The differences between charter, magnet, and neighborhood schools in Philadelphia could not be more glaring.
They are polar opposites because of an educational system that favors some communities and schools while leaving others behind, critics say.
“Despite what most people think, charter schools don’t always mean higher academics, it just means a safer school with more money and programs,” said Karel Kilimnik, a retired teacher and public-school advocate. She is a cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.
Kilimnik said magnet schools are district-run schools that have similar budget constraints as neighborhood schools. However, magnets can receive outside funding from private entities or from their Home and School Associations.
For instance, Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, a boys’ college-preparatory high school in West Philadelphia, receives additional funding from the Philadelphia School Partnership. Students are chosen through a city-wide lottery.
“We value personal responsibility in our students,” said David Hardy, who recently retired as CEO of Boys Latin. ”We have pretty good engagement, the students do well in trying to do activities.”
At Northeast High School, there is a Medical, Engineering, and Aerospace Magnet program that students from all over the city must apply to under a special admission process.
“I feel like we are … kind of privileged,” said Naomi Rinear, a Northeast High senior in the magnet program. Even though Northeast High has 3,375 students, only 845 are part of its magnet program, according to the School District of Philadelphia.
“We get the most resources here,” said Patricia Birungi, another senior in Northeast’s magnet program. She said the program has the best teachers and most rigorous classes.
But Samuel Fels High School is a traditional neighborhood school. That means it doesn’t have a special-admission process, where students must earn top test scores and have no behavioral citations on their records to attend. Fels must accept everyone in the neighborhood: good students and those with behavioral problems as well.
Charter and magnet schools select top-performing students and students with few behavior problems. If a charter school student has repeated behavioral issues, the school can expel him or her.
“The days for neighborhood schools are over,” Hardy said. “Kids chose to go to schools like Central High or other special admission schools. The thing about Philadelphia is that if you don’t get to choose your school, you won’t be happy.” Hardy is a board member of Philadelphia School Partnership.
The Partnership describes itself as an advocate for all schools in the city. But most of its investments support charter schools.
“To date, approximately 65 percent of our committed funds are invested in creating high-performing seats in charter schools, 25 percent in district schools, and 10 percent in private schools,” according to the Partnership website.
Nick Bernardini, a Fels social studies teacher, said: “Neighborhood high schools are graded and judged by the school district the same way they grade and judge a charter or magnet, even though our school population is 100 percent different from them just from the simple fact we don’t choose our student population.”
Central High and Northeast both have over 60 academic programs, sports, and clubs.
While Fels has Advanced Placement classes and 13 sports activities, it has few extracurricular activities. For example, there are only two clubs — the Garden and Christian clubs for a school with 1,021 students. There used to be a robotics club, but students dropped out when they learned they had to use math.
“The yearbook at Central High is run by the students, here it is run by the staff,” said Nicholas Kosiek, a Fels history teacher and a Central High alumnus.
“The kids at Central get a bunch of their friends together and stay after school once or twice a week,” said Kosiek. “Here, kids get a bunch of kids together at lunchtime or in-between classes and then when the bell rings, they quickly run to the bus to go somewhere instead of saying, ‘I want to hang out longer and talk about whatever’ or get involved in something.”
Hardy said Boys’ Latin has a rule requiring ninth and 10th graders to participate in at least one sport or club. Boys Latin has over 35 clubs, seven sports, and six or seven Advanced Placement classes. The school population is 747 students.
Magda Bobe, a Fels senior, said the only time students at Fels are challenged is when they take Advanced Placement classes in their senior year. And because they weren’t challenged in the earlier grades, the AP classes are even harder.
While Fels has a library, it does not have a librarian, and students are not allowed to study quietly in the library unless a teacher accompanies them.
At Northeast High, however, there is a librarian and places to study in the library. Students may take their lunch there, do their homework or study throughout the day.
Hardy said, “The reason why neighborhood schools are underfunded is that they are in low-income, minority neighborhoods. They are underfunded, and they don’t have a lot of opportunities for their students. Yes, the teachers are getting paid, but the students are not getting anything out of it.”
Yet, despite the few activities and programs, student government president Tahmir Brown, a senior, believes his experience at Fels was pretty normal.
“Since we are a neighborhood school, we don’t get offered the same opportunities as kids at Northeast or Central,” Brown said. “All they have more than us is more opportunities. If kids at Fels had more opportunities, it would improve how they learn.”
“Take any opportunity given to you. No more Mom or Dad holding you all the way through, this is where your future matters,” Brown said. “Take any opportunity you are given to make yourself greater because everybody knows what they want to be or they know some sense of what they want to do. Don’t let people influence how you live your life and how you make choices.”