Ackerman — no changes coming to selective admissions

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

In what appears to be a sudden reversal, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has "no intention" of making any changes to the way students are admitted to the District’s most selective schools. In fact, said her spokesman, she had never even seen the draft policy that was to have been the basis of a parent meeting Thursday night to get feedback on the proposed changes. That meeting was cancelled the day before it was to take place.

"Dr. Ackerman has been clear that as of today, this is not something she is looking to doing," said spokesman Fernando Gallard. "She is not looking at changing the admission policy of magnet or special admit schools. It is not on her priority list."

Ackerman, who has said in the past that she has never seen such a tiered high school admissions policy as that which exists in Philadelphia, ducked for cover quickly after the very predictable and intense outcry that has been building since she directed her staff to review the current policy. She did this after reading a report by Research for Action that raised questions about the fairness of the process and concluded that it further destabilized already struggling neighborhood high schools.

When the RFA report was released in February, Ackerman certainly made it sound like she would jump right on it and seemed grateful for the data that backed what her observations had led her to conclude.

"I agree with most of the findings. The timing of this report could not have been any better, as we have already identified the revamping of the high school admission process as a priority," she said.

She went on: "I asked my executive team to fully review the recommendations in the study and to provide me with a comprehensive action plan by early March that will detail how we should move forward to improve our students’ transition into high school."

The draft proposal, Gallard said, was developed by a committee of principals under the direction of Chief of School Operations John Frangipani, himself a former principal of Masterman, the most selective school in the city. It would have replaced the current process, in which schools set criteria and principals decide whom to admit, with a centralized "point" system. That system would have given weights to other factors besides test scores, grades and behavior, including zip code and income level, with the idea of promoting more ethnic and socio-economic diversity in these schools.

The draft, which the Notebook has seen, suggested giving 200 points for diversity on a 1000-point scale — and also relying on auditions rather than standardized test scores in the specialized arts schools like CAPA, Girard Academic Music Program, and the new Arts Academy at Rush.

On Thursday, The Inquirer ran a front-page story saying flatly that Ackerman "was proposing major changes" and showcasing the fears (and clout) of mostly White, middle class parents who could be affected the most by any move to make the city’s most coveted schools accessible to a larger pool of students.

The Research for Action report that found the drawn-out high school choice process, in which some students are admitted to several schools but most get into none, makes 9th grade transition more difficult for the majority of students who end up in the neighborhood schools. For most students, it said the District’s "choice" policy was no choice at all.

RFA’s research showed that Asians are the most likely to enroll at a school to which they applied and Latinos the least likely. Whites and Blacks applied at similar rates, but Whites were far more likely to enroll at a school of choice.

While 70 percent of 8th graders try to get into schools other than their local neighborhood school, RFA found, 55 percent of the applicants wind up back at the school they tried to escape.

The report strongly urged that the process be reviewed, especially to shorten the timeline, and to "distribute students with different achievement levels and different learning needs across a broader range of schools."

Gallard said that Ackerman was "never briefed" on the proposed new policy developed by her staff before the parent meeting, billed as a "focus group," was scheduled. He also said that — despite her own directive — Ackerman had "no clue" Frangipani’s group "was headed that way in making recommendations to specifically change the admission policy."

He would not say whether a point system is off the table forever. "She said we’re not looking at any point system now. She did not come out and say, ‘I’m rejecting a point system.’"

The opposition included groups of parents from Masterman and Science Leadership Academy, who basically said there is no need to fix a system that is "not broken," and that maintaining the current process is essential to keeping the middle class in the city. One of their arguments is that these schools are quite diverse; Masterman, for instance, is about 45 percent white, 30 percent African-American, 17 percent Asian and 6 percent Latino. But their demographic breakdown generally does not reflect the ethnic composition of the District’s enrollment as a whole, which is 61 percent African-American, 17 percent Latino, 13 percent white, and 6 percent Asian.

Others do acknowledge that the current system is flawed. "I think something should be done, but I also understand this is a difficult discussion," said Harold Jordan, a Masterman parent (and member of the Notebook‘s leadership board) who was not part of the opposition. "It’s partly about what other choices are acceptable for people."

At the same time, he said, "the defense of the status quo is a little bit over the top. I don’t agree with that. I read the RFA report, and it seems like they made reasonable recommendations. They might make it so the process works a little better for a slightly larger segment of the families and population."

Ackerman has run into the same buzz saw that David Hornbeck did more than a decade ago when he suggested changing some admissions criteria to give a broader group of students access to the city’s most selective programs and schools. He was rewarded with his only public disagreement with then-Mayor Ed Rendell, who otherwise supported Hornbeck even in his most beleaguered moments.

So it appears that whatever Ackerman’s original intentions, changing high school admissions policy is not something that she will be able to seriously tackle any time soon.