Philadelphia high schools collect thousands in ‘senior dues’ with little transparency or oversight

High school graduates toss their red graduation caps into the air with a blue sky in the background.
On average, Philadelphia families are asked to pay $200 for charges related to graduation at the city’s public schools. Some parents say the charges feel arbitrary and unfair. (Carly Sitrin / Chalkbeat)

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When they’re asked to pay mandatory “senior dues” for students graduating from Philadelphia public schools, many families simply groan and write the check. But Michelle Brix had questions.

Brix’s child Elias attends Philly’s Creative and Performing Arts High School, known as CAPA. This year, she was asked to pay $375 in senior dues — or $390.25 counting processing fees if she paid using the suggested online portal. The amount shocked her. She tried to get CAPA to provide an itemized list of what those dues cover and records of what the costs were in prior years.

“No one could give me any answers for something as simple as how much it costs for a T-shirt or a yearbook,” Brix said. “It felt like they were making numbers up.”

She’s not alone in her confusion. Nearly every Philadelphia district high school charges these dues. No two schools’ fees cover the same items. Some say they charge for caps and gowns, even though the district has budgeted funding for these. Others cover luncheon cruises and decorations at the graduation ceremonies.

Schools sometimes indicate that students who don’t pay senior dues may suffer serious consequences, including missing out on milestones like walking at graduation. Yet there’s almost no district oversight of these fees, which can easily run into three figures and aren’t trivial to the city’s many families that are economically disadvantaged. Roughly 72% of the district’s traditional public school students come from low-income backgrounds, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

On average, Philadelphia schools ask families to pay $200 for these graduation and senior expenses, according to data from an annual survey the district sends out to all high school principals.

When Brix did finally get a rough breakdown of the costs, she was told it was a lump sum fee and she couldn’t opt out of some of the charges. So if her child didn’t want to attend the senior luncheon but wanted a yearbook, Brix would have to pay the total as if her child wanted both.

Eventually, after multiple parents started raising concerns, the school lowered the fees for all students to $300 each.

“You just feel completely powerless to do anything about it,” Brix said. “It doesn’t feel like you heard me, it feels like I annoyed you to death and you changed something.”

CAPA’s principal and senior class sponsor did not respond to Chalkbeat’s requests for comment.

What are senior dues charged by schools?

Senior dues, sometimes called class dues or senior fees, are determined by the principal and managed by a senior class sponsor at each school.

They range from an $85 charge at William L. Sayre High School that covers “class hoodies, cap and gowns, diploma covers” and more, to $380 at Roxborough High School for a yearbook, a luncheon cruise, programs and invitations, “memorabilia,” and other graduation expenses.

Some schools charge more for elaborate graduation ceremonies at venues like the Kimmel Center or The Met. Others keep costs low by holding their ceremonies in their auditorium but do charge for lighting, audio-visual needs, flowers, and decorations.

This year, CAPA is holding its graduation ceremony at the Miller Theater, a $25,000 venue that’s hosted performances by Katherine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, and Sammy Davis Jr. That contract is paid for using senior dues, according to the survey.

At CAPA, 81% of families are “economically disadvantaged” and participate in state or federal public assistance programs, according to district data.

There’s also little oversight or transparency regarding these fees. Apart from the self-reported principal survey, the school district would not say whether it keeps detailed records of how much money is collected and spent on these fees each year.

Asked if the district has any requirements for collecting and spending this money, spokesperson Christina Clark pointed to a Financial Training Guide that principals receive that “outlines operational policies and procedures” for school spending. This training guide does not mention class dues, and dues information is not included in schools’ public budget documents.

The method of collecting the dues varies. Some schools allow personal checks, and others require payments to go through websites like SchoolCashOnline that can charge additional processing fees like what Brix encountered.

According to another district spokesperson, students may qualify to have these fees waived or receive additional support from the school — but the district did not explain how this would work or if it’s up to the school. Some school handbooks say students can begin paying off the total the year they enter high school paying in installments every year until they reach the total. Others do not include this wording.

And the consequences for not paying can be — or at least can appear to be — severe. Brix said the way the dues were portrayed to her and her student, she believed they were mandatory or her child wouldn’t be able to graduate.

Clark said in an email no student can be excluded from graduation because of their inability to contribute to class dues. According to the district’s high school graduation guidelines, “students who meet all graduation requirements may participate in the graduation exercises unless for reasons as determined at the school level with appropriate communication.”

However, parents say this hasn’t been clearly communicated to them, and the public information readily available sometimes contradicts what the district says. For example, William W. Bodine High School’s website says any Class of 2024 student who fails to pay their $200 won’t get their class transcripts, diploma, graduation tickets, prom tickets, or a yearbook.

Brix said it took months of research and repeated requests to her school principal to get any information about the dues.

Several school handbooks Chalkbeat reviewed also said the dues are “required” but do not detail consequences for failing to pay. Chalkbeat reached out to every principal who responded to the district’s survey, but only one replied, directing all requests back to the district’s communications office.

“I don’t think any Philly school district kid should feel like they can’t afford to graduate from their public school,” Brix said.

Multiple handbooks and senior contracts also say these dues will not be refunded, even if a family paid but later learned that their student would not graduate for academic or other reasons.

A letter in the 2024 handbook for Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (known as KCAPA) says, “by School District policy, participation in proms and commencement ceremonies are privileges that may be withheld by the principal per the Student Code of Conduct or attendance.”

When it comes to traditional graduation regalia, the district and some schools don’t always seem to be on the same page. A district spokesperson said that the district has set aside money to pay for caps and gowns for all graduates.

“No student should be charged for their cap and gown,” the spokesperson said in an email.

However, some schools included charges for caps and gowns in their dues calculation this year, according to the principals’ survey responses. Documents from prior years also reveal schools have previously included charges for caps and gowns in their dues.

Clark said “the principals who indicated that information on the survey were contacted to remind them of the funding that is provided.”

Class, prom fees swallow student job earnings

Jesse Abrams-Morley, an educator at KCAPA, said students and families often express frustration at having to pay so much money just to participate in a celebration of their academic success.

But in fact, the number one question Abrams-Morley gets this time of year is: “Do our fees cover prom?” At some schools they do, but at most, including KCAPA, they don’t. So between the ticket price, the outfits, transportation, and other prom-related costs, families can end up paying hundreds more for yet another significant rite of passage that most people assume is a “basic function of school,” he said.

For many of this year’s seniors who started their high school careers in the throes of the COVID pandemic, experiences like prom and graduation are not just decadent excuses to dress up, Brix said. They’re important milestones and rewards for students’ resilience during a turbulent time. They’re also chances to make their last meaningful in-person childhood memories before heading off to college or entering the workforce.

“Just going to your own graduation and going to your prom could cost $485,” Abrams-Morley said. “There are a lot of families for whom that is a huge burden. … A large number of students who work” end up having their job earnings eaten up by those fees.

Abrams-Morley said charging these dues raises questions about inequity and transparency.

Not all schools publicly post their dues so it’s hard to know how your school stacks up against their neighbors or if fees are rising every year, he said.

“That should be public information,” he said.

Brix too wants more transparency and rules around these fees. She said she’s had another child pass through the city’s public school system, and last year her family only had to pay $165 in senior dues at Franklin Learning Center.

“At this point it just seems like a circus, a free-for-all,” she said. “It made me feel like people need to shop around … and ask what senior dues are when they’re considering where to attend high school, which seems absolutely outrageous.”

Kristal Torpey, another CAPA parent, said she paid her daughter’s fees in installments because she doesn’t feel like she can pay all at once. But the idea of her daughter not walking at graduation pressured her into paying.

“Initially, the $390 shocked the hell outta me,” Torpey said. “But I do feel like we were told early enough on that you can save up.”

Still, without a breakdown of the costs, “I feel like I’m blindly sending money,” Torpey said.

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

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