson, a University of Delaware professor who studies automated writing evaluation, told the board as much.
“I believe the use of MI Write in this context is very problematic and should be reconsidered,” Wilson said.
District staff initially said writing scores would not be rounded up — that is, a 21.9 would not qualify a student for schools that require a 22 — no appeals on admissions decisions will be considered based on writing scores.
Pushed by the board, Hite later said he might consider appeals “if the numbers are close” on writing samples, but stopped short of promising such appeals. He said he would consult with his staff to figure out how such appeals would work. Board president Joyce Wilkerson said opening such an appeals process would open a “Pandora’s Box.”
The admissions process overhaul is designed to “make sure the system is fundamentally fair, but also provides consistency regardless of where children are attending schools,” Hite said.
Parent Stephanie King, whose children attend Kearny Elementary in Northern Liberties, suggested a lot of the heat around the admissions process was driven by the “crybaby antics of privileged people who only seek to protect their own advantage” and not representative of community views as a whole.
King, who agrees that the writing prompt is flawed, said she didn’t know if the admissions changes would produce more diversity, but told the board it had “at least succeeded in letting people know that they are no longer guaranteed that they can buy or manipulate their way into magnet schools.”
The board also fielded questions on proposed changes to its media policy. The policy, which will be voted on in January, would prohibit the school system’s 20,000 employees from speaking to reporters without central office approval.
When the changes were introduced, they decried as “a gag order” and “an authoritarian proposal” designed to silence whistle-blowers drawing attention to problems in the district, which educates 120,000 students and operates with $3.5 billion in public money.
After board requests at a board policy committee in November, tweaks were made. The policy now spells out employees’ rights to speak out on their own, but not in official district capacity.
“We all as individuals have a right to express how we feel about certain things. We all have free speech,” said Kathryn Block, the district’s communications chief. The media landscape is changing, and the district has a “fundamental responsibility” to make sure accurate information gets out, Block said.
Hite said the policy was “meant to coordinate the communications in terms of who is speaking on behalf of the district,” but said it was “in no way intended to prevent people from talking to the media.” He said such policies are common, citing districts such as Pittsburgh and Dallas as having similar rules.