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: Sarah Robbins, of Point Breeze, sends her daughter Zahdi, six, to Chester A. Arthur Elementary. Right: Steve Haslam and Katey McGrath, of Germantown, send their boys Jason, eight, and Daniel, six, to J.S. Jenks Elementary. Photography by Christopher Leaman

Left: Sarah Robbins, of Point Breeze, sends her daughter Zahdi, six, to Chester A. Arthur Elementary. Right: Steve Haslam and Katey McGrath, of Germantown, send their boys Jason, eight, and Daniel, six, to J.S. Jenks Elementary. Photography by Christopher Leaman

How to Find the Best Philadelphia Public School

Despite the serious problems facing the Philly school district, there’s new energy, new excitement and a new generation backing the public-school movement.
Q. How can I tell if my neighborhood school is any good?

So, first, let’s address the elephant in the room here. Everybody knows that the public-school system in Philly is in dire straits: Education is arguably the number one problem that this city faces, and the school system needs more help, more support and more money. But — and this is a really big but — that doesn’t mean that many schools aren’t still able to deliver a great, well-rounded education. So from a parent’s perspective, this question isn’t about every school — it’s about your school, and where to start.

Counterintuitive as it may feel, you should begin by setting aside the test scores. They’re not irrelevant, but they don’t tell you nearly as much as you think about how much your kid can learn at the school down the block. So, what are the metrics? Well, the short answer is that they vary depending on what a parent values: A great music program might be a must to one family and utterly irrelevant to another. The long answer — probably the more helpful one — is that there are several ways to judge with clear eyes whether your neighborhood public is a good option for your family.

Your first step? Visit the school. No newspaper story, no score and no review can give you the type of information you get from actually being in the hallways and classrooms. Call the school or Home and School Association to arrange a tour, or go to one of the open houses — schools are required to offer them twice yearly, though some local publics hold them more often than that. (Chester A. Arthur, for example, has monthly open houses.) “Once people go, they realize that Morgan Freeman isn’t the principal,” says Katey McGrath, whose sons attend J.S. Jenks in Chestnut Hill. “They’re not playing ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ in the hallway.”

When George A. McCall parent Lauren Summers realized how many parents bypassed a tour, summarily dismissing the local public school as an option without having ever seen it, she decided to start a Facebook page that shows people exactly what’s happening inside neighborhood public schools all over the city. The Philly School News Facebook page (now it’s also a website: Phillyschoolnews.com) is a great resource for on-the-ground school information. Still, Summers says, “Going into the school immediately answers so many questions for you” — not just about the facility, but about the intangibles, too: the vibe, the safety factor, the technology in the classrooms, the kids’ orderliness. “I also always tell people to look at the art on the walls,” she says. “Look to see how personal and individual each piece is. If it’s all rote, if they’re all the same, I get a little uneasy.”

And while you’re there? Without fail, meet the principal. “A principal sets the tone for the culture of the school,” says Ivy Olesh, president of the Friends of Chester Arthur. “It’s top-down. And every school should have a kick-ass principal — though every school might define that differently, might need something different.” How to assess what makes a kick-ass leader? Ask about the principal’s vision and goals; ask what programs or changes or parts of the school year he/she is excited about; ask what he/she can tell you about individual student growth over the past few years, and what the school does to track and ensure that growth. In fact, ask questions of everyone you can — including parents of students currently enrolled in the school. And consider the entire experience: Is there a language program? Music? After-school activities? Playground equipment? Programs for special-ed or advanced students? Community partnerships? (Many, many public schools have one or more cool partnerships with everyone from the Walnut Street Theatre to NASA.)

Another helpful resource — one that has more quantifiable metrics, one that goes beyond the information found on Greatphillyschools.org — is the school district’s School Progress Report, a relatively new tool available on the district’s website that focuses on tracking year-to-year progress and growth among students (as opposed to just overall achievement). It also compares each school not just to other publics in the city, but to “peer” schools that serve similar student populations. Each school’s homepage has its own detailed SPR breakdown as well.

And speaking of progress: One helpful thing to remember is that schools are always transforming, especially right now, as the city grows. “We definitely have people who have two-year-olds and they’re taking tours of the school, getting involved,” says Nina Liou, president of the Bache-Martin Home and School Association. “If you start that young, it gives you a benchmark. Every year, things continue to change … you hope for the better. You hope to see an evolution.” Embracing the evolution is key: Principals aren’t necessarily forever (which can be bad or good); test and SPR scores can improve, especially if that’s a mission of the principal; enrolling in a public school for kindergarten or first grade doesn’t lock you in for life. Furthermore, there are a number of ways parents — even time-crunched parents who aren’t rolling in cash — can be a part of a school’s positive evolution.

“What we’ve seen,” offers Olesh, “is that while you have to accept that there are some unknowns, you can also be part of the solutions. We’ve lived that. If you step up and say what you want to see, you get to be part of the dialogue, and that isn’t true everywhere. To some extent, that’s the value of the neighborhood school.”

Q. What secret tricks will get my kid into the stellar public school across town?

Here’s the dirty little secret about getting your kid into that terrific neighborhood school across town: There aren’t many dirty little secrets left.

Two years ago, the system favored the savvy. Applications had to be filed on paper at district HQ (and it helped to file a duplicate with the principal). There was a first-come, first-serve component, too.

“We were lucky to get in,” says Colleen Vlassopoulos, a South Philly mom whose children enrolled at Center City’s Albert M. Greenfield School under the old system.

Last year, though, the district overhauled the “voluntary transfer process,” closing the loopholes that in-the-know parents were exploiting.

How the process works now: The district has released a list of schools with available seats. Families applying for transfers can choose up to five schools from that list for fall 2016 admission and apply online. (Google “Philadelphia school selection process.”) Applications will be accepted between October 1st and November 13th. Over the winter, the lucky winners will be chosen by lottery; they’ll have one week to accept the selection. Catherine Collins, co-founder of the Mount Airy Parents Network, says the new system seems to be both transparent and easily navigated, eliminating many of the advantages that savvier parents once had.

Many, but not all. “I do know the shadow system still exists,” Collins says. “I do know some principals will accept students who didn’t get in through the lottery.” There now seem to be fewer spots for principals to give away, however, and many prefer not to exercise what discretion they have left.Your best bet: Apply, and have good safety schools in mind. And go ahead and schmooze that principal. You never know.

Q. I feel pretty good about most aspects of my public school, but not all. What can I do to give my kid the excellent public-school experience I want for him?

Not to state the obvious, but even the best public schools in Philly need all the support they can get from families and the surrounding communities. Here are a variety of ways you can foster excellence and buttress your school in meaningful ways.

Join the Home and School Association or local “Friends of” group. Some schools have HSAs; some have Friends groups; some have both. Generally, HSAs are made up of families working from inside the school to support it, while Friends groups tend to be made up of community members — not necessarily families — who are supporting the school from a broader neighborhood standpoint. Either way, there’s definitely a job you can do in one of these groups: organizing bake sales, sending out newsletters for teachers, searching for corporate partners, answering phones while the secretary eats lunch. A little help from a lot of people makes all the difference.

Work on what your school actually needs, not on what you think it needs. It’s great that you’d like to raise money to serve organic milk at lunch, but maybe the school is in more dire need of, say, construction paper. Or laptops. Or lunchroom monitors. The key to progress is to understand the principal’s vision, then align yourself with whatever help the school needs to implement it.

Don’t wait another minute. Got a toddler who’s going to be in kindergarten in 2018? Use your neighborhood listserve to arrange a happy hour with fellow 2018-kindergarten parents, get to know one another, then reach out en masse to the HSA or Friends group. The camaraderie isn’t just a comfort to you; it’s also the type of long-term commitment to the school and the neighborhood that’s a game-changer. (Just ask any parent at Greenfield or McCall or Lea. … )

Open your wallet. Many parents shell out major bucks for daycare and preschool — as much as $1,600 a month, in some cases. What if parents accustomed to paying for preschool took a small chunk of that cash and gave it to their public school? Even $50 a month from parents who can afford it will add up fast.

Think outside the school. Worried that public school won’t give your kid the well-rounded education a private school might? You can supplement your kid’s in-school experiences with summer camps, music teachers, language lessons and sports clubs, for a fraction of most private-school tuitions. Some publics even offer these as after-school programs. Ask.

Hit up your boss. For the past year, the law firm of White and Williams has “adopted” Chester A. Arthur, pledging $10,000 to buy Chromebooks for the middle school. But a company needn’t go to those lengths to be helpful. Maybe your office has used computers to unload, or wants to sponsor a field trip, or can run a school-supply drive.

Sell the school. Tell other parent friends to take a tour. Tell your neighbors about that cool partnership with the Franklin Institute. Tell everyone about the great principal. Wide-scale buy-in is everything.

Q. Does my kid actually have a shot at getting into Masterman or Central?

Finding a caring public-school teacher for your kindergartner is one thing. High school? That’s more complicated. A lot of neighborhood high schools in Philadelphia are a mess, and there’s no getting around that. Yes, there are some, like South Philadelphia High, that are making progress. Others, like Northeast High, are keeping alive strong academic traditions.

But for a whole lot of city parents, there’s just one public high-school option that’ll do: magnets. And there, the School District of Philadelphia excels. There are 19 special-admission high schools in the district, enrolling more than 13,000 students. Students can get a great education at any of them, from the Science Leadership Academy to Girls’ High to the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush to — cross your fingers — the promised land of Central High or Masterman.

How hard is it to get in? Admission standards vary by school, but at Masterman and Central, the competition is fierce. Below is the breakdown.

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6 Awesome Public-School Programs

A lot of great stuff happens inside Philly publics — stuff you might not know about. Here’s a tiny sampling of some of the cool partnerships, programs and extracurriculars at neighborhood schools.

Music and Dance
@ Andrew Jackson (K-8)
The Dancing Classrooms Philly program teaches fifth-graders ballroom dance, while a partnership with the nonprofit Musicopia provides instruments for the members of Jackson’s own rock band, and also sponsors assemblies featuring professional musicians.

STEM
@ Chester A. Arthur (K-8)
The American Society of Civil Engineers sponsors one of just 13 civil engineering school clubs in the U.S. There’s also a maker club via a partnership with NextFab studio, and a Lego-robotics team.

Law
@ Constitution High School
The Ballard Spahr Pipeline Program provides mentoring, internships, mock trials, scholarships, shadowing days and service-project opportunities to students.

Theater
@ Henry W. Lawton (K-5)
A partnership with Enchantment Theatre Company provides an artist-in-residence who helps kids write, design, rehearse and perform their own theatrical production, often involving music, mimes and puppetry.

STEM
@ Northeast High School
Northeast offers a highly sought-after special-admission medical, engineering and aerospace magnet featuring after-school program Project SPARC (that’s for Space Research Center), which engages kids in a simulated NASA mission.

After-School Extras
@ Bache-Martin (pre-K-8)
Thanks to myriad partnerships, the roster of extracurriculars includes Spanish for K-3 (fourth-through-eighth-graders receive in-school Spanish); dance; soccer; drawing; a drama club run by the Walnut Street Theatre; and more, including Spark, workplace-based apprenticeships and mentoring for seventh-graders.


Why I Chose … Public School

Marc Vetri is dad to Maurice, nine, Catherine, seven, and Mario, five. They live in Fairmount, and all the kids go to Bache-Martin.

I was raised in public school; my wife Megan was raised in public school. Private school was just not something we wanted to explore. We did look at some charters, but we thought Bache-Martin had better programs and relationships with community partners. A lot of schools we looked at didn’t have the art and music. Then, talking with all the neighbors — everyone was kind of talking up the school. It was the logical choice: Head to the neighborhood school that suits your needs.

Bache-Martin is a great school. They thrive at being creative with the resources they have. The kids are learning a lot. They have awesome friends. They’re on level or beyond where they need to be. They come home and ask questions and talk about history and art and science. Bache has a strings teacher, so they’re learning the violin. They’re learning from other kids who are from different families and cultures, and those kids are learning from them. Now we have a new principal who’s really amazing — dedicated and passionate and 100 percent locked in to making that school the very best it’s able to be. That’s exciting. The parents are active members of the school community, volunteering in the classroom, fund-raising, and planning and helping run events.

Every time I read something negative about Philly schools, it’s sort of hard. Sure, funding is rough, but if neighborhoods get behind their schools, keep the families engaged and create a community, it’s healthier for everybody. — As told to Liz Spikol