High School Admissions, Equity and Planning

School District of Philadelphia Board of Education Action Meeting Testimony,

May 26, 2022

by Cheri Micheau

I wanted to offer some thoughts on the high school admissions process for next year.  

First, I want to emphasize that I applaud the effort to make high school admissions more equitable. In fact, I would like the process to go even further in giving ALL under-served students more equitable access to special academic programs at high schools.  For years,  English Learners and students with IEPs have been discriminated against in admission to special-admission schools.  English Learners who had not yet achieved high levels of English competency—or those who had not yet exited ESOL—- rarely had the opportunity to enter these special programs and were often discouraged from applying.  High school admission committees also emphasized that without ESOL support, they could not admit many English Learners, even those with great potential.  I understand that each special-admission high school will have ESOL support next year, and that is one step in the right direction.  I am anxious to know if more English Learners—-especially those at Levels 1 through 3—-and more students with IEPs gained entry to special high schools through the new lottery process this year.  Since students had to qualify for the lottery through a writing test and other criteria, I wonder if special consideration was given to students with special needs.

In general, however,  it seems—-from newspaper reports—- that many more previously under-served students qualified for the lottery and were admitted to special-admission high schools this year.  That is a win.  But we know that students who come from traditionally under-resourced elementary schools, ELs, and students with IEPs, may not be fully prepared for the rigors of these special programs.  They have the motivation, but may lack some important academic tools.  Faculty at these schools may also not have the experience of accommodating students with special needs.  I encourage you to consider targeted professional development and staffing that will create a solid support system for all students.  Equity doesn’t mean just admitting students to special programs, but also ensuring that they succeed.  The QTEL Program being voted on this evening is one example of a high-quality PD program to help content faculty accommodate the needs of ELs.

How to further refine the process?  I would like to encourage you to make a sincere effort at collecting community input before next year’s round of applications begins.  And you should actually USE that input in planning for next year.  There was no opportunity for input this year, and the outrage that resulted once the new regulations were announced should not have come as a surprise.

Most importantly, every year it is clear that there are many more students interested in special secondary-level academic programs than there are spaces.  No student who seeks such a program should be turned away.  It’s not surprising that students are attracted to academically rigorous programs and programs with special emphases—-science, politics, aerospace, advanced manufacturing, etc.   In investigating the data on the FPP (Facilities Planning Process) it is clear that there are many high school buildings in Philadelphia that are under enrolled.  That means, there is space in these schools to house additional programs such as an international high school or new CTE programs.  And there is clearly an appetite for more special programs!  At one time, many more neighborhood schools offered special CTE or other academic programs; it wasn’t only special-admission schools that allowed students to specialize.  Now many neighborhood schools offer only a very impoverished menu of options.  

From that same FPP data, it is clear that the SDP has lost many students to charters and private schools.  A greater offering of specialized programs for high school students would, I imagine, help the SDP to attract those students back to the SDP, thus increasing the enrollment and ensuring that buildings will be fully utilized—-and not closed.

There is no question that the SDP must continue working to find a fairer approach to admitting students to special-admission high schools.