Chrislie Dor, a budding poet at age 14, stands like Frost’s narrator at a fork in the road.
The paths diverge not in a yellow wood, but instead the concrete jungle that is Philadelphia public education. Looking down one bend as far as she can, Chrislie sees the school district’s selective-admission magnet high schools. Looking down the other, she sees the city’s charter schools.
Other options — such as Chrislie’s district-run neighborhood high school — may be in the vicinity, but they don’t figure on her map.
She’s applied to the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), and Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP). If she’s not accepted to either of these schools, she’ll leave the District for a charter school.
Decision letters go out this week.
“Out of all of them, I really want to go to CAPA,” she said. “I’ll be heartbroken if I don’t.”
As she awaits her fate, in the balance hang not just Chrislie’s hopes and dreams, but, in many ways, the future of Philadelphia public schools.
For a district that’s seen enrollment decline by 25,662 kids over the past five years, and payments to charter schools rise by more than $350 million in the same time, moments like this can make all the difference.
The ties that bind
To know Chrislie Dor is to know her two older sisters. The trio are as inseparable as the line of rowhomes framing their quiet East Oak Lane block.
Raised in a strict, single-parent household, the Dor sisters spend almost every waking moment of their free time together: joking around, contributing to each other’s poetry, harmonizing on church hymns.
“We just love singing,” said Chrisla, 16, the middle sister, “like sometimes, we’re bored, somebody starts singing, then we all join together … That’s really us.”
It was Christie, 17, the eldest sister, an aspiring poet in her own right, who pushed her younger sister to hone her writing craft.
“She went even further than me and started exploring poetry and other writing,” said Christie, “and then as I was reading them, I’m like, ‘She’s really good, like even better than me.’ Especially her poetry, they rhyme or they won’t rhyme, but they make absolute sense.'”
Onlookers can barely believe the sisters’ fondness for each other.
“Some people, especially at church, they’ll be like, ‘See if that was my sister, I would not be talking to her,'” said Christie. “Usually when we’re at other places we’ll just huddle up and just talk. Sometimes we’re ignoring the other people and talking amongst ourselves, and they’re like, ‘I was never that close to my siblings.'”
If you’re thinking there’s a theme in the sisters’ names, you’d be right.
“It’s from ‘Chris’ and ‘Christ,’ God,” explains Chrislie. “Mine means: ‘Christ can read,’ Chrisla is ‘Christ is always here,’ Christie is ‘Christ is medicine for everything.”
The trio moved from Orlando to Philadelphia with their mother Bernadette in 2005 — seeking a fresh start after their father died of lung cancer.
Since arriving in Philadelphia, all three girls have proved hardworking, intelligent students. Each thrived in district-run elementary and middle schools.
“My daughters do something very, very, very good,” said Bernadette in a thick Haitian accent. “All three, together, do something very, very, very well … very, very respectful children, too.”
As high school approached for the elder two sisters, they stared down the same crossroads that Chrislie is now facing.
Christie, the first-born, wanted to attend CAPA, but at the time, her mother felt the school was too far away from home. Bernadette allowed her to apply to The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush (another selective-admission high school in Far Northeast Philadelphia). She was accepted, but the family decided against the school, determining the two-bus commute would prove too much of a burden.
Chrisla wanted to attend the culinary career technical education program at the district-run Murrell Dobbins High, but she wasn’t accepted.
Both older sisters ended up being selected in the lottery for Multi-Cultural Academy Charter School (MACS) — which they agree has been preparing them well for their collegiate aspirations.
“You do learn a lot at MACS and you get a chance to evolve and find yourself,” said Christie, “because of the environment and the support system there.”
Chrislie currently attends Crossroads at Meade — a district-run alternative school that allows students to catch-up on two years’ worth of curriculum in one.
If she isn’t accepted to CAPA or GAMP, she plans to attend MACS as well.
Based on their address at the time, the elder two Dor sisters were entitled to attend Samuel S. Fels High School. As a comprehensive neighborhood high school, Fels accepts all students, at all times of year, from students living within its catchment area.
The city’s charter schools and the district’s selective-admission schools aren’t required to play by these rules. (As seen in the table below, demographic distinctions vary widely among these types of schools.)
Asked whether they considered Fels a legitimate high school option, each of the Dor girls recoiled.
When Christie was choosing between high schools in the spring of 2010, Fels was still deemed to be a “persistently dangerous” school by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. (The state gave 18 district-run neighborhood high schools that designation for the 2009-10 school year.)
For Christie, though, the calculus boiled down to her perception of Fels’ academic offerings.
“They’re having it easier, and I’d rather be challenged,” she said. “I don’t think that I would have gotten the knowledge that I need.”
When Chrisla was making her choice in the Spring of 2011, the same stigmas cast shadows over the school.
“So many kids that weren’t really serious about school always went to Fels,” said Chrisla. “So I didn’t want to be in that environment, where if I go there I’m not going to learn anything.”
Lately, the school has made some significant gains. In 2012, Fels came off the “persistently dangerous” list. (This year only two Philadelphia public schools remain on the list.)
The results of standardized test scores have been mixed since Christie first considered the school — reading slightly up, math slightly down.
At the beginning of this school year, Fels opened a selective-admission arts academy within its building — a program that provides opportunities to artistically inclined students who lack stellar academic records.
All these changes reveal the district’s attempt to improve its neighborhood schools. But despite some gains at schools such as Fels, that prospect has proved especially difficult of late due to draconian budget cuts that have undercut many support systems — including special education and guidance counselors — on which the city’s most vulnerable students rely.
So even as Fels’ stock is rising, Chrislie remains unwilling to bet on the school.
“From what I heard, it’s kind of wild in there,” she said. “It’s more tame now, but I think it’s still crazy. I think so, but I might be wrong.”
The Dor family recently moved into a house a few blocks from their old place. Now, the girls live in the catchment for Martin Luther King Jr. High School.
Based on perceptions similar to Fels, Chrislie and her mother say MLK is “not an option.”
The district’s challenge
The crossroads at which Chrislie Dor stands has become familiar to Philadelphia families over the past fifteen years or so.
It was this dissatisfaction with neighborhood school options that drove, and continues to drive, the city’s parents toward charters. Since the passage of Pennsylvania’s charter law in 1997, charter growth has boomed. The city now boasts 86 charters that serve roughly 31 percent of the city’s public school students.
In that same time, the district has continuously expanded its own boutique, non-neighborhood options.
These district expansions have included Science Leadership Academy, The Workshop School, Rush Arts, Hill-Freedman and more.
Both of these movements have, on average, siphoned the city’s top performing students away from neighborhood schools. This has tended to isolate and concentrate the kids thought most difficult to educate at the only schools in the city that must take them.
Based on a Newsworks analysis of most up-to-date state data, below is a breakdown of the demographics of the city’s different public high school options. The far right column depicts the state’s school performance profile score – a metric introduced last Fall that averages verifiable data such as standardized test scores.
Philadelphia High School Options
|Economically* disadvantaged||English languagelearners||Special education||Boys||Girls||Average SPP Score|
* District schools and charter schools use different methods to calculate % economically disadvantaged. Hard to compare apples to apples here.** Just like district-run neighborhood schools, renaissance charters must serve all students living within the school’s catchment boundaries.
As the graph shows, neighborhood high schools, on average, receive the lowest SPP scores while serving a population that’s poorer, more male and encumbered with more impediments to learning.
Conversely, magnet schools, on average, receive the highest SPP scores while serving a population that’s wealthier, more female and much less encumbered with learning impediments.
On average, charter schools — which vary widely by operator — fall in the middle on all accounts.
Singing in East Oak Lane
As Chrislie awaits her fate, the Philadelphia School District continues to expand its non-neighborhood-school options in hopes of luring more families to stay within its ranks. (It hasn’t authorized a new charter school, outside of the Renaissance model, since 2009.)
Three new non-academically selective high schools will open in North Philadelphia next year: The U School, The LINC and Building 21.
Each will soon accept applications for their first freshman classes. The U School and The Linc will enroll, through lottery, half of their students from the surrounding 11 zip codes, and half from students citywide.
Building 21’s lottery will draw from neighborhood and citywide applicants by a 60/40 split.
By 2017-18 the district expects the schools to serve more than 1,500 students.
“We want to retain and attract as many students as we possibly can,” said Karen Lynch, the district’s chief of student services. “We want there to be more high-performing options.”
But the District also knows that its system will only thrive in the long-run if it can improve all of its schools — a prospect that has at least as much to do with getting schools from good to great as it does with getting them from poor to good.
“The overall transformation effort for the District … has lots of moving parts, and we’ve got to try to kind of make all of those parts work together in a way that’s very complicated,” said assistant superintendent Paul Kihn. “It requires multiple points of action on multiple fronts to get right over the next, you know, few years.”
Chrislie Dor does not have that time to wait. So in the here and now, she weighs her options, and, to her, the distinctions between the words district-run, charter, magnet mean little.
Sitting in her rowhome, pen in hand, searching the silence for lines of truth in verse, one school, though, does call her name more than the rest.
“I’ve been writing for a long time, and then when I actually realized I could do something with it, it’s been CAPA,” said Chrislie. “It would mean everything. Getting into that school would help me figure out more of who I am.”
If she’s accepted, there’s no doubt the Dor sisters will once again be singing in East Oak Lane.