Charters Blemished

The Inquirer reported today on corruption cases at Philadelphia Academy Charter School among others.  Apparently, the limited oversight at charter schools has resulted in some abuses by some individual schools.  None of the schools listed in the article are ones that I am researching for my kids, but it does make you think about charters as a whole.

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Paradox of School Choice

I have been contributing to this blog for almost a month now.  From the beginning, I was reminded of a podcast that I heard almost a year ago.  The podcast was an episode of WNYC’s Radio Lab.  Radio Lab is a fantastic program that asks very interesting philosophical questions about life (the afterlife, morality, sleep, stress, time, etc.)  and tries to present a scientific viewpoint on the issue.  In particular, they do an incredible job telling wonderful stories and distilling the science into narratives that are very engaging to the non-scientist listener.  I highly recommend it.  Over the last month writing this blog, I am reminded of a particular episode on the topic of Choice.  On the show, they hear from a long list of guests, including a professor from Swarthmore College, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Jonah Lehrer, contributing Editor at Wired Magazine and author of How We Decide, Baba Shiv, Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Oliver Sacks, neurologist, and Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success.

I highly recommend listening to the program yourself.  But one of the core arguments that is made (which I will now grossly oversimplify) is that the human brain can only hold a finite and very small amount of data.  Applied to the subject of this blog–the more data that I accumulate, the more schools that I research, the harder the choice becomes and the greater the likelihood of making a bad choice and subsequently experiencing regret.  Going with your gut is a better ‘choice’, the argument goes.  I actually remember this when prepping for the SAT 20 years ago–the test tutors used to tell us that when we didn’t know the answer, don’t over-think it.  Your greatest chance of guessing correctly is to go with your initial instinct.

In general, I buy into this principle when it comes to making a choice about a purchase like a car or a TV set.  However, when it comes to choosing a school for my children, I am having trouble applying this philosophy.  I posted earlier about my choice criteria (diversity, community, educational quality) that I am taking into account alongside other non-school factors that I won’t be blogging about (professional, personal, relocation).  The lesson I am taking away from Radio Lab will be that I will try to research diligently, but not to worry about the details of my inputs.  In other words, I may set a threshold for reading/math test scores, but I won’t decide on a school because 85% score above average versus 80% at another school.  Ultimately, this also means that this whole choice will become clearer after I stop reading about schools and actually get off the internet and visit some.  I intend to make the primary food for my gut to be seeing classrooms and meeting teachers and administrators.   After the new year….

K Through What?

I am having trouble getting my head around the organizational breakdown of elementary schools in the School District of Philadelphia.  Some are K-5, others K-8.  For students who go to a K-5 school, are they expected to go to a private school, a “Special Admission” a.k.a. ‘magnet’ school like Masterman (starts at grade 5), or transfer to an elementary school that offers up to 8th grade?  At the elementary schools that go to grade 8, will there be a noticeable drop-off in educational quality after grade 5 because the best kids go elsewhere?

This whole line of questioning regarding the Philadelphia School District inevitably leads to questions about high schools, because unlike most suburban districts and many private schools where the elementary to high school path is prescribed, the various city high school educational paths require a whole new set of choices that have to be made.  What is the difference between a “Special Admission” high school (like Masterman) and a “Citywide Admission” high school like Constitution or Swenson (both start at grade 9)?  If, like me, you are new to the different types of schools in Philly, here’s some information about the different types of Philadelphia high schools from the source.

Types of High Schools
The School District of Philadelphia has three types of high schools: special admission high schools, citywide admission high schools, and neighborhood high schools. All eighth grade students must fill out a high school application for up to five (5) schools or programs of any type in any combination.

Students complete the application by checking off that they plan to attend their neighborhood/ feeder high school or by listing school/program name and code number in order of preference from 1 (first choice) to 5 (fifth choice). Students who are not accepted to their chosen schools or programs will be eligible to attend their neighborhood high schools.

Students with disabilities and English Language Learners are encouraged to apply to special admission and citywide admission high schools. Admission criteria may be waived for those students who, given accommodations, may be successful in requested schools, as determined by the appropriate school teams.
Neighborhood High Schools
These thirty-two (32) high schools have open admission to students who attend a grade eight school that is within the feeder pattern. Students from outside of the feeder pattern may apply. However, admission is based upon space availability and selection is made by computerized lottery.
Citywide Admission High Schools
These twelve (12) high schools have admissions criteria. Students citywide may apply. Generally, in order to be eligible for the lottery, they must meet three of four criteria: grades of A, B, or C on the most recent final report card; no more than 10 absences, no more than 5 latenesses; no negative disciplinary reports on the most recent final report card. Students may have to attend an on-site interview. Exceptions are Constitution High School, PMA Elverson, PMA Leeds and High School of the Future.
Special Admission High Schools
These nineteen (19) high schools are “magnet schools,” each with its own set of admissions criteria related to attendance, punctuality, behavior, grades, and standardized test scores. Students citywide may apply to these special admission high schools. However, it is strongly recommended that you review the set of admissions criteria and your own scholastic record prior to applying.

Lots of open questions still.  If I had found answers to all of my questions, this post would have required 10,000 words.  Definitely more on this topic in the weeks and months to come.

Philly Area School Statistics

Philly Area MapTorture numbers, and they’ll confess to anything. –Gregg Easterbrook
98% of all statistics are made up.  –Unknown
Statistics are like bikinis.  What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. –Aaron Levenstein
Statistics can be made to prove anything – even the truth.– Unknown

In case those quotes were too subtle, let me state it plainly.  I don’t trust statistics in general, especially in the absence of other evaluation criteria.  Now that that is out of the way, I wanted to share a resource that I found.  The Philadelphia Inquirer has a very interesting interactive map of regional school districts and some statistics like starting teacher salaries, total enrollment, percentage of students in “gifted and talented” programs, and more.

Regarding Henry

I just posted a couple of messages to local email lists and posted a few tweets on the new Twitter account for this blog, and as a result I have gotten a spike in traffic and feedback on and offline.  I hope that I can write insightful enough posts to sustain the interest.  Here’s some things that I have learned thus far.

I reiterated the content of my first post into a blog mission statement.  A lot of the feedback that I have gotten has asked me to go beyond the scope that I have aspired to on the blog.  Take a look at the mission on the right hand side.

Though I am looking for other contributors, there are still no volunteers.  If you are reading this and think that you have something to contribute, then join me!  Contact me if you are interested.

Being a NW Philadelphian, I have been encouraged to look at the Charles W Henry Elementary School in Mount Airy.  More specifically, I was referred to the now defunct, but still wonderfully comprehensive parent blog Knowing Henry.  Reading that blog has helped me not only to learn more about the school, but has also helped me think about how I am framing my research.  More on that in posts to come.

Fairmount’s Babyhood & Parent’s Forum

Just found another great blog for Philly parents.  This one is centered around the Fairmount neighborhood.  Take a look at Welcome to the Fairmount’s Babyhood.  Their home page includes a map of the ‘hood with markers for the neighborhood schools.  They also clued me in on another neighborhood resource, the Fairmount Parent’s Forum.  Pretty cool.

Join the Mount Airy Parents Network

I am always into sharing my own experience with others and learning from others experiences–hence this blog.  If you agree and live in Northwest Philly, I suggest joining the Mt. Airy Parent’s Network.  From their Website:

The Mt. Airy Parents Network (MAPN) is an organization of approximately 350 families in the Northwest neighborhoods of Philadelphia. In addition to notifying members of community events, playgroups, park dates, field trips, and other special events, MAPN provides an online discussion forum on issues related to education, parenting, families, and our wonderful community of Mt. Airy. Membership is free, but only open to parents, grandparents, and legal guardians.

They are also on Facebook.