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Philly’s elite high schools have an equity problem. A controversial new admissions policy makes it worse. | Opinion

Created mostly behind closed doors, the School District’s admissions policy for magnet schools may keep out the very students leaders aim to attract.

The School District of Philadelphia's controversial new admissions system for the most elite public high schools assigns students based on a computerized lottery.
The School District of Philadelphia's controversial new admissions system for the most elite public high schools assigns students based on a computerized lottery.Read moreCynthia Greer

On Jan. 28, thousands of parents across the city learned which Philadelphia public high school their children will be attending this fall under the new selection criteria for special admissions programs.

Like many Philadelphians, I have been following the School District’s hastily arranged admissions policy with concern. I have a personal and professional interest in the district: My three children are in a district school and I am a proud alum of six district schools, where, more than three decades ago, I learned English after coming here from the Congo. I also spearheaded the complicated legal effort in 2017 that ended the reign of the state-run School Reform Commission and reinstated the current Philadelphia Board of Education.

I have also felt the sting of rejection under an inequitable admissions policy. I was among the city’s forgotten kids in 19140, then and now one of the poorest zip codes in the city. I bounced around North Philadelphia schools before getting rebuffed by Central High School in 1989 (I didn’t even bother applying to Masterman), despite achieving academically. But I was fortunate enough to be the beneficiary of my parents’ relentless support, which led me to a great magnet program at Northeast High School and forge a path to Harvard.

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

We need to get this right. The old system was flawed and ceded too much unbridled discretion to the principals and the band of parents who helped them wield that authority, locking out kids from the same underserved neighborhoods that I come from.

These kids – our kids – need a fair chance to get into our best high schools. Regrettably, this new process does not give them that chance.

Under the old process, each magnet school essentially had free rein to admit students based on recommendations, test scores, interviews, and other criteria that the school thought was appropriate. The new admissions system, by contrast, is run from district headquarters and assigns students to the schools they are applying to based on a computerized lottery. The most selective schools give preference to students from zip codes that are historically underrepresented and limit their lottery to those students who satisfy minimum criteria, including attendance and a graded writing test.

The new system is supposed to help give schoolchildren a better chance to get into our best high schools. Regrettably, this new process continues many of the old failures.

For me, the most fundamental problems with the new policy are that (a) it was hashed out in a backroom and rolled out with no public engagement, warning, or input; and (b) the rigid criteria on which it is based undermine the equity goals that the district says it is promoting.

What’s done is done

To fully understand how the district’s new admissions process falls short, let’s start at the very beginning — the day it was announced.

By rolling out this policy on the first day of the admissions process, the district sprung the news on parents, students, principals, and guidance counselors, creating maximum confusion and anxiety for everyone involved. But this was more than mere inconvenience or a communication misstep.

» READ MORE: End the Philly School District’s unfortunate history of prioritizing the privileged | Opinion

The district’s timing made it impossible for the public to offer any input, which, along with giving the plan legitimacy and building trust from stakeholders, could have provided substantive refinements or improvements to the plan. In short, the district was seeking to promote equity and inclusion through a process that was opaque and far from inclusive. The message was clear: This is done and there is nothing you can do about it.

I have searched in vain for a single big-city school system that has upended its special-admissions policy as the district did, with no stakeholder input, no transparency, and no advance notice.

How Boston did it

This summer, Boston announced changes to the admission process for its selective schools. The new policy was the culmination of a process that began in the summer of 2019. A task force of the school board, comprising students, parents, principals, former superintendents, and researchers, held 24 meetings and four public listening sessions. They engaged six experts to understand best practices and experiences in other cities and ran simulations that assessed how the criteria would impact the racial, socioeconomic, and geographic representation of the impacted schools. Publicly available materials were translated in nine languages. The entire board unanimously voted to adopt this plan. Partly because of this robust and transparent process, a federal court permitted the plan to be implemented over the legal challenges by aggrieved parents.

If our district ran simulations, commissioned focus groups, reviewed data, studied the approach by other cities, or did a deep dive to support its case that its proposal would produce greater inclusion, it has never released any of this work to the public.

Undermining kids in five ways

A careful process that would have included the voices of Philadelphians would have allowed the district to receive thoughtful commentary about the new admissions policy. Perhaps most notably, people could have highlighted how the new criteria may disproportionately and unfairly screen out students who are Black, Latino, have disabilities, are low-income, and are non-native English speakers — the antithesis of what the new policy purports to achieve. The plan could be criticized for many reasons, including the lack of ranked choice for applicants and retaining the algebra criterion for Masterman High School when no public middle school other than Masterman offers it. I want to focus, however, on five ways that the plan undermines equity.

1. The computer-scored writing test, which is now required for all students applying to special admissions schools, carries too much weight. The test’s manufacturer never intended the test to be used to grade students, writing that “it would be very unfair to assign a grade to a student based on its evaluation of an essay.” But the fundamental problem with this test is that it inherently favors students from families who have the savvy, privilege, and resources to fully prepare for the test.

How NYC Did It
When officials in New York City sought to remake the exclusionary admissions process at its most coveted schools, they appointed an advisory group with a cross-section of community members and experts. This School  Diversity Advisory Group  engaged in an exhaustive effort, including examining the experience in other cities. The group issued a report with 67 recommendations on a wide array of practices to promote equity, including eliminating screenings that result in rampant segregation. Though not all of those recommendations were put in place, there was a thorough vetting process.

2. Eliminating students who miss more than nine days of school is unjustifiably punitive. In the old policy, there was no numerical attendance cutoff as each school had its own requirements. Though undoubtedly higher attendance is associated with improved academic outcomes, the problem with this criterion is that absenteeism is often driven by socioeconomic forces as students from lower-income families may need to miss schools to take care of siblings or to help their families, for example. In many cases their families are unaware that these absences eliminate their kids from even qualifying, let alone getting into, these magnet schools. In a city with the highest poverty rate of any big city in America, there are potentially thousands of students who will be barred from the top schools through no fault of their own. Of course, imposing a rigid attendance cutoff is especially inequitable at the height of a raging pandemic that has disproportionately impacted students of color.

3. Relying on zip codes for preference at these schools is a blunt instrument for achieving equity. Many of Philadelphia’s zip codes include neighborhoods at opposite ends of the income scale. For instance, the 19104 zip code includes both University City, an affluent neighborhood, and Mantua, a neighborhood marked by economic struggle. There is no reason why a high-achieving student from Mantua should not be eligible for a zip code preference because families from University City are overrepresented in these schools.

4. The plan does not lay out a vision to actively recruit and support students from groups who are underrepresented at these magnet schools. The district’s study of the 2020-21 school selection process showed that Black and Latino students who got into magnet schools were more likely to turn down the offers than students from other groups. For instance, only 42% of the Latino applicants from district middle schools accepted the offer to attend Central, whereas 67% of Asian students accepted the offer. For this plan to succeed, the district must proactively reach out to guidance counselors and teachers at elementary and middle schools in areas of the city that rarely send students to schools to identify the best students and encourage them to apply and then attend schools that in many instances are across the city from their neighborhood.

5. This plan sidesteps wider equity issues. Since the overwhelming number of high school students in the district attend neighborhood schools, any equity plan should double down on support for these schools, which are the lifeblood of our city. To expand the pipeline of students, an impactful equity plan should bolster our most underserved middle schools. For instance, at my former school, Mary McCleod Bethune, 100% of its students are economically disadvantaged and the 2018-19 PSSAs in math and science are at 4% and 18%, respectively. It needs our support.

Starting over

Despite the extensive issues that I have detailed here, I worry that Philadelphians, especially our families, already beaten down by the pandemic, won’t be able to muster the energy to contest this broken policy and will offer a collective Philly shrug. I hope I’m wrong, because we have an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder and raise our voices in support of all of the city’s children. The only reasonable thing for the district to do now is to throw out the current process and take the time to adopt a fairer and fully vetted policy for next year’s admissions cycle.

» READ MORE: Bashing neighborhood schools isn’t the right way to talk about Philly’s new special-admissions policies | Opinion

The timing makes sense. First, the district can weigh the data and feedback from the just concluded admissions cycle. Second, the ongoing superintendent search is the perfect opportunity to demand that candidates advance a vision of an inclusive and fair process that will give all of our highest-achieving kids a fair shot at getting into the most competitive schools while supporting our neighborhood schools. The district’s superintendent search process – which has included a swift yet thorough public engagement plan and written report, an impressive advisory committee, and a clear timeline – makes evident that the district can embrace a fair, transparent process when the public demands it. We do now. So let’s get it done for a district that is, after all, of Philadelphians, by Philadelphians, and for Philadelphians.

Sozi Pedro Tulante is a lawyer in Philadelphia and served as Philadelphia city solicitor from 2016 to 2018. He attended Birney, Clymer, Sullivan, Bethune, Conwell schools, and Northeast High School.