The Philly school choice system no one is talking about

Every year, thousands of Philadelphia families choose a traditional public school outside their neighborhood. So is that a good thing, a bad thing or something else?

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Waliyyuddin Abdullah drops off daughter Florrie, a first grader, at Powel School in West Philadelphia. Abdullah chose Powel over his neighborhood school in North Philadelphia.

Waliyyuddin Abdullah drops off his daughter Florrie, a first grader, at Powel School in West Philadelphia. Abdullah chose Powel over his neighborhood school in North Philadelphia. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Mercedes White is not a morning person.

Her day begins amid a symphony of alarms, each set about 15 minutes apart in order to keep her on schedule. White’s mom delivers daily phone calls to make sure she and her two children — 2-year-old Imir and 9-year-old Iman — make it out the door on time.

On good days, they leave their row home in West Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood before 8 a.m., hustling over to Imir’s day care on 52nd Street. Then, the caravan continues another 15 minutes east to drop off Iman.

Waliyyuddin Abdullah’s morning journey starts inside a North Philadelphia row home flanked by vacant lots. While the television and the family parakeet trade chirps in the background, Abdullah herds first-grader Florrie toward a crimson SUV parked outside.

On the 15-minute ride southwest, dad and daughter run through flashcards scribbled with words Florrie is learning to read. Each time she completes 200 new cards, Abdullah buys her a present. Not the American Girl doll she wants, but “something reasonable.”

Eventually Abdullah and White converge at Samuel Powel, a K-4 school just north of Drexel University, where the blacktop bubbles with happy kids and doting parents.

The first time Abdullah visited Powel, it was this early-morning tableau that won him over.

He saw the attentive parents in the courtyard. He noticed how, when the bell rang for lineup, every child dashed for their class’ assigned place in the courtyard.

“Neighborhood schools are good, but I wanted my children to be around students who are more focused on learning than they are on playing,” Abdullah said.

A different kind of ‘neighborhood’ school

Powel is, in fact, a neighborhood school. It’s just not Abdullah’s or White’s neighborhood school.

Its surrounding area — or catchment — encompasses a swath of West Philadelphia lined with Drexel University frat houses and dormitories. There aren’t enough interested children living in Powel’s catchment area to fill its 268 seats. And so, for as long as anyone can remember, high-performing Powel has been a magnet for parents outside the neighborhood seeking something better. In 2016-17, according to data from the School District of Philadelphia, 62 percent of Powel students traveled from outside the catchment.

It is a neighborhood school in name, but a choice school in practice.

Powel isn’t alone. There are 13 neighborhood elementary or middle schools in Philadelphia where more than half of enrolled students come from outside the catchment area, including one — F. Amedee Bregy School in deep South Philadelphia — where an astounding 88 percent of kids cross boundary lines.

The neighborhood school is an ideological trope in American education. Public school advocates idealize it, framing the neighborhood school as a communal centerpiece and birthright. School choice advocates lambaste it. Why should there be a geographical default when competition breeds better results?

But in Philadelphia, the data suggest, neighborhood schools look less and less like the cartoon version painted by both sides — and more like a hybrid between the catchment schools of old and the selection schools of today.

None of this is new.

Philly has long operated its own internal school choice system. If a school has open seats, parents from outside the area can line up to take them. This phenomenon is so common in the higher grades, only a handful of high schools left in Philadelphia  resemble true neighborhood schools.

But even in the younger grades — as school choice sinks deeper into the bedrock of Philly’s education system and the subconsciousness of its parents — more families are on the move.

Powel School Principal Kimberly Ellerbee.
Powel School Principal Kimberly Ellerbee. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Powel principal Kimberly Ellerbee can sense it in the growing pile of applications she receives, which last year numbered more than 100 for the first time in her eight-year tenure.

“You have more and more people … that are looking than ever before,” she said.

The numbers back Ellerbee up.

In the 2016-17 school year, 17,515 students in grades K through 8 attended a neighborhood school other than their own. That’s nearly 20 percent of all district children in those schools, up from around 15 percent in the 2011-12 school year. On their own, those 17,515 students would form the fourth-largest school district in Pennsylvania. Add that to the 49,694 K-8 students in Philadelphia charter schools, and you wind up with more than 67,000 Philly kids leaving their neighborhood school before they reach high school.


2011-12 14,804 85,290 100,094 14.8%
2016-17 17,515 73,772 91,287 19.2%


Note: All numbers are for neighborhood schools in Philadelphia serving elementary and/or middle school students.

A ‘comparable effect’ to charters

Whereas each new charter seat provokes fresh debate, the city’s neighborhood school choice system garners relatively little attention. Yet, the two share unmistakable similarities.

Skeptics note many of the same criticisms levied at the charter-school sector could apply to the intradistrict transfer system. The transfer system favors the connected and vigilant over the ill-informed and overwhelmed. The result, they say, is that connected and vigilant parents cluster in a handful of desirable schools, leaving behind schools that could sorely use their advocacy.

“It has a comparable effect to kids going to charters or going to private school,” said Katey McGrath, a public-school advocate who has wrestled with this concept while sending her own kids to a neighborhood school out of catchment. “It deprives the school of engaged families, of resources, of, you know, butts in the seats.”

One could argue the district’s transfer process is inherently less equal than the charter system. One key reason is transportation. Starting about a decade ago, the district stopped providing buses for those who transferred to another neighborhood school. That change functionally weeds out families without the time or money to transport their own children.

And while some charters advertise their application process — thus attracting applications from the less fortunate and less connected — district schools historically haven’t self-promoted to the same extent. This again limits the applicant pool to those in the know.

“[It’s] about the haves and have-nots,” said Sylvia Simms, a school-choice advocate and former member of the School Reform Commission. “Folks who know how to navigate and those who don’t.”

But, like the charter sector, voluntary transfer can keep families in the city who might otherwise opt for the suburbs. Plus, it provides options to those without the means to live in a hot neighborhood.

School-choice proponents note there have always been options for the affluent. They can choose a house near a high-performing school or pay private-school tuition. Transfer options, they argue, give parents stranded in struggling neighborhoods a way out and help break down the residential segregation that plagues school districts around the country.

“To be locked into a low-performing school because of where you live is unfair,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of Philadelphia School Partnership, a philanthropy group that backs school choice.

There are still, to be sure, plenty of neighborhood schools in Philadelphia that draw heavily from their catchment.

In the Northeast, for instance, there’s barely any student movement within the public system. Schools in North Philadelphia also tend to attract fewer students. And a small handful of schools in Center City and West Philadelphia are so popular among catchment residents, few openings are available to those from outside the neighborhood.

The most transfer activity seems to be in Northwest Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, far West Philadelphia, and the ring of neighborhoods around Center City.

We mapped this out below. Schools marked in red and yellow have above-average proportions of students from outside the neighborhood, with red schools having the highest percentage of non-catchment students. Schools marked purple have the lowest percentage of non-catchment students, with blue schools landing slightly below average.

You can manipulate the map to show only red schools, only purple schools, or any desired combination .

Note: Not all out-of-catchment students voluntarily transfer to a school. Some special-education students attend schools outside their neighborhoods because their assigned schools can’t provide needed services.

An old choice system revived

The option to transfer schools in Philadelphia dates back generations. A voluntary desegregation plan launched in the 1970s allowed students to move schools and included busing for those willing to make the trek. The dawn of the federal No Child Left Behind Law three decades later opened a new choice hatch. Thanks to NCLB, students zoned to attend schools with substandard test scores could also apply to go elsewhere.

The desegregation plan and NCLB have since faded away. In 2006, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the district stopped providing transportation for transfer students. Officials say they have no plan to revive the service and that money can best be spent elsewhere.

In the interim, charter schools emerged as a school-choice rival and now educate around 70,000 students. Despite its astounding growth, though, the charter sector has not quenched parent demand for tuition-free choice options.

In 2003, according to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, families submitted 77,000 applications through the district’s transfer process, a number that encompasses all grades and all types of schools (including magnet schools).

Though the city has added tens of thousands of charter seats since then, demand remains strong and seems to be rising.

In 2016, there were 75,658 applications — nearly identical to the 2003 figure — submitted by 18,665 students. This despite the fact that there were about 60,000 more children in district schools in 2003 than there are today. And the number of school selection applications has risen every year since 2014, when the district switched to an online student selection process.


2014 16,017 64,234
2015 17,786 70,992
2016 18,665 75,658


The district attributes this recent uptick to outreach efforts and the installation of an online process, which replaced hard-copy applications.

Families can go to the district’s enrollment website and fill out a school selection form that lists up to five schools they would like their child to attend. For reference, the district also publishes a roster of schools that have vacancies.

The application window for the following school year opens in September and closes in mid-November. For schools that receive too many applications, the district runs a randomized lottery. There is, however, a lottery preference for students who already have a sibling in their school of choice.

Generally, officials say they’re pleased that more families seem to be using this updated application process.

“I think choice is always a good thing,” said Karyn Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services. “People like to have choice and so it’s good that we make that choice available for them.”

Options versus equity

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how the intradistrict school choice system works for elementary and middle school students.

A recent review of the district’s high school choice system by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Hispanic and black students, especially males, tended to be underrepresented at the most desirable schools. No one interviewed for this story could point to similar analysis in the lower grades, which means the demographic composition of this choice system remains a mystery.

Many, though, seem to think parents who exercise choice tend to be higher income and better educated than those who don’t. This anecdotal assumption crosses ideological boundaries, from those who typically support school choice to those who question it.

What differs between these groups are their proposed solutions to this widely assumed inequity.

City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a frequent charter-school antagonist, said she sees no problem with school choice if it happens within a public school system. That way, Gym said, money doesn’t leave the district the way it does when students depart for charter schools.

“An in-district system where choice is shaped not by desperation or shrinking resources, but with goals of quality and school diversity in mind wouldn’t have to be a system of winners and losers,” she wrote in an email. “It could be one where we focus on diversifying and improving opportunities within the public school system we control.”

Pennsylvania law mandates the district cover busing costs for charter-school students. Gym believes the district should do the same for in-district transfer students as a way of equalizing access to school choice and eliminating what she sees as a built-in advantage for charters.

Advocates of school choice offer other improvements.

Gleason with Philadelphia School Partnership wants the district to continue outreach to parents. He’d also like the district to expand its application window so that families don’t have to plan a school year ahead.

“It’s a bedrock to our country that a family has to do what’s best for their children and find the best opportunities for their children,” said Gleason. “The question is how do you make accessing this sort of opportunity easier for all families?”

Public-school advocate Katey McGrath sometimes wonders if it would be better to reverse course. What if the district restricted choice and funneled more parents back to their home schools?

Instead of sending her children to J.S. Jenks, she could have sent them to Lingelbach, where the overwhelming majority of students are low income and the school’s SPR score (a district-created measure of school quality) is a relatively low 29 percent.

“I think differently about it every time I think about it, truly,” said McGrath. “I know that my kids would have been fine and had a nice experience at Lingelbach. And I feel a little hypocritical.”

The Abdullah family would have moved from Powel (SPR score 51 percent) to North Philadelphia’s Tanner Duckrey School (SPR score 29 percent). Mercedes White’s kids are zoned to attend Bryant School (SPR score 7 percent).

In theory, steering motivated, engaged families to struggling neighborhood schools seems like an attractive idea. It’s difficult, though, to see how it would work in practice.

Asked whether they would ever consider sending their kids to their neighborhood school, most parents interviewed for this story offered a resounding “no.” If in-district transfer didn’t exist, the parents said, they’d find some other choice.

“There was no way I was going to send my child there,” said Tiffany Wilson, the parent of a Powel first-grader whose home school made headlines recently for two troubling safety breaches.

Restricting choice, the parents and others argued, would simply force further charter expansion or push families across the city line.

Mercedes White sent her daughter Iman to two different charters before landing at Powel. She’s already game-planning for next year, when Iman, a fourth-grader, will have to pick a middle school. If White is unable to drive Iman to school, she may have to take the bus. This summer they’re planning practice runs to test Iman’s comfort on public transportation.

“We work it out somehow,” said White. “But it’s a priority to get them to a good school.”

A ‘good’ school

This is the animating force for families who use intradistrict choice: getting into a good school.

“Good” has a few definitions, but parents generally said they judged quality through a combination of personal recommendations, community reputation, and school quality metrics computed by the district and others. They wanted a school with engaged parents and focused students. Above all, they wanted a place where they knew their kids would be safe. Unwittingly perhaps, they’ve bonded together to ensure there are schools that meet those criteria.

“Parents walk in and feel like this is a safe place for my child to be,” said Ellerbee, the Powel principal. “I think foundationally … parents are looking to make sure that they’re taking their child to a place where they feel like they’re safe from 8:30 to 3:30 every day.”

Waliyyuddin Abdullah first took interest in Powel after he saw it received a high score from Great Philly Schools, a guide produced by Philadelphia School Partnership.

Growing up, Abdullah attended his neighborhood school in North Philadelphia, Paul Dunbar. His first three children, all significantly older than Florrie, went to their home neighborhood schools in North Philly.

Back then, Abdullah said, he wasn’t aware of all the options available to him. Now he understands the system better, and he knew Florrie needed a place like Powel.

When he looks at the kids standing attentively in Powel’s school yard for morning announcements, he sees his rationale manifested.

“The overwhelming bulk of these children all want to learn,” he said. “That makes a difference. That makes a big difference.”

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