How the school voucher program would play out in some NW Philly schools

A few weeks ago, the Pennsylvania Senate passed legislation approving the voucher bill, SB 1, which, if approved by the House of Representatives next, would give taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers to students from under-performing schools to afford private and parochial schools.

NewsWorks recently spoke with two Northwest schools on the logistics of applying, school capacity and obstacles the voucher students would face at higher performing schools.

Germantown Friends School 

Laura Sharpless Myran, director of admissions at Germantown Friends School (GFS), says the school would welcome voucher students and would have space for a limited number. “We are slightly under our capacity cap,” she said, unable to estimate the number of slots available if the bill is approved. “We would welcome applications from anyone, and then we would try to work with that family about funding open access.”

State-funded vouchers could range from $5,000 to $13,000, depending on the district. A $13,000 voucher is about half of GFS’s tuition, according to Myran. “We would hope to fund the rest of the tuition. GFS’s financial aid is a need-based program. GFS currently has 32-percent of its student on financial aid, a percentage representing $2.7 million dollars of financial aid.

GFS voucher applicants would follow the same process as non-voucher students, filling out an application online or on paper. Students would also have a visitation day and are required to have a teacher recommendation. Students in grades 6 through 12 must take the Secondary School Admissions Test or the Independent School Entrance Exam.

“We do take that into consideration about what a student’s previous school has offered, whether the school’s curriculum has been the same as ours,” Myran said. The school has an advisory program that provides new students with a sponsor family to help them acclimate to the new curriculum and school. GFS also has a multicultural director, school psychologist and two learning specialists and teachers who meet regularly with students outside the classroom.

Holy Cross Parish School 

Over at Holy Cross Parish School in Mt. Airy, principal, Brian Werner, says the school would have room to take an additional 75 students. “Our doors are open to everybody,” he said, adding voucher applicants would be required to take the entrance exam like other applicants.

He acknowledged that students from under-performing schools may not score as well as students transferring from other Catholic or private schools but that Holy Cross would be prepared to help them excel.

“We’ve had some students come in from public schools.. let’s say we have a student and they’re supposed to go into the fifth grade, but we test them for fifth grade, and we find that they don’t perform well for fifth grade,” Werner said. “Many times we find that these students test low for the grade they’re supposed to be in but also in the grade below.”

In such cases, Werner said, Holy Cross offers Title 1, help at their Elwyn tutoring trailer and meets with the parents.

“We understand it’s very tough for a child where they’ve been for four or five years and then come in and be the new child and get used to a new curriculum,” Werner said. “I have an open-door policy at my office. If a student or parent feels like he or she’s having a tough time, they don’t need an appointment to see me.”

The school has been raising money on their end for a small scholarship fund, yielding an allotted $500 per child annually. Werner could not provide the total number of these scholarship recipients.

Opponents to the bill argue that the vouchers would steal essential funds for public schools already struggling with the repercussions of the $860 million in state funding cuts.

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