New report recommends changes to Philly’s school selection process

More than half of students surveyed said they want the district to drop its lottery system altogether

By: - July 3, 2023 10:04 am
School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr., left, and Board of Education President Reginald Streater speak with students at a school selection process rally in front of district headquarters in March.

School District of Philadelphia School District Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr., left, and Board of Education President Reginald Streater speak with students at a school selection process rally in front of district headquarters in March (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Chanel Hill

PHILADELPHIA — Allowing high schools to have control over their admissions process and improving communication with stakeholders are just some of the things that were recommended to the School District of Philadelphia to revamp its school selection process, according to a new report by consulting firm Accenture.

The district hired Accenture in March after it began reviewing its school selection process last August.

“We were able to assess a lot of data,” said Accenture consultant Nahomie Louis. “We looked at four years of the school selection process and made sure we engaged directly with those who are most impacted by this.

“Over the last two months, we reviewed documents, launched surveys and focus groups, sought feedback from students, parents, counselors and principals and evaluated how Philadelphia’s evaluation process compared to other large urban school districts including Chicago, Boston, New York, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.,” she said.

In the report, the firm said the district did adhere to the criteria of the school selection process, but it didn’t communicate the process with families.

Only one in five people surveyed were happy with the district’s school selection process and 54% of students who were surveyed wanted the district to remove the lottery system altogether.

The recommendations made to the district include improving communication with stakeholders, optimizing the lottery system to ensure qualified students have at least one offer whether it is city-wide catchment or criteria-based, allowing schools to have control over admissions and granting eligible eighth-graders attending magnet middle high schools automatic entry to ninth grade.

“At Masterman, 168 eighth-graders were eligible to attend the school’s high school, but only 33 received offers in a random lottery,” said Accenture consultant Nicole Newman.

“Certain class sizes at the middle school level will have to be reduced in order to ensure that there’s continuity,” she said. “That is something that can begin in August [with full rollout] in fall 2024.”

Nearly 45% of surveyed principals said they didn’t support PSSA (Pennsylvania System of Standardized Assessment) scores to determine high school admissions, according to the report.

“In fall 2022, 94% of criteria based applications weren’t eligible due to the PSSA requirements,” Newman said. “Thirty-seven percent of all students had minor absences. Criteria, PSSA grades and attendance are not correlated with student achievement today.

“Rather than lower student achievement, the district can work in conjunction with schools to evaluate criteria including which schools may not require PSSA requirements,” she said.

“They can begin to find a process to determine which school should transition from criteria-based to city-wide. For those that are considered non-traditional, if there’s a way to input an interview or even a summer based immersion program,” she added.

The evaluation comes after teachers and students from Philadelphia magnet schools protested the budget and staffing cuts in March due to flaws in the district’s school selection process.

A month later, the district reopened enrollment and offered 316 qualified students and their families the opportunity to apply at 12 schools in which students met the criteria. Nearly 54 students were offered placements.

Those schools included Franklin Learning Center, Philadelphia High School for Girls, W.B. Saul High School, Lankenau High School, Motivation High School, Hill-Freedman World Academy Parkway Northwest High School, Creative and Performing Arts High School, Parkway West High School, Parkway Center City Middle College High School, Science Leadership Academy at Beeber and Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush.

In 2021, the school district switched the school selection process to a computer-based lottery system, giving applicants from six ZIP codes preference for admissions at Carver Engineering and Science, Central, Masterman and Academy at Palumbo.

In the past, school personnel had more control over admissions at their school. The lottery system was designed to promote equity in the district’s criteria based schools.

“In August 2022, we developed an internal project team that included principals, teachers, assistant superintendents, counselors, parents and students to begin reviewing the school selection process,” said School District of Philadelphia superintendent Tony Watlington Sr.

“At the same time, we commissioned an external auditor to complete its evaluation of the process and essentially responded to our competitive process,” he said.

“In the spring, district leadership met with Accenture and launched the evaluation and audit process,” he added. “We recognize that there needs to be some changes to the school selection process and we are doing everything we can to make sure we are doing our due diligence with those changes.”

The district will announce changes to the school selection process for the 2023-2024 school year by July 30.

Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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