Most Philadelphia public school students have college aspirations, but their level of preparation relies on which highschool they attend.

When Nadia was in highschool, her teachers and administrators presented college because the only realistic path to a good profession.

“College is portrayed by them as the be-all and end-all,” she said. “If it's not college, I'll visit you once a week at the drive-thru or something. It's like a dark hole. Outside of it, you're not part of the upward social mobility in some ways.”

Meanwhile, faculty at April's school across town presented college as certainly one of several possible paths to economic opportunity.

“The teachers let us know that they want us to make our lives better,” she said. “Go to college, even start your own business. Almost everyone has a vocational and technical training class and can get a license for (an industry). So even if you don't go to college, you can start your own thing.”

The reason Nadia and April had such different experiences is directly related to the kind of school they attended.

Nadia, how 41% of public highschool students in Philadelphiaattended a faculty where students must meet certain requirements regarding grade point average, attendance, and test scores to be admitted. These schools are called “criterion-based schools.”

But April attended what I call an “open entry school” – a catch-all term for the varied kinds of schools that shouldn’t have competitive entry criteria. These schools cater to students who come from the local area or who’re eager about a specific subject. Vocational training program – comparable to culinary arts, digital media, or health-related technology – and 59% of Philadelphia students attend such schools.

Between February 2022 and May 2023, I conducted 73 in-depth interviews with twelfth grade students, counselors, and principals at two criterion-based and two open-access high schools in Philadelphia. The names Nadia and April are pseudonyms, as are all names utilized in this text, to guard the identities of research participants.

In my peer-reviewed study published within the journal Social problems In June 2024, I find that criteria-based and open schools have very different structures – particularly by way of curriculum and advising – designed to arrange their students for achievement after graduation.

Different paths to social mobility

The admissions procedures that determine which side of the divide students land on were the topic heated controversy because there might be so much at stake. The highschool a student attends is strongly in reference to their longer-term results, including whether or not they go to school.

In criteria-based schools, for instance, just over 75% of the category of 2023 went to school in the autumn after graduation, in keeping with my calculations with District dataIn schools with open access, this was only the case for 38%.

When it involves instruction, Philadelphia's public high schools face a trade-off between emphasizing academics and technical skills.

Criteria-based schools focus almost exclusively on academics, sending students a robust message that a four-year college degree is crucial. Students at these schools often doubt that other paths to economic stability and prosperity are viable.

“When I was a freshman, there was an assembly for all the ninth graders,” Laurence recalls. “And the principal said on the microphone that anyone who didn't want to go to college should transfer schools.”

Open schools, however, often integrate vocational and technical education or CTE programsinto the curriculum. Students learn specialist knowledge and Earn credentials which have a direct impact on the labour market.

This approach expands opportunities for college students for whom attending college just isn’t a sensible optionbe it for financial, academic or personal reasons comparable to caring responsibilities. Nevertheless, school leaders recognise that vocational training can come on the expense of educational rigour.

“How do I get someone who has spent the last 10 years working on diesel trucks in a garage to teach and supervise three classrooms full of children for 100 minutes, 160 minutes and 100 minutes a day?” asks Mr Clark, the director of an open access school. “Then I have to say, 'Oh yes, and I need you to be able to analyze an author's intent in a text and solve quadratic equations.' I would love to be there. But honestly, that's pure utopianism.”

Consultant overwhelmed

During my interviews, I also found that open access schools can devote far less energy and resources to student advising than their criteria-based counterparts.

Counselors have historically been vulnerable to budget cuts, especially in open access schools. Between 2010 and 2014, the financial crisis led the district drastically reduce the variety of consultants The number of scholars enrolled in neighborhood secondary schools – a category of open access schools – increased from 91 to 35.

The Extent of economic drawback that characterize open-entry schools exacerbate the issue of high student-to-staff ratios. Social-emotional problems resulting from students' trauma and material hardship can crowd out the person attention that staff would otherwise give to seniors eager about studying.

“I have to address those needs,” said Ms. Allen, principal of the opposite open-access highschool in my study. “I have two social workers here. I have a behavioral health counselor. I have (a nonprofit partner) here that helps the homeless. That's basically what I'm worried about right now. Most of my money goes to special education and behavioral health needs. So that's what (open-access) schools are becoming. That's what we've become — an extremely high-needs school.”

Adult woman smiling while talking to teenage student
Selective admissions high schools often provide counselors and tutoring to help students with their college applications.
Courtney Hale/E+ Collection via Getty Images

A discrepancy with the ambitions of the scholars

Poverty and its associated problems are a serious reason why open high schools concentrate on the immediate needs of scholars. They often keep in mind students' work schedules and offer early graduation policies that allow highschool graduates to attend only two classes per day.

“We have different scenarios that can help (students) in the short term,” explained Mr. West, a guidance counselor at an open-entry school. “We're trying to provide them with opportunities to get money now because I know it's important for a lot of these kids.”

Despite their financial constraints, students at open-access schools often still aspire to school. Fully two-thirds of the scholars I interviewed at these schools planned to enroll in either a four-year college or a community college immediately after graduation.

So their schools' short-term outlooks create a mismatch between students' college aspirations and the limited institutional support available to them. As a result, many students from first-generation families I interviewed needed to navigate complex financial aid forms and meet application deadlines largely on their very own.

Meanwhile, criteria-based schools may prioritize academic advising because their student bodies are more socioeconomically diverse. The schools I observed through the study used discretionary funds to more consultants than allocated The district provides them with classroom time to guide students through the school process.

The district's criteria-based and open-access schools are united by a shared mission to assist their students achieve economic and profession stability. At criteria-based schools, moving up in life is synonymous with attending college. While open-access schools also encourage college attendance, they’re committed to supporting students with a wide selection of short-term challenges and long-term goals.

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