Transferring schools: what you need to know

An interview with LeTretta Jones, director of the District's Office of Student Placement.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

NOTEBOOK: You’re a student in the District who wants to go to a different school from the one that you’re in. How do you do that?

JONES: The first [path] is a voluntary transfer program, which is an annual process. Students can file an application beginning the third Monday in September. And we take those applications through the final Friday in October for a transfer for the following school year. Voluntary transfer is by far the most common form of transfer. [The voluntary transfer process has taken the place of the old EH-36 and EH-38 processes.]

NOTEBOOK: Okay. So, that’s number one. Now the second.

JONES: The District has a process called Transfer Due to Extenuating Circumstances. That form is called the EH-36E. Say a child is in school A, and in October of the current year some problem occurs. It could be [related to] school safety. [The potential circumstances are] actually listed on the back of the [form]. [The student] would fill out a 36-E. We request that some type of documentation is attached to substantiate the reason or the need for transfer under this category. And that would be a serious incident report, a police report. Even if it’s not a serious incident report, the school is aware of it, the principal can confirm that, yes, this is a valid request, etc. Then that form goes to the regional office. It’s initiated at the school by the parent. The principal makes a comment that he forwards to the regional office. The regional office looks at that request. If they validate it as indeed extenuating, they then could approve a transfer to another school.

NOTEBOOK: When are these transfers filed?

JONES: At any time during the course of a school year.

The EH-36E form is also used for the [No Child Left Behind} NCLB Unsafe Schools Act. If a school is designated as a persistently dangerous school [this year, the state has labeled 15 high schools and 10 middle schools “persistently dangerous’], parents may request to opt out of the persistently dangerous school into a school that is not on the list. That occurs during the course of the school year.

NOTEBOOK: So at any time, a parent can learn that not only is my kid not feeling safe, but they’re in a school that gives them that right to transfer out?

JONES: Absolutely. By law, we’re obligated to notify parents that their child is in a persistently dangerous school. We send out a letter to every student in those schools that receive that designation

NOTEBOOK: When do students and parents hear whether their transfer request has been approved?

JONES: If it is a voluntary transfer process, the notification typically goes out as early as spring. If it is an extenuating, they usually are notified within a couple of weeks.

NOTEBOOK: There’s also a low-performing school transfer option under No Child Left Behind, right?

JONES: Correct. That’s called the school choice process. That process usually occurs in the spring. Once the list comes out of the schools that did not make [Adequate Yearly Progress], parents in those schools are notified that they have the option to transfer. They’re also notified that they have an option to stay in the school and avail themselves of some of the specialized services [primarily tutoring] that come through Title I [the federal program that provides targeted funds to districts with low-income students.]

Because we know that we have limited space, our district has a right to establish a priority of need [for transfers]. First of all, parents file the application at the current school. The current school puts in information that is related to their standardized test scores and their income status. Once the application comes in, it is actually ranked [with neediest and lowest-performing students getting priority]. The child who is [ranked first at a grade level], whatever [receiving] school is on the list, they get first priority for those schools as long as the schools have space.

When people hear school choice, sometimes they think they can apply to any school. They also think that, “I’m entitled to a transfer.” And of course, by law they are, but again because of the limited spaces, we have to prioritize and create this rank order list, and we follow that list to the letter. We go down the list until we fill all the spaces. Sometimes we run out of space.

NOTEBOOK: When does the school choice process happen?

JONES: Usually, the applications are filed in the spring, and they’re usually notified before the end of the school year. The application called for NCLB [transfers] this year in April. All the kids who filed an NCLB school choice application this year were notified, I believe, some time in June.

NOTEBOOK Let’s talk about students already in high school who want to transfer. What do they do?

JONES: Let me start by saying that typically when you’re in a school for 9th grade, it is assumed that that is going to be the school that you graduate from. However, there may be some students in grade nine that … got into a school that maybe they really didn’t want, or maybe they didn’t get approved because their grades weren’t what they should have been, or they just weren’t lucky; they didn’t get selected by the lottery. In the 9th grade, those students might reapply for grade 10.

As you move up in grade there’s less space available. [But] if I’m in grade nine and I want to apply for a transfer, I just use a regular [voluntary] transfer form. I have the possibility of maybe getting approved in grade 10. The only other way high school students can transfer is usually through extenuating circumstances or under the persistently dangerous process, or—and this is really not a voluntary transfer process— if I move from one neighborhood to another, I can transfer to my new neighborhood school.

It’s the same process for all students. You fill out a voluntary transfer process form for that procedure. If it’s extenuating, you fill out an extenuating circumstances form. The process is the same for all students preK-12, the same application, the same process.

NOTEBOOK: Considering the 9th grader who realizes, “I really don’t want to be in this school. I need to find a different environment.” Do you have any tips or advice for a student like that?

JONES: Well, first of all, they have to do research. They need to really determine what they’re interested in. They need to consider things such as, “I might be interested in cosmetology. How do I feel using the high school resource guide?" It tells you which schools have which programs. You need to look at that to determine where those programs are located. You could also consult with your counselors because counselors are key for working with students and helping them determine what options are available.

As far as space availability, there’s really no way to determine that. Some people do call schools to try to get a number, but that number is really a dynamic number because kids are moving all the time. So, it’s really hard to call about space availability. The only thing I can really say is if you’re applying to high school or middle school, typically the entry level grade is where they’re going to have the most space. If I’m applying to Masterman, I need to apply for grade five. That’s the entry level grade. If I’m applying to a high school, the entry level grade is grade nine. If you’re applying to a neighborhood school, neighborhood schools are obligated to first take the neighborhood children.

Another thing that may be helpful for high school students interested in going to one of our career and technical high schools: most career technical high schools begin their vocational classes in grade 10. So it’s really hard to approve people in grade 11 because there’s no way available for you to make up those vocational classes. Unless you’re coming from another vocational school, where you already passed some of those classes, you can’t apply beyond grade 10 because those classes start in grade 10, and you can’t make them up.

For high school, schools look at the previous year–that’s it–and start making the determination for admission. So if a child is in 9th grade, and they’re now applying to 10th grade, the application is submitted while they’re in 9th grade. The [school] will look at the final report of grade eight and the grade eight standardized test scores.

NOTEBOOK: So, a child who did not do well in grade seven but did better in grade eight might be the kind of kid who would have a shot at getting into a more selective high school for 10th grade?

JONES: Absolutely.

I hear this from parents, “My child had very high test scores.” And yes, he met that part of the admissions criteria. However, we look at your grades. We look at your attendance. That’s the holistic approach. So, you can’t say my test scores are high and then have 100 latenesses. Because you could have high test scores, but if you have 100 latenesses, the principal using that holistic approach would eliminate you.

NOTEBOOK: Any additional advice on transferring?

JONES: The only other thing I would do is talk to other students in the school that you’re interested in attending. Talk to your school counselor. Visit the schools. Some schools do have shadowing procedures where students get to shadow another student, so they can see what the school is actually like before they make a decision or in terms of submitting an application. And make informed decisions based on doing that research.