What insiders say about applying to high schools

Starting early, visiting schools, and showing enthusiasm can all make a difference.

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

When it comes to learning about and applying to high schools in the School District of Philadelphia, what you need to know might not be found in the official guide, the District’s High School Directory.

Principals and guidance counselors interviewed by the Notebook offered advice, tips, and strategies – the most repeated one being the importance of getting an early start.

“Parents have to begin researching the schools long before the 8th or 7th grades,” says Johnny C. Whaley, Jr., the principal at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), a special admission school. “It’s incumbent upon parents to know how to read standardized test [results] and to identify areas where students need to improve.” Whaley believes that “the proactive way to go about high school selection is to identify what your child needs academically long before 7th or 8th grade.”

Faith Zaback, a counselor at Meredith, a K-8 school, said she talks with 7th graders at the beginning of the school year to impress on them that high school principals will be looking at their grades, behavior, test scores, attendance, and lateness record for that year. At the end of 7th grade, she hands out the directory and assigns students a “scavenger hunt” to familiarize them with the requirements for various schools.

Zaback prepares 8th graders for the interview process by having them brainstorm questions and do practice interviews “to feel comfortable talking about themselves.”

The directory doesn’t emphasize that students may visit many of the schools to get a feel for whether they would fit. Tom Davidson, principal at Constitution, a citywide admission school with a civics/government focus, advertises his school’s open house at the District’s High School Expo in late September. Prospective students may “shadow” Constitution students from class to class for a half-day.

Similarly, principal Chris Lehmann at the special-admission Science Leadership Academy encourages students and their parents to visit and get “a sense of the flavor of the school.” Later on, if a student applies to SLA, that student must call the school to schedule an interview. Lehmann believes the interview is very important. “It’s the student’s chance to shine,” he says.

Principals stressed that they place a high value on the recommendations of counselors, teachers, and elementary or middle school principals. “We do make phone calls to guidance counselors to get recommendations,” said Davidson. He added that principals will often point him toward a particular student – input he welcomes.

Lehmann said his school also calls counselors “to get as rich a picture of every student as we can.”

It is not widely known that citywide and special admission schools are somewhat flexible about their admissions criteria. Although all the principals interviewed stated that all the students they admit are well qualified to attend, there appears to be some “wiggle room” in meeting specific criteria. While Davidson said that Constitution only accepts students who meet its stated admissions criteria, he noted, “We look at the criteria in a holistic fashion. If a student happens to be weak in one area but strong in other areas, that doesn’t necessarily preclude admission.”

Principal Adrienne Wallace-Chew at the Academy at Palumbo was more direct. “Sometimes you go outside the criteria,” she said. Of critical importance at Palumbo, which doesn’t require an interview, is a handwritten essay that prospective students are required to submit on a topic of their choice.

At citywide admission schools like Mastbaum Technical High School, test scores are not what matters; attendance, punctuality, and positive behavioral records do. But according to Principal Mary Dean, a new requirement at Mastbaum is that students who apply must declare a vocational major before they go through the lottery. This is because some popular programs receive far more applicants than there are spaces. Mastbaum’s graphic design and nursing programs each had more than 300 applicants and accepted fewer than one in seven students. Understandably, Dean emphasizes that Mastbaum is looking for students who have a clear idea of what they would like to do with their lives and are willing to work hard to do it.

So enthusiasm can make a difference in the admissions process. “One of the things we really look for are kids who’ve gotten a sense of what we’re about,” says Lehmann, whose school pursues a project-based learning approach.

Auditioning is a fundamental part of the process in schools with an arts focus, such as the Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP) and CAPA. Since GAMP starts in 5th grade, it has a very limited number of slots for 9th graders, receiving 500 applications for 15 or 20 places. With odds like that, Principal Angelo Milicia admits to being rather hard-nosed about admissions criteria. However, he says, “If there is a recommendation from a music teacher and [the student is] a few points off [in their test scores], I’ll give them an audition.”

CAPA, which receives about 2,800 applications, determines who meets its academic criteria and grants 900 auditions conducted by arts teachers. Ultimately, only 265 receive notices of acceptance. The audition for non-performance majors consists of a drawing test for art students and a writing test for creative writers.

Given the limited number of available places, the principals interviewed mentioned feeling occasional pressure to admit students from parents, principals, and sometimes politicians. However, none said they felt unduly pressured.

“I give everyone a fair chance,” says Wallace-Chew. “The difficult part is you get so many good applications.”

Daunting as it is, the experience is valuable, said Zaback. “Applying to high school is a precursor to applying to college,” she said. “It’s also an absolutely wonderful learning experience.”