The desire to get into Julia R. Masterman - among Philadelphia's most prestigious academic magnet schools - runs deep.

Some parents start plotting from the time their children are in nursery school.

Some call on politicians to write letters of support.

Some will try just about anything to win one of the 165 coveted fifth-grade spots, for which there were about 1,500 applications last year. One year, a parent showed up bearing holy oils.

And it's not hard to understand why.

As the fifth-to-12th-grade school approaches its 50th anniversary of educating many of the city's best and brightest, it continues to rack up accolades.

For years the school, at 17th and Spring Garden Streets, has posted the highest reading and math scores among Pennsylvania public schools. This month, its high school was ranked 53d in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, which looked at test scores, at college-level Advanced Placement courses, and how disadvantaged students achieved.

The 1,220-student school educates the offspring of many city leaders and business bigwigs. Remember Mayor-elect Michael Nutter's daughter, Olivia? A seventh grader there.

Others who have or have had children there include former Philadelphia school board President Pedro Ramos; Mayor Street; Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers; Debra Kahn, former city education secretary; U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz; education activist Helen Gym; and J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.

Actors Kevin Bacon and Will Smith went there, as did international concert violinist Leila Josefowicz. Jennifer Shahade, a national chess champion, is among its graduates.

There are also more than a few offspring of Philadelphia School District teachers and administrators.

To understand why admission to Masterman is so coveted, consider:

The lowest grade point average at the high school last year was 3.1 - a solid B.

Eighty percent of the high school students are classified as mentally gifted.

About one of every six graduating seniors goes on to an Ivy League college; all matriculated at four-year schools last year.

Students must score in the district's 88th percentile or higher on a standardized test in math and reading just to be considered.

Beyond the numbers is a student body that cares deeply about larger issues.

"They are very attuned to what's going on in the world, more so than what you see in a typical school, and they want to act," said John Frangipani, a regional superintendent in the district who was a principal and longtime teacher at Masterman.

Sixth grader Shuvanon Shahid heard this month that a cyclone had destroyed a school in his native Bangladesh and he raised $400 for relief efforts.

Senior Sarah Fink, 17, recently started the CO2 Reduction Club. The club aims to raise money to commission an environmental assessment of Masterman, with the goal of improving it.

Senior Healy Ko, 17, whose father was shot during a 2005 robbery at his West Philadelphia store, started a club last year to raise money for the Brady Gun Law Defense Fund.

And sophomore Russell Abdo, 15, is preparing for a trip to Mali in the spring to help build a school as part of the Building With Books club.

Named after the woman who started the parent associations in Philadelphia, Masterman was founded in 1958 as an observation and demonstration school where young teachers could watch skilled veterans work. It contained only grades five through nine before adding the upper grades in 1976.

It's one of two schools in the district that run from fifth to 12th grade - a key to its success, educators say.

"The real foundation at Masterman is its middle school program," said Marsha Pincus, an English teacher and Philadelphia district teacher of the year in 2005. "You can't just suddenly pluck kids out of failing middle schools, put them in some kind of enriched environment for ninth grade, and expect them to have the success that Masterman students have."

Teachers must go over special hurdles to get a job there. Masterman requires teachers to pass an oral exam and perform a demonstration lesson, on which students give input. They also must have taught three years in their certification area.

For students, the requirements are steep. Besides high test scores, they also need top marks in major subjects and excellent attendance and behavior.

"The teachers have ways to make you learn new things, ways to make it stick," said Mackenzie Warren, 14, of Mount Airy. "If you love to learn, it's a great place to be."

A team of Masterman teachers and administrators reviews applications. Typically, many more students meet the minimum requirements than there are slots; the selection committee aims to pick the most qualified, said the current and former principals.

Frangipani said he also had looked at race, gender, and the schools from which Masterman was drawing to avoid taking too many from one place.

"You want a balance," said Frangipani, who taught there for 15 years and was principal for a year and a half.

Masterman is whiter than the district's overall population - about 46 percent vs. 13 percent.

Principal Marjorie Neff cautioned that there was no quota, and that race was not "a flat-out factor."

Lobbying to get into the school, with a 250-student waiting list, is intense, principals said.

"Obviously, political people will make phone calls, but we tried very hard not to play a political game with it," said Barbara Bravo, principal from 1989 to 2004. "It isn't fair to the kid whose grandmother is out there and doesn't have somebody to push for them."

In a few cases - fewer than 15 in her 15 years there - the district's central office would order her to accept a student, she said.

The school accepts 165 students for fifth grade each year and adds 33 in sixth grade. The competition gets keener in high school. In ninth grade, the class size is cut to 110, meaning nearly half the students don't get in and must transfer.

Next year's classes are set. Applications for the 2009-10 school year are due during the September-to-November application period.

Neff said that staff would like to take more students for high school, but that space was too tight.

Some teachers don't have their own classroom.

One recent afternoon, Pincus, the English teacher, was running a class she created called "Drama and Inquiry" in a borrowed, bare room in the basement.

Students used drama as a way to explore larger issues. They were reading monologues based on their interviews with people in the city who have been affected by violence.

Every week, "I'm in 10 different rooms, including the lunchroom and the library," Pincus said. "It's really hard to establish community."

Parents and staff also have concerns about the school's antiquated science labs and outdated computers.

To begin offering its Advanced Placement computer class, "we had to spend $3,000 to buy enough memory to make those computers work," Neff said.

"The science labs have been on the board to be replaced for 10 years," Bravo added. "It is a shame. It would be money well spent."

Parents said they felt Masterman was slighted at times.

"The message has been, 'You have so much in terms of achievement, and you're so lucky.' But we're taxpayers, too. We think our children deserve the best that the city of Philadelphia has to offer," said Sheri Gifford, co-president of the Home and School Association, whose son Jordan is in 11th grade.

Still, parents and students said they wouldn't want any other school.

Said Gifford: "It's a really special place."

Go to to see a video that captures a day in the life of Masterman students.EndText

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or