K-8 School Quality, Choice
& Access in Philadelphia

Introduction

Purpose

This report shows trends in student achievement, academic growth and enrollment for public schools across the city of Philadelphia. Most of the analyses in the report are broken down by 13 regions throughout the city—the same regions the School District uses for its Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR).

The purpose is to support families, communities, school leaders and policy makers as they consider:

  • schools for their children
  • school admissions and enrollment policies
  • expansions, renovations or closures of school buildings

Key Findings

1. Six of every 10 Philadelphia students attend a low-achieving school.

  • Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented in the City’s lowest-achieving schools, and White and Asian American students are
    overrepresented in the highest-achieving schools.
  • The highest-achieving schools are predominantly located in Central Philadelphia, Northeast Philadelphia and South Philadelphia. The
    lowest-achieving schools are predominantly located in Northwest Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia and Olney/North Philadelphia.

2. Encouragingly, most of the city’s low-achieving schools are demonstrating consistent academic growth.

  • There are 80 schools with low achievement and high academic growth; seven of these schools improved by 10 or more percentage points on state achievement tests over the past five years.

3. Almost half of K-8 students attend schools of choice.

  • In this report, a “school of choice” means any public school a student selects that is not his or her assigned neighborhood school. If private schools were included, more than half of K-8 students attend schools of choice. At the high school level, 86 percent of all students attend schools of choice.
  • Students are more likely to opt out of their neighborhood school if the school is low-achieving.
  • Students in North and Northeast Philadelphia are more likely to attend their neighborhood school, while students in West, South and
    Southwest Philadelphia are less likely to attend their neighborhood school.
  • Over half of high-achieving schools are special admission or charter schools and do not have a catchment boundary.

4. There are more than 29,000 unfilled seats in low-achieving neighborhood schools.

  • Over half of these unfilled seats are located in schools in North Philadelphia.
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Contents

SECTION 1 looks at enrollment in high-achieving schools. The primary data source is schoolwide results on 2019 state math and reading tests that were given to all students in grades 3 through 8. (Tests were not administered in 2020 because of the pandemic.)

SECTION 2 looks at school academic growth. The primary data source is the same, but instead of measuring how high students scored, growth shows to what degree students in a school made more academic progress from one year to the next than the average student in the state.

SECTION 3 looks at school choice patterns. While politicians often talk about “choice” for particular types of schools, such as public charter or private schools, there are many ways for families to choose schools. Since this report focuses only on public schools (district and charter), choice here refers to students enrolling in any public school other than their assigned neighborhood (catchment) school where they live. For some, this means choosing a neighborhood school that is not in their assigned school attendance boundary. For others, this means a citywide, special admission or charter school.

SECTION 4 looks at schools’ availability of seats in comparison to enrollment. How many students can a school hold, and how many of those seats are actually filled?

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Neighborhoods/Regions

These regions align with the School District of Philadelphia’s Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR) regions. The regions are identified by a number, with the names of a few included neighborhoods also listed to help with identification.

1. Point Breeze/Queen Village (South Philadelphia)
2. Fairhill (North Philadelphia)
3. Overbrook/Wynnefield (West Philadelphia)
4. Grays Ferry/South Philadelphia
5. Kensington
6. Belmont/University City (West Philadelphia)
7. Central Philadelphia
8. Fox Chase/Northeast Philadelphia
9. Frankford/Oxford Circle (Northeast Philadelphia)
10. Southwest Philadelphia
11. Northwest Philadelphia
12. Olney/North Philadelphia
13. Mayfair/Tacony (Northeast Philadelphia)

Preface

Why this report?
The pandemic has put a spotlight on layers of inequity that stifle neighborhoods in Philadelphia and other American cities. As one example, forced school closures have highlighted the inequities of the “digital divide.” Census data have shown that the percentage of households with internet access varies widely by neighborhood, from above 80 percent in many places to below 50 percent in North and West Philadelphia. Similarly, access to high-achieving schools also varied widely in Philadelphia, by region, class and race. There are many reasons. One is the longstanding practice of assigning students to schools based on where they live, which has disproportionately affected certain families, particularly those in low-income communities. Now, as city and school leaders prepare to adapt to new limits and challenges, there is an opportunity to rethink the old limitations. Recently, the School District of Philadelphia launched an equity coalition, with plans to address a number of inequitable practices in city schools, including selective admissions policies. Last year the District embarked on a citywide planning process to help design schools and policies that meet the educational needs of changing student populations. That process, named the Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR), revolves around both community engagement and data. This report aims to help families and communities in the city understand how well public schools and enrollment policies are serving them and their neighbors. The school achievement, growth and enrollment data included here, broken down by region, family income and race, can be a resource for policy makers and participants in the CSPR and the District’s equity coalition.

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Why this data?
When considering school quality, there are many factors to consider: safety, technology, teacher quality, social and emotional learning, special education and extracurricular activities, to name just a few. However, when comparing schools, a challenge is that easily comparable data for many of these attributes does not exist on a school by school basis. The state achievement tests, which are conducted at every school, do allow for comparisons between schools: on how well students achieve and to what degree students grow academically from one year to the next.

State achievement data also align to what families value in a school. In 2013 the Fordham Institute surveyed 2,000 parents nationwide for a report entitled, “What Parents Want.” Far and away the No. 1 priority parents wanted in a school was “strong core curriculum in reading and mathematics.” This was true for every group, whether broken down by race, income or other factors. Other surveys suggest that some families consider location, a safe environment, or extracurricular activities as crucial. Even in these surveys, however, academic quality is one of the top priorities for the majority of parents.

Many families likely would prefer a great school right across the street from their home. But for most, perceived quality in reading and math outranks location in importance, as the surveys and Section 3 of this report make clear.

Why Must Readers Take Care? There is no one best kind of school. Every student has different needs. There are higher and lower achieving students in every school. No school can be fully represented by a dot on a map. No piece or set of data can tell a complete story. Families have to gather as much information as they can, and make decisions or recommendations they decide are the best for them. This report is intended to add to the data sources which already exist, in the hope that readers can gain a fuller understanding. The maps and tables included here report only on schools serving kindergarten through 8th grade, because the underlying data sources are consistent. Were high schools to be included, because their students take different assessments than younger students, comparisons between schools would be harder to make.


Section 1: Enrollment in High-Achieving Schools

A Majority of City Students Attend a Low-Achieving School
In Philadelphia, 57 percent of kindergarten through 8th grade students attend a school in the Low achievement tier. Just 19,061 students out of more than 140,000 total attend a high-achieving school, or less than 14 percent.

Enrollment in low-achieving and high-achieving schools varies significantly by region within the city (Map 2 and Fig. 1). Almost no students living in Fox Chase/Northeast attend low-achieving schools, for example. Conversely, in four regions—Fairhill, Overbrook, Kensington and Southwest—there are no students attending high-achieving schools in their neighborhoods.

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Schools with wealthier student populations are overrepresented in both the High and Average achievement tiers (Fig. 2). Conversely, no schools serving more than 85 percent economically disadvantaged students are high-achieving.

90% of students attending a high-achieving school are enrolled in the least economically disadvantaged schools

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Both Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented in low-achieving schools and underrepresented in high-achieving schools. In fact, less than 10 percent of Black and Hispanic students are enrolled in schools in the High achievement tier. Three quarters of Black students are enrolled in low-achieving schools; this represents 37 percent of all students in city public schools. White and Asian students, on the other hand, are overrepresented in the High achievement tier:

45% of all White students are enrolled in high-achieving schools

There are 4 times as many White students as Hispanic students in high-achieving schools

There almost 3 times as many White students as Black students in high-achieving schools


Section 2: Academic Growth

An Encouraging Number of Low-Achieving Schools Are Demonstrating High Academic Growth

The majority of public schools in the city have exceeded the standard for academic growth in Pennsylvania over the past three years. Many schools in both the High and Low achievement tiers are demonstrating high growth. As Map 3 at right shows, even regions that were almost entirely red on the Achievement map (Map 2) are mostly green for academic growth.

In fact, in every region except Northwest Philadelphia (Region 11), high-growth schools account for half or more of all students enrolled within the region. In South Philadelphia (Regions 1 & 4), 90 percent of enrolled students attend high-growth schools.

In North Philadelphia, where high-achieving schools are hard to find, almost two thirds of school enrollment is in schools demonstrating high growth. In other words, many students attending schools in North Philadelphia attend high-growth, low-achievement schools

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High growth shows up evenly across schools with different levels of family income. The same is mostly true for schools in the Average and Low growth tiers (Fig. 4).

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Similarly, the race/ethnicity profile of schools with high academic growth mirrors the racial diversity of public schools overall (Fig. 5). There is still cause for concern, however, as Black students are overrepresented in schools showing Low and Average growth.

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Academic growth data is sometimes criticized for giving low-achieving schools a sheen of success they may not fully deserve. Because the model used to determine academic growth predicts a student’s future growth on the basis of past test scores, this theory argues that growth targets for low-achieving schools end up being too low—and therefore easy to surpass.

There is some evidence to support this theory in Philadelphia. There are schools that have high growth scores in most years but are not seeing meaningful gains in reading and math achievement.

On the other hand, achievement data by itself also can paint a misleading view of school quality. PSSA scores by themselves do not take into account where students started, or how much schools helped them learn from one year to the next. PSSA scores also tend to mirror the income level of a school’s student body. For this reason, most states and school districts increasingly focus their energies on analyzing achievement and growth data together.

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Overall, student achievement results at Philadelphia schools with consistently high growth have risen over the past five years, while achievement scores at schools with low and average growth have remained flat.

High-growth schools have seen an average increase in PSSA achievement of 4.5 percentage points over the last five years

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Across the city, there are 80 schools in the Low tier for Achievement but the High tier for Growth. Seven of these schools improved by 10 or more percentage points on their combined math/reading PSSA results from 2015 to 2019 (Fig. 6).

Southwark School and John F. Hartranft School are the leading examples of high-growth schools with low—but rising achievement; student proficiency there has increased by more than 12 percentage points

39% of Black students are enrolled in low-achieving, high-growth schools

A smaller but highly concerning group of schools are those demonstrating both low achievement and low growth. Collectively, these schools have seen a decline in overall achievement since 2015. While only numbering 17, these schools are concentrated in certain regions. Over half are in Northwest Philadelphia and Olney/North Philadelphia (regions 11 & 12).

Almost 12% of Black students in Philadelphia are enrolled in low-achievement, low-growth schools

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Section 3: School Choice Patterns

School Achievement Has a Big Influence on Where Students Enroll
School academic performance is one factor families consider when choosing a school for their child. Families are more likely to use Achievement results, rather than Growth data, when making school decisions. This pattern shows up in data indicating whether students are enrolling in their assigned neighborhood schools or choosing other options.

Map 4, on the facing page, shows that regions with concentrations of high-achieving neighborhood schools, such as in Northeast Philadelphia, tend to see more students enrolled in their assigned catchment schools.

The pattern is not entirely consistent. Region 4 (South Philadelphia), for example, has a higher share of students not enrolled in their neighborhood schools than North Philadelphia regions 2 and 12, which have almost zero high-achieving schools. Access to relatively higher-achieving, non-neighborhood schools may be a factor. These include charter schools and higher-performing neighborhood schools which are manageably close and can accommodate out-of-catchment transfers.

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The School District publishes catchment enrollment data from two different perspectives. Fig. 8 breaks down enrollment based on where students live. Students assigned to a high-achieving catchment school are more likely to attend that school.

72% of students living in high-achieving catchments attend their catchment school

The majority of students living in low-achieving catchments opt out of attending that school

Fig. 9 breaks down enrollment by where students choose to go to school. Students are more likely to attend a non-catchment school if it is in a higher Achievement tier than their assigned neighborhood school.

The percentage of students in a school who are not geographically assigned to it rises as the school’s Achievement rating goes up

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Just under 40 percent of students—only 7,100—who attend high-achieving schools are there because it is their assigned neighborhood school. Many of the schools in the city’s High achievement tier are choice schools by design—admitting students through a citywide lottery or selective admissions process rather than by neighborhood assignment (Fig. 10). This is true also at the high school level.

There is a higher share of Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students in high-achieving charter schools than in high-achieving catchment schools. For Black students, the same is true for special-admission schools.

33% of students in high-achieving charter and special-admission schools are Black or Hispanic, vs. 25% in high-achieving
catchment schools

When options are available to them, families tend to choose higher-achieving schools. This is true even within the Low achievement tier. There is ample evidence of families selecting a school rated Low that has higher PSSA scores than their own, low-achieving neighborhood school.

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Section 4: Availability of Seats

Seats at High-Achieving Schools Are in Short Supply
Where families enroll their children can also be influenced by the number of seats available in schools. Some schools may have more seats available than there are students in the catchment, allowing for higher out-of-catchment enrollment, while other schools may have fewer—or no—seats available. In recent years, the District has had to hold lotteries for kindergarten seats among families within certain highly desirable catchments, including Meredith and Penn Alexander.

With the majority of city schools falling in the Low achievement tier, there are effectively no available seats in High or even Average tier schools (Fig. 12). In fact, high-achieving schools are over-enrolled by 8 percent relative to their official capacity.

In contrast, there are 29,000 unfilled seats in schools rated low-achieving

Across all of the city’s catchment schools, 78 percent of seats are filled. If only in-catchment students were enrolled, this figure would be 59 percent. At the same time, K-8 non-catchment schools—including charters and a smaller number of district special-admission or citywide schools—have waiting lists that collectively represent more than 18,000 students.

As Map 5 shows, unfilled seats in schools of any type are hard to find in the Northeast. Unfilled seats in low-achieving catchment schools are plentiful elsewhere, especially in North Philadelphia.

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Questions to Consider

In conclusion, Philadelphia has too few high-achieving schools, and the shortage is especially critical in North, West and Southwest Philadelphia. And, while many low-achieving schools demonstrate academic growth, in most instances the growth is not translating into meaningful achievement gains. What can be learned from the schools that are rising in achievement, and how can progress be accelerated in other schools across the city? How can schools better respond to the specific needs of communities? Can more seats be created at high-achieving schools, and can schools implement more equitable enrollment policies?