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Repercussions of Philadelphia High Schools’ Admissions Lottery

Whether they are welcome or unwelcome alterations in the Philadelphia High School Selection process, the city’s board of education has made some changes. The former writing assessment that many eighth graders feared will be replaced with a consideration of PSSA (Pennsylvania System School Assessment) scores. An even more controversial change that the Philadelphia School District has made is the addition of a lottery system to weed out bias and racism in the admission to the city’s elite magnet High Schools.

Students must now apply for selective schools through a computerized lottery system overseen by central office staffers. The system inputs all academically eligible candidates. Formerly, school leaders made final admissions decisions and oversaw waitlists. Education authority has also implemented a zip code preference for students who meet the criteria for admission and live in certain areas of the city. This will allow them to gain access to the magnet, criteria based schools that they normally would not have.

These changes have sparked long-lasting controversy from parents, alumni, and students; both sides have valid points that Philly residents should take into consideration. The district plans to hold “town hall” style meetings soon so parents can discuss what is to be expected during the admissions process.

The four major criteria based institutions that have been the center of arguments are Julia R. Masterman, Central High School, Academy at Palumbo, and Carver High School of Engineering and Science. Overall, the three developments come with benefits and drawbacks, and a heavy discussion of racism and equity. The testing switch doesn’t have as controversial repercussions, though many continue to debate the lottery and zip code preference that was implemented months ago.

In conflicts over the new lottery system, both the positive and the negative possess valid points. In terms of the positive, the focus is on eliminating the systemic racism that is clear in the racial proportions reported in Philadelphia’s elite High Schools. The zip code preference also has beneficial intentions, giving access to generationally underrepresented communities, working to break down some of the institutionalized discrimination that has become rampant in the public education system.

Several studies support this gap in racial equality in the selective High Schools of Philadelphia. A 2017 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts Philadelphia Research Institute gathered that in the prior admissions system, students who are white or Asian American and from relatively affluent families are more likely to gain admission than those who are Black, Latino, and low-income. “There is a need to centralize the selection process to help us dig deeper and to continue to grapple with the tension between objectivity and subjectivity in our process,” says Sabriya Jubilee, the district’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The Philadelphia Department of Education seems to be taking initiative as they have recently begun an equity project with the moniker, “Goals and Guardrails.” The program plans to target three goals: reading, math and graduating High School. It also focuses on four “guardrails”-- welcoming and supportive schools, enriching experiences, partnering with family, and dismantling racist practices.

On the opposing side of the spectrum are parents and alumni of the elite institutions. Several parent groups are asking for a redo. They argue that the new system has unfairly left some high-achieving students waitlisted with no offers of admission. Parents swiftly scheduled two meetings to discuss advocacy to amend the new process and a create petition which gained over 1,500 signatures in days.

The petition asked for a “re-selection phase,” and “a new and improved method that helps everyone involved.” In response to this came a post on the “Black at Masterman” Instagram page, commenting on the privilege of the supporters of the petition. The post read, “It must be hard for those living a life of privilege when the oppressive systems in place begin to work against them.”

A proposed solution to this dilemma, without an entire reorganization, could be an investment in the catchment public schools, which are currently suffering with lack of resources and organization. This could give rejected or waitlisted students a chance to still gain a thorough education.


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