Does the District need another special admission middle school?
By Christine Carlson on Jun 11, 2015 02:02 PM
Every spring, parents of 4th graders anxiously wonder whether their child will be accepted into Masterman or GAMP or another of the city’s seven special admission middle schools and programs. What follows when the letters finally arrive are either triumphant smiles or downcast eyes.
Then begins the exodus, as neighborhood schools across the city are stripped of their top students.
Because these special admission schools have the highest scores, most parents think they are a better option for their child. They don’t want to keep their children in their current school for the middle grades, even if they are fine schools or if they know that child psychologists consider K-8 schools the best school type for adolescent development.
This year, one the District’s highest-ranking high schools Carver Engineering & Science, announced that they would soon open their own special admission middle school. This may come as welcome news to many parents. But if this trend follows the path of our District high schools, it will segregate more of our students at an even younger age.
There was a time when Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools shone. With the exception of Central (for boys) and Girls' High, there were no special-admit high schools and with few exceptions, all of the neighborhood kids attended their neighborhood high school.
Students might have been on different academic tracks, but they went to school together. They ate lunch together, they played sports together, and they made music together. Students on lower tracks saw the possibilities of what they could achieve by being exposed to their peers on higher tracks. They in turn could motivate their lower-performing peers. The neighborhood high school universe was balanced, and everyone was better off because of it.
In the last two decades, as the District opened more special admission high schools, an increasing number of academically thriving students were sucked out of the neighborhood schools. The most vulnerable students were left behind in half-empty, cavernous spaces. Despite the fact that many neighborhood schools have great leadership, they have been left in an untenable position of dealing with a culture of low expectations, violence, and hopelessness.
Special admission high schools are great places of learning and give students many opportunities. But we now have a segregated system, where excellent students and average or struggling students have no contact with one another. Were we to continue this trend with our middle schools, what would happen? Won't we eventually have the same two-tiered system? And what’s next, special admission 1st grades?
Creating new middle schools is not the best use of the District’s meager resources. Unless these special admission schools attract students from private or charter schools, those who aren't part of the District's system, students will be pulled from seats in elementary schools throughout the city. The result will be more empty seats in more underutilized schools -- the pressure to close neighborhood schools can only continue.
Imagine if all of the financial and human resources now being used in the special admission middle schools, present and future, were invested in the middle grades of our existing K-8 schools? Blasphemy, I know! But there’s something to be said about concentrating, rather than diluting, our resources.
My husband and I send our children to our neighborhood elementary school, and we’ll keep them there through 8th grade. But they will attend special admission high schools or leave the District, because, right now, the division that exists between special admission and neighborhood high schools is just too deep.
I’d like to think that there is a solution that I could help tackle, but the task seems insurmountable. I’d hate to see the same kind of gap happen to our middle schools as well.
Editor's note: A previous version of this commentary incorrectly stated that an SLA planned middle school would be special admission. It also incorrectly stated the number of special admission middle schools and programs. There are currently seven, with an eighth opening in the fall.
Christine Carlson is a public school parent and the founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.