Advice for Philadelphia Middle School and High School Admissions

Since we launched PhillyTweens.com, the #1 request we receive is for guidance on the Philadelphia high school and middle school selection process. Students in Philadelphia have the option of attending their neighborhood catchment schools or applying to charter schools, magnet schools, or private schools.

There are 22 magnet schools in Philadelphia – unlike charter schools or private schools, a magnet school – or special admissions school – is part of the local public school system. The School District of Philadelphia has a Web site dedicated to directing families on how to apply to all district schools including magnets. The site includes a directory of all schools, important dates, and a step-by-step guide. The information is also available in a variety of languages.

Students can apply up to five different School District of Philadelphia Schools (Magnet, City-Wide and other Neighborhood Schools but excludes Charter, Catholic or paid tuition schools).

Students with IEPs and English language learners may apply to selective schools. If a student has a support IEP, Medical 504 Plan or an English Language Learner, they automatically qualify for LeGare. LeGare is an Advocacy process allowing for an EQUAL opportunity to attend a City-Wide or Special Admission High School. LeGare only applies to 8th Graders going into 9th grade.

From GreatPhillySchools:

It’s never too soon to start looking for the right school. Some schools require students to apply nearly a full year before the start of the school year. This is the case with all of the School District of Philadelphia’s citywide- and special-admission schools. Some schools also have an extensive admissions process. Download our Before You Apply to High School toolkit to help guide you through the process.

Here is a compilation of advice from Philadelphia guidance counselors and parents who have been through the process:

From Moira, parent of a student at GAMP:

For the admissions process online, you basically just select your schools in order of preference and hit submit. But as a music-based school, GAMP also includes the audition system for music. The most important person in the process from your current school is your school counselor. But ours somehow missed the memo, and while most kids had 3 weeks to prepare for auditions, ours gave us two hours notice on the day before winter break! We had to rent a zipcar, take another family over with us, and didn’t have instruments because they were locked in the auditorium, or any songs or music prepared. My son sang a Christmas song and flubbed the words because his school changed Christmas to Holiday and he couldn’t remember what version to sing. But, amazingly, my son pulled it off!

From Colleen, parent of a middle schooler at McCall.

“I’ve been through the process. My thoughts are to start early for high school, around sixth grade. Go to as many open houses and private tours as possible to narrow your choices. Think outside of the usual schools. Look for the hidden gems. Think about the best fit for your kid. The most competitive schools might not be right for all kids. Focus on where your kid will thrive!”

From Zakiya, parent of a student at Parkway Center City Middle College:

“The high school selection is not just hard on students – it’s very stressful for the parents. We hate seeing our kids stress waiting on those acceptance or rejection letters. It’s heartbreaking when they don’t get accepted but also stressful when they get into every school and have to make a decision. At first, my daughter was disappointed to not get her first choice, but then we quickly realized she got into the perfect school for her. She has the amazing opportunity to take college credit level courses, putting her one step ahead with her first year of college credits.”

From Adrienne, parent of a student at Central:

“Don’t over think it! There are great high schools in the city and the fact that you are a parent who is involved in the decision-making process tells me your kid is going to be alright. Most elementary schools are aware that the Philadelphia high school selection process can seem daunting to both parents and kids, so guidance counselors are typically involved in the process – assisting on essay/applications, spreading the word on high school open houses, and guiding students to explore what they think are good choices for students. Kids apply to five schools, listing their top two picks 1st and 2nd. Strangely, this list is often made before kids are allowed to shadow at their desired schools, so you have to do some research prior to the list being completed. My top tips are:

1) I found it most helpful to talk to parents of 8th graders

2) Do your own research on schools and know when the open houses are

3) Stay connected to your kid’s guidance counselor – if you don’t know her or him personally, now is the time to make an introduction

4) Your child will need to get recommendations. Don’t let them slack on this or think they can do it by themselves. Otherwise, you’ll be scrambling at the last minute. Help them consider what teachers know them best and encourage them to solicit the recommendation on their own behalf.

5) See at what school your kid feels most comfortable but gauge that against what you as a parent feel is best for your kid. Try to keep all your personal feelings about high school out of the process This is not about where you want to go, this is about what’s best for your kid.”

From a guidance counselor at a top magnet school:

“I would definitely recommend serious applicants to do a shadow day. This school is large and offers a tremendous amount of freedom, so it’s not the appropriate setting for a student who may require a more structured environment). Also, families need to consider the amount of work and assess whether their child will be able to manage the stress, late nights, etc. Parents need to be realistic and make the decision with their child, not for them.”

From a guidance counselor at a K-8 Philly public school:

“Advocate for your child. Not all counselors invite parents into school but you can call and ask for an appointment. Utilize the counselor to discuss schools and options that would best suit your child. Call the schools to see if your child can “shadow” and go to the open houses. Also, be realistic about your child’s grades and PSSA scores. There are so many options for amazing “under the radar” high schools offering amazing programs.”

What has been your experience with the application process? Was it easier or harder than you expected? What do you know now that you wish you knew then? Let us know in the comments!