Dash for the right high school: As Oct. 30 nears,8th-graders weigh choices for next year

Mac Hicks (left) sits with his daughter Evon (right) in the courtyard in front of their home. Hicks wants to send his daughter to one of the Philadelphia charter schools so that she can get a better education and stay away from violence. (Kriston J. Bethel / Staff Photographer)

MAC HICKS IS ADAMANT that his daughter, Evon, not attend a district high school next year.

He believes that the schools are unsafe and that there's little learning, so Evon hasn't applied to any during this month's high-school- selection process - opting instead to try a charter.

But if a study on the selection process is any indicator, average eighth-graders like Evon who do apply to district schools have their work cut out for them as they scout out schools for next year.

That's because unlike a small percentage of their peers whose excellent grades and test scores give them access to the top schools in the district, the majority of eighth-graders are left to pick from what's left.

And what's left isn't good enough for Hicks, who says he wants something more for his daughter, who attends Samuel H. Daroff in West Philly.

"I think charters are better," he said. "I just want her to get a better education, and she won't if she goes to a public school."

For Kenisha Douglas, an eighth-grader at John Paul Middle School in Frankford, the issue's a little different. She wants to attend a public high school - just not the one in her neighborhood.

So, she omitted it when she selected potential high schools for next year.

"I'll be mad a little if I end up going," she said of her neighborhood school, Frankford High.

"I don't feel as if it's a good enough school overall."

The perception of district schools is not uncommon among parents and students who seek quality education, but may not get into the district's best schools.

But Letretta Jones, the district's student-placement director, said that caregivers and their roughly 12,000 eighth-graders have more options within the district now than ever before.

The key, she said, is to "match [your] student according to their interests and their academic needs.

"It's like going to the supermarket," she said of selecting schools, a process that must be completed by Oct. 30. "In the old days, you had one or two products; now you have 50."

Prospective ninth-graders have 63 district high schools to choose from, not to mention 28 charters, and 11 cyber schools that hold classes online.

Students who have excellent grades, test scores, attendance and behavior will have the pick of the litter of 19 magnet schools that admit a small percentage of high-performing students.

Of the remaining 44 schools, students may select from 12 citywide schools, which require that students have A's, B's and no more than one C on their final report card in seventh grade, no more than 10 absences and five latenesses, and no disciplinary reports. Students who meet at least three of the criteria are selected by lottery.

For college-bound students, there are citywide high schools such as Constitution, and High School of the Future that prepare students to study politics and technology, and that offer advanced-placement courses in core subjects.

For those heading into the workforce upon graduation, there are citywide schools such as Bok, Dobbins and Swenson, where they can train to become fashion designers, barbers, hair stylists, nursing assistants, mechanics and carpenters.

Students may also pick from the remaining 32 neighborhood schools, which have open admission but generally aren't top picks for kids and parents because the schools are often plagued by reputations of being unsafe, are overcrowded and underperforming.

Nevertheless, the majority of students who miss the cut for a magnet or citywide school usually end up in these schools, said Eva Gold, founder and research director for Research for Action, an education-research group in Philadelphia that conducted a soon-to-be released study on the high-school-selection process.

Of the "seventy-eight percent of students [who] are participating in the high-school-selection process, less than half get into schools they're trying to select," she said, noting that applicants factor in a school's academic quality and safety when making their choices.

But Jones said many of the neighborhood schools have plenty to offer, and she encourages parents to learn about their programs.

For example, for college-bound students, any number of high schools, including Gratz, King, Northeast, Fels and Lamberton, offer honors and or advanced-placement classes in addition to dual-enrollment programs with local colleges in which students get high school and college credit for successfully completing college courses.

For students who are good with their hands, there is the horticulture program at Lincoln High, cosmetology at Edison, automotive technology at West Philly High, and plumbing and welding in Frankford, Overbrook and Rhodes high schools.

And for students interested in the arts, perhaps neighborhood high schools such as Olney West and Roxborough, which offer courses in crafts, painting, dance and drama, are a better fit.

If that doesn't work, there is an array of charters to choose, including Christopher Columbus Charter, Imhotep Institute, Maritime Academy, Boys' Latin, Nueva Esperanza and Truebright Academy.

The 11 cyber charters in the state are yet another choice for parents with students who've been previously home-schooled or have medical or social issues.

More than 2,000 students in the city are enrolled in cyber schools, which conduct classes online and meet in person periodically.

Some charter schools have rolling admission, and parents can apply at any time until the spaces are filled, according to the charter-school directory, which is available online at www.gpuac.org, or by calling 215-851-0110.

Each charter school has its own admissions process, deadlines and set of criteria, and parents should contact schools directly to find out what they are, Jones said. Most of them accept students by a computerized lottery, and, to increase a student's chances of being admitted, Jones advises parents to apply to as many of them as possible.

Hicks, whose daughter applied only to charters, said he hopes he's not disappointed.

"I'm just hoping that she does get into a charter school," he said.

Latania Bethea, Kenisha's mom, wants her girls to get into good schools, too.

Kenisha's grades are peppered with C's, she said, and Annette Williams, who lives with the family, made the honor roll.

But Bethea, of the Northeast, said both girls should have a fair shot at getting a good education.

"I just want them to get in a school to bring them where they need to be," she said.

Meanwhile, eighth-grader Jafari Jackson is hopeful that he gets into his top pick, Central, but says he has a better shot at Swenson.

For some of seventh grade, Jafari, 13, struggled at Baldi Middle School in the Northeast. His grades dipped as he tried to balance schoolwork while assisting his mother, who is blind, with cooking, reading bills and other chores.

Now, he said, he's back on track.

His mother, Danita Jackson, says he is smart and wants administrators to see beyond what's on paper.

"I hope they see what kind of kid he is," she said. "I hope they see the whole picture and not just the pieces."