Lucia Rosas and husband Alvin Alamo couldn’t believe it when they learned that their 10-year-old twin daughters had been turned down for coveted fifth-grade spots at Masterman, the Philadelphia School District’s prestigious magnet school in the Spring Garden neighborhood.
Fourth graders Victoria and Raquel Alamo-Rosas were straight-A students at the Russell Byers Charter School in Center City, always made distinguished honor roll, and scored in the 98th and 99th percentiles on state tests. They had been counting on joining brother Julian, 13, at the school he loves.
Between the time the email from Masterman rejecting the girls arrived at the family’s home in Overbrook Farms on Friday, Feb. 3, at 5 p.m. and the morning of Monday, Feb. 6, Rosas and Alamo had spoken to other Russell Byers parents and had a pretty good idea what had gone wrong.
Although the charter school had sent several students to Masterman every year, none of the 18 who had applied for next fall had been accepted. Masterman had not received the packets of test scores and grades that charter officials said were delivered to the district as part of the application process in November.
The parents from Russell Byers said they had followed the rules, but their children were shut out through no fault of their own.
“This is a parent’s nightmare,” Rosas said.
Jeff Jubelirer, spokesman for the Russell Byers Charter School, said charter officials are upset about what happened and “believe there is fault among all sides.”
He said the charter is talking with the district about finding spots for the students who would have been admitted to Masterman if their records had arrived on time. “We are not giving up,” Jubelirer said.
“We want to have them judged on their merit,” Rosas said. “It’s not like we’re trying to get people who are not qualified to go to the school to be admitted. No way. … And [the district is] saying they can’t because [Masterman’s] full.”
A top district official agreed that the parents had followed the procedures that the charter school had outlined, but she said it was not the first time student packets from Russell Byers had gone missing during magnet-school applications.
“I don’t know that Masterman had this experience last year, but I know that it happened at GAMP [Girard Academic Music Program] two years in a row,” said Karyn T. Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services who oversees student placement. “This is not a Masterman story. It’s a Russell Byers story.”
Under the district’s application process for magnet schools, parents across the city apply online through a district portal in early November. They can apply to several schools and rank them in the order of preference. Since test scores and grades for charter-school students are not in the district data base of student records, that information must be provided to the district.
Lynch said there are two ways the district obtains charter students’ records: Parents can take them directly to the schools where their children have applied. Or, she said, the charter can select someone to gather the documents and take them to a designated room at the district’s headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. by a certain date so they can be distributed to the appropriate schools.
The information that Russell Byers gave its parents required them to work closely with a school counselor who would be responsible for delivering the documents to the district by the Nov. 18 deadline.
The detailed handout Russell Byers produced for its parents repeatedly said: “Parents MAY NOT deliver transcripts to schools.” Lynch said that Russell Byers had a policy of collecting documents, but she said that the district had not imposed that rule. She said the district gave parents the option of delivering children’s records to schools so they could make sure they were received.
Jubelirer said the counselor maintains she was told by the district during a training session that the district did not want parents carrying packets to the magnet schools.
He said the counselor reported she had arrived at the district Nov. 17 before the designated room was set up so she handed the packets to a woman who promised to make sure they went to the proper place. Records from the district’s security system show the counselor arrived at 9:31 a.m. She didn’t get a receipt for the records or ask for the woman’s name. The counselor is no longer at the school and could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, the documents’ whereabouts remain a mystery.
“The process is not to just hand them to someone,” Lynch said. “We don’t know what happened. Trust me, we’ve searched everywhere.”
Lynch said the district wanted to find out what had happened but had not been permitted to talk to the Russell Byers counselor.
Lynch said that because GAMP receives a smaller number of applications each year, the principal there could tell that she had not received the packets from Russell Byers’ students who had applied online. The GAMP principal contacted Russell Byers, and the charter provided copies of the missing records for those students.
Lynch said Masterman received too many applications — 3,215 for all grades — for administrators to make sure they had grades and test scores for everyone who had applied online. When the trouble affecting the 18 Russell Byers students came to light in early February, Masterman’s principal received permission from the district to ask for their records. Russell Byers CEO Jesse Bean hand-delivered copies of grades and test scores to Masterman,
After months of meetings with the charter and district officials, and administrative appeals, Masterman admitted one student. The school placed Victoria and Raquel and eight others who qualified for admission on its waiting list for the fall because it said the fifth-grade class was full.
The Russell Byers parents are still upset. Masterman, they said, is in such demand, there’s little chance any spots will open for their children before September.
Jen MacNeill of Fairmount, who has a daughter on Masterman’s waiting list, and other parents argue there’s room for at least some of the children. Masterman offers spots to 170 children for 165 fifth-grade seats. The school expects some attrition but agrees to educate 170 if all decide to come. MacNeill said that although the district said Masterman’s fifth grade is full at 165, the school should be able to accommodate five more students.
“To us it’s very sensible,” said MacNeill.
Lynch said the district has tried to help the Russell Byers students. It reviewed their missing records long past the deadline, admitted one student, and placed several others on a waiting list that already included 30 other children. If there are openings over the summer, students will be selected based on their test scores and other factors. “It’s a school where the best and the brightest have the strongest opportunity,” she said.
“We have to take into consideration what is in the best interest of all the children who are applying to the school,” Lynch said, adding that it was not as simple as just finding space for a few more students. Masterman has nearly 1,200 students from fifth through 12th grade, and its building is so crammed, classes are held in the auditorium and the library. Already, she said, some classes have 35 to 36 students, and the district is trying to make them smaller because the course work is rigorous, and the pace is intense.
Lynch pointed out that the Russell Byers students can apply for sixth-grade openings in 2018. “If these students continue at the same academic pace,” she said, “they will be competitive for next year.”