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District's voluntary transfer process leaves parents skeptical

Jennifer Blaine treasured her diverse, excellent urban public school education, and very much wanted the same sort of experience for her daughter.

Jennifer Blaine did her homework in a bid to get daughter Lily into a top public elementary school. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)
Jennifer Blaine did her homework in a bid to get daughter Lily into a top public elementary school. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)Read more

Jennifer Blaine treasured her diverse, excellent urban public school education, and very much wanted the same sort of experience for her daughter.

So Blaine, who lives in South Philadelphia, prepped herself for battle. Objective: getting Lily into one of the handful of top-tier neighborhood public elementary schools in the city.

Blaine attended open houses. She learned principals' names. She marked the day the Philadelphia School District started accepting applications for voluntary transfers on her calendar, and planned to hand-deliver her form - completed months earlier - at the first possible second. ("If they would have let me camp out, I would have done that," she said.) And then she waited.

Just like Blaine was last year, hundreds of parents across the city are now on pins and needles, with the deadline for the district's voluntary transfer program recently passed. The district hopes to notify parents by February.

Officials say it's designed to be a straightforward, equitable process - extra seats in desired neighborhood schools allotted by computerized lottery drawn by central office staff, period. (That's different from the process for selecting students for special-admission schools like Masterman and Central, which have entrance requirements and whose administrators have discretion over who gets in.)

"It's really impartial," Danielle N. Seward, deputy chief for student enrollment and placement, said of the neighborhood school voluntary transfer process. "It's strictly a lottery."

But parents are skeptical, and the process remains poorly understood - who really decides who gets into schools like Greenfield, in Center City, and Meredith, in Queen Village? Does it help if you volunteer at the school, or send a letter with your little darling's preschool progress report, or even bake cookies for the principal?

"People feel that there's a mystical quality to it," said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer and a former public school parent. "I've been assured by the folks at the district that there's not, but I've heard the concerns for years."

District insiders say that yes, there is a lottery, but it's more complicated than that. That lottery covers the first round of seats - whatever number of excess seats the schools tell the district they will have for the following year.

But schools reserve some seats for neighborhood children who might register, based on historic enrollment numbers and projections. At some point - maybe not until very late in the school year, or even well into the summer - if those seats aren't filled by neighborhood children, they open to transfer applicants.

Seward, the district official in charge of the process, said that those seats should be filled based on a waiting list derived from the lottery. But the district insiders say they've never seen a waiting list, and that principals often make picks themselves, usually based on their own waiting lists. (The insiders say sending preschool report cards or writing letters does not help your chances, by the way.)

Seward acknowledged that the process has not always proceeded perfectly.

"Sometimes, subprocesses develop on their own," said Seward. "We're trying to say, 'We can't keep doing this. It's causing a bit of confusion, and that's what we're trying to eliminate, the illusion of impropriety.' "

Heather Klusaritz, parent of a child who will start kindergarten next fall, is fed up with a process that she said was rife with rumors and bad information.

For instance: District officials say it doesn't matter when they receive voluntary transfer applications, that one submitted in September has the same shot at being accepted as one submitted one minute before the deadline a few weeks ago.

But there's conflicting information, even from some schools.

In a letter sent to prospective parents this September, the principal of Bache-Martin Elementary referenced the importance of time stamps, and said she had "the authority to make final decisions on student voluntary transfer requests" and that those decisions are based on "what I believe is best for the other students, teachers, and staff at the school."

Seward said the letter was sent in error, that the principal misunderstood, and that a new letter is going out saying that is not the case.

In September, Klusaritz's husband arrived at district headquarters before 7 a.m. on the first day applications were officially accepted. He was seventh in line, and by the time he finished at 8:30, 20 people were still waiting.

The family lives in West Philadelphia, in the catchment of Lea Elementary - a school they're considering but not sold on. They hope their son can attend Greenfield, Penn Alexander or Powel in West Philadelphia, or Meredith.

They're also hedging their bets, applying to two charter schools. And yes, "there's part of us that's really considering a flight to the burbs," she said.

The process makes Klusaritz "uncomfortable," she said - "you do the open houses and you get your face known and do the schmoozing. You want to be seen as a committed parent who's going to be there and involved. It feels really classist and wrong. The fact that we all participate in this insane dance is crazy."

Blaine was beyond frustrated with the process, which she and many others believe is not lottery-based, but is subject to the desires of administrators looking to keep their schools diverse. (Blaine agrees with diversity as a goal.)

"That's what I was told from someone who knew someone working" at Greenfield, her first-choice school, she said.

Ultimately, Blaine's daughter never got into any of the family's desired public schools, a "tremendous letdown." Lily is now enrolled at Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter.

Monica Taylor's daughter didn't get into any of her top choices last year, either - Greenfield, McCall, and Bache-Martin - and the family ended up moving to Bucks County.

But the process left a bad taste in her mouth. The family was supposed to find out in February whether her daughter won a spot at any of their preferred schools; it didn't come until May, long after private school deadlines passed.

And the whole sense of panic the process engendered - "I was late to it, I didn't do the camp-out-and-make-connections and getting-to-know-you stuff" - was distasteful to Taylor.

Officials hope a planned move to a single-application, central admissions process for all district and charter schools will help, but the timetable on that is not clear.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership, said the confusion is widespread, and "the district needs to find a better way of communicating about how the process works, and what parents can expect if they enter the process."

But the process also lays bare another fact, Gleason pointed out.

"There's plenty of signs that families don't feel like they have access to the schools that are the best fit for their children," Gleason said.