How to Find the Best Philadelphia School for Your Child

A clear-eyed, judgment-free look at how to get the best education for your kid.
Left: Shelli Thomas and her daughter Zoie at Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School. Right: David Clayton and Kate Clark, of East Passyunk, send their son August, four, to Russell Byers Charter school for pre-K. Photography by Christopher Leaman

Left: Shelli Thomas and her daughter Zoie at Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School. Right: David Clayton and Kate Clark, of East Passyunk, send their son August, four, to Russell Byers Charter school for pre-K. Photography by Christopher Leaman

How to Find the Best Philadelphia Charter School

Some of the most intriguing schools in the city are the hardest to navigate … and to get into. Here’s what you need to know about the charters.
Q. Where do I even start with the charters?

Applying to charter schools in Philadelphia is a frustrating, confusing, time-consuming ordeal. No lie — it’s statistically harder to get your kindergartner into some charters than to win admission to Penn. But for those parents who are lucky and savvy enough to get their kids into a charter that’s a good match, the reward is an excellent education in a safe environment, in the city, for free. That’s worth some hassle.

As a starting point, you want to think hard about what you want in a school. There are 56 charter schools in Philly that accept kindergartners. Ask yourself: What kind of teaching philosophy am I looking for? Some charters, like Green Woods, are all about hands-on learning. KIPP and Mastery charters, among others, are laser-focused on preparing students for college. And others, like Independence Charter’s Spanish immersion program, offer intense attention to particular academic subjects. Think about your kids’ learning needs and interests. What extracurricular activities are they into? How diverse would you like their school to be? Are you okay with your children attending school in a neighborhood far from home?

Then, go online for a few days straight. Greatphillyschools.org is basically a one-stop shop for charter schools. It’s got a thorough profile of each charter in the city, with information on everything from their missions to their state test scores to their demographics to their safety records. Plus, it’s the easiest way to find each school’s phone number and website.

Find out how the Pennsylvania Department of Education grades a charter school at Paschoolperformance.org. The website gives each school in the state a rating on a scale of 0 to 100, based on test scores, attendance rate, how much students have improved academically over the past year and more. Bonus tip: The site also details how historically underperforming students do on state tests at each school, which may be of interest if your child is low-income or has disabilities.The Philadelphia School District also gives city schools annual “progress reports” at Philasd.org.

It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to Google any schools you’re looking at, to make sure they weren’t once unexpectedly shut down or run by a CEO who pleaded guilty to theft. (Those things have actually happened at Philly charters.) And be sure to check out school websites and Facebook pages. They’re the public face of each charter and can show you what the schools value.

You’re also going to want to talk to other parents. Charter schools are typically less transparent than traditional public schools, so this step is critically important. Chat up the parents at your kid’s pre-K to find out where they’re applying. Figure out if your target school’s neighborhood has a parent listserve, and get on it, stat. Most important, talk to parents at the actual charters you’re considering. If you don’t know any, call up the schools and ask if they have parent organizations. You can also do what Renee Brown, a parent at Discovery Charter School, did when she was shopping around: “I would go to the charters and when I saw people coming out of them, I would ask, ‘How do you like the school? What grade is your child in? Do you live in the neighborhood?’”

Finally, check out the schools for yourself. The parents we talked to said this is the single best way to vet a charter school. Find out if a school is hosting an open house by calling or checking Greatphillyschools.org for listings. If you missed the open house, don’t fear: You can (and should) request a tour. Mike Wang, executive director at Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, whose son goes to Wissahickon Charter School, has this #protip: Ask to sit in on classes when you’re checking out schools. “Watch the interaction between teachers and students,” he says. “That’s what makes or breaks how a child feels about learning, whether a child can read, everything.” Other parents swear by talking to the school’s principal, checking out the classwork hanging on the walls, and investigating the playground, library and other facilities.

Q. What does it take to get into a top charter?

Tenacity, organization, and a whole lot of luck. So the best rule of thumb here can be summed up as: Apply, apply, apply. A lottery — a cruel, cruel lottery — will determine whether your child gets into most charter schools in Philadelphia. “It’s a terrible process. It sucks. It feels so unfair,” says Mike Wang, of Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners. But that’s the way it is. So beginning in November (yes, November), increase your odds by applying to every charter you’re considering. Didn’t get a chance to visit a charter in person? Do it later. On the fence about Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures or Christopher Columbus? Apply to both, and another half dozen. Just think: Wang applied to 15 charter schools, and his son got into just one.

Of course, it’s not easy to apply to a gazillion schools. Different charters have different applications, which are due on different days and in different ways. Some applications, like Global Leadership Academy’s, have to be finished by February. Others, like Belmont Academy’s, don’t have to be turned in till April. Some can be requested online, while others must be picked up at the school. At least some charters have made applying deliberately difficult. Green Woods, for instance, once required parents to attend an open house at a golf club in the suburbs in order to get an application. (Green Woods says its application is now available online.)

You can find charter schools’ application deadlines on the school district website, Philasd.org. But parents who’ve been through the charter enrollment gauntlet recommend calling each school and asking when its application is due, how to get a copy of it, and where to submit it. Then make a spreadsheet to keep track of all the different deadlines and requirements.

The next smart move to make is to see if you can get around the lottery, or at least improve your odds. Do you already have a child enrolled in a charter? Call to find out if it’s one of the many schools that give preference to the younger siblings of current students. Other charters give a leg up to students who live in the neighborhood. For instance, Franklin Towne Elementary accepts 75 percent of its students from the surrounding area. Contact Philadelphia’s Charter Schools Office at 215-400-4090 to find out if you live near such a school.

You can also ring that number to learn if a charter accepts four-year-olds. If it does, as Russell Byers does, your child will have a slightly better chance at winning the lottery at that age than he or she will as a five-year-old.

Philly also has a few charters, such as Cleveland Elementary and Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter School, that don’t hold lotteries. These are known as “Renaissance” schools, and they accept students who live in their catchment area on a rolling basis. There is no application deadline for these charters, but be sure to enroll in them ASAP anyway. Some are so popular that they’ve hit their enrollment caps in recent years and have had to turn students away.

Another important rule here: Be sure to know your rights. Charter schools are only legally allowed to require proof of an applicant’s age, address, immunization records, and some information about disciplinary records. That’s it. They’re not supposed to request a book review or medical records or an interview. If a school does ask for more, that’s a red flag the charter isn’t playing by the rules. Then again, if you’re dead set on a particular school and it demands an essay, be prepared to get dirty.

Finally, you’re going to need to make a decision. Charter schools hold admissions lotteries as early as January and as late as June. Some lottery dates are publicized on schools’ websites; the only way to unearth others is to call or email the schools. This is critical information to have, since some schools have forced parents in past years to decide whether to enroll as little as 48 hours after their lotteries took place. This year, the school district is telling charters to give families at least four weeks to make a choice, but again, charters don’t always follow the rules, so be prepared to move quickly.

If you win a lottery at a school that draws in January, you can still test your kid’s luck at later lotteries for other schools. So it’s probably smart to enroll at the school where you win a lottery first, since you can withdraw later if you hit the jackpot again at a charter you like better.

What if your child is waitlisted? Her odds of eventually being offered a spot depend both on how high up the list she is and the popularity of the school she’s applying to. (Few families who win the Independence Charter lottery are likely to give up that spot.) Greatphillyschools.org tells you how long the waitlists are at each school, which can help put your kid’s position on the list into perspective. Also helpful: Call the school and ask how many kids got accepted off the list in past years.

Oh, and some of the lottery drawings are public, so you can attend them if you’re feeling lucky (or masochistic).

This last bit is extra important: Have backup plans. Even if you do everything right, your kid might not land a spot. So it’s critical to have a Plan B, and probably a C and D as well. That means jumping through the public-school hoops and simultaneously applying to private schools, if those are an option for you.

Q. How do colleges really view charters?

“We get applications every year from new charters whose students are just finding their way into the applicant pool,” says Jim Bock, dean of admissions at Swarthmore College. “We’ll visit charters as well as public and private schools. We try to keep up with the pace.” No school, he emphasizes, can guarantee you admission to your dream college. But some charters — he mentions those with bilingual curricula — can be “very attractive.”

“Our focus is on the individual candidate,” Temple’s director of undergrad admissions, Karin Mormando, says, “on the credentials they bring and how they maximize their opportunities wherever they are.” None of the admissions officers we spoke with have noticed any difference in college readiness between charter and other students.

But what if, say, your charter-school principal absconds with the PTA cash? Admissions officers say such black marks are never held against a student. “Philadelphia is our backyard,” Haverford College director of admissions Mary Maier points out. “We want to do what we can to help. We give students applying from Philadelphia the benefit of the doubt.”


Charting Your Course

Follow this timeline during your charter exploration.

1 to 2 Years before
your child begins kindergarten: research, research, research.

Fall
Make the rounds at charter open houses. Sit in on classes. Firm up your application list.

October to January
Get your backup plans in order. If a private school or that great public across town figures into your Plan B, don’t think you can wait until after charter lottery season to apply. Those applications are due long before charters pick their winners.

November to June
File those charter applications. Deadlines vary wildly, so you need to be organized and vigilant.

January to June
Lottery season. Good luck.

March to August
Decision time. If you’re lucky, your kid has multiple options. If the lottery gods favored others, it’s time for Plan B (or C, or D).


Why I Chose … Charter School

Shelli Thomas is mom to Zoie, 16, and Dorian, who’s 29. They live in Overbrook Park, and Zoie currently attends Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School.

My daughter Zoie went to Lewis C. Cassidy for kindergarten but then was accepted to Laboratory Charter School. My sister, a teacher, said, “You gotta go for it, because that’s an exceptional school.” But by the end of second grade, Zoie hated school. That was scary to me. After the Lab School, she got accepted to GAMP — Girard Academic Music Program, an excellent public secondary school. And she changed: She loved school. It was academic, musically inclined. However, because she’d been there since fifth grade, she wanted a different high school. I wanted her to stay, so she went through ninth grade there and had the worst experience of her life.

When she was finishing ninth grade, she was like, “Mom, there’s a charter school that I’m interested in: It’s creative arts, and they have music and theater and writing.” It was the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School. And I said, “Zoie, it’s May! They already accepted the kids they’re taking.” But then I thought, You know what? We’re going to try. I wrote them a nice letter about how Zoie does this and that, and I think she’d be a good fit, and about two weeks later we came home to an acceptance letter. It was unbelievable. She’s starting 11th grade, and she’s thriving. She loves the kids there. Her theater teacher asked if she could mentor Zoie over the summer because she saw her potential. The teachers are very committed.

As far as the debate between charter and non-charter schools, I’ve been on both sides. But I’m behind any schooling choice that’s going to give kids what they need. Some charters create a special niche. After 13 years, I’ve seen the benefit of choice. — As told to Liz Spikol