This post is part of a larger series.
In education part 1 I discussed disparities between Philadelphia and the surrounding area. However, like with income and wealth, there is an enormous amount of inequality even within Philadelphia. This will be the subject of post 2.
The first thing to know is that the School District of Philadelphia is really, really large. According to the school district’s website, it is the eight largest in the country by enrollment. The district includes 339 schools and 202,538 students (higher than the census says, but likely due to this number including other kinds of schools). Excellent data breakdowns can be found here, and an excellent map is here.
If you don’t feel like opening that link, then take a look at the map below.
The school district breaks the individual schools into four categories: intervene (red), watch (orange), reinforce (green), and model (blue). First, I want to talk about the sheer number of red and orange schools. There are clearly very few green and blue schools. Second, notice that the green and blue schools are heavily concentrated in certain areas. Likewise, the red and orange schools are heavily concentrated in other areas.
Again, let’s compare this to income and property values. I’ll pull up the maps again for ease of reference.
As the trend seems to always go, the areas with the highest income and property values overwhelmingly have the highest quality schools. Conversely, areas with the lowest income and property values have the lowest quality schools. One large exception seems to be the northwestern part of the city, where incomes are high but school quality is low. This may be due to the low population density there. But, overall, the best schools are in Center City, South Philadelphia, and the far Northeast.
Why is this important? Because it is exceedingly likely that where a child goes to school is determined by the neighborhood where his or her parents live. By default, the school a child goes to is determined by catchment areas, or “neighborhood schools.” This means that your child goes to the school associated with the address of his or her parents. Take a look at this map of the many catchment areas. Again, I’ve placed it below for reference.
This would be fine if there weren’t such disparities in school quality across neighborhoods. And, because wealthier parents can afford to move to neighborhoods with high-quality schools, there is inherent advantage and disadvantage to this system based on family wealth.
The other option is to apply to a magnet or other special school, or to send your child to private school. Private school, of course, costs lots of money, and therefore excludes lower-income families. Special schools like magnet schools are based on a lottery system or a competitive application. I wasn’t able to find information on how many people apply to each school, but we are able to see how many slots each school has in a class. I took this list of the “special admission schools,” and found their enrollment totals. I looked specifically at the years when children enter a school, or kindergarten, fifth grade, sixth grade, and ninth grade. All other years, in my experience, are exceptionally unlikely.
The results: there are 5,612 such slots as of 2018 among 38 schools. 4,825 are for ninth grade, 318 are for sixth grade, 431 are for fifth grade, and 38 are for kindergarten. Considering that there are more than 200,000 students in the district, your odds are not good.
A Personal Note
I’d like to close with a bit of a personal story. I went to Philadelphia public schools as a child. Growing up I did not realize that my parents had carefully selected their neighborhood in order to select the best kindergarten-elementary school in a catchment they could afford to live in. The same turned out to be true for many of my friends. My parents selected this school in particular because it is widely considered to be a “feeder school” into some of the top magnet schools. That is, your odds of getting in are far better coming from that school, among several others.
At the close of fourth grade, there was great anxiety among the students, parents, and teachers about applications to middle schools. I remember filling out forms, and I was allowed to select my top five picks. If I did not get into any of them, then I would have to go to my neighborhood school, which was widely understood as a not-so-good option. Admissions were based at least on records of attendance, grades, behavioral marks, and standardized testing scores (of which there were many).
I was delighted as a ten-year-old to find that I was accepted to my first pick, along with my best friend. My brother was also attending that school, as well as several people I knew, so this is mostly what I cared about. The entering class had about 200 students.
When eighth grade rolled around, it was a similar situation as in fourth grade, but far more severe. Everybody was very tense about one question in particular—would I gain admission to the high school? It was a combined middle-high school, and the high school had a great reputation for quality of education. However, there were only about 100 slots, so at least half of us would have to go elsewhere.
Again, I felt fortunate to get into the high school. About two or three students from outside the middle school were admitted, so it turned out that coming from the middle school was the only really feasible way of getting in.
Fast forward four years. Everybody graduated, and everybody went to college. The question was which college you were going to, not whether you were going. It turned out that the high school was also a feeder school, but for the University of Pennsylvania. About 30 of my class of 100 went to Penn, and a total of about 50 students went on to ivy league schools.
Since then, of course, I have only been in touch with a handful of friends from high school. Most are currently in PhD programs or other advanced degree programs.
I’m telling this story to highlight that the education you receive in Philadelphia, and therefore your later opportunities, depends almost entirely on the wealth of your parents and a lot of luck. I was by no means meritorious. Twelfth-graders can hardly be meritorious, let alone children aged four, nine, and 13.
Something as ludicrous as where a child goes to elementary school has a profound impact on whether he or she will graduate high school and go to college. This, in turn, impacts that child’s earning potential. Just take a look at the median income by education level, according to the census:
In this way, education is one of the chief drivers of the poverty and inequality in Philadelphia. Because the state and federal governments do not fund local school districts nearly enough, school districts rely on local revenue. Since Philadelphia has very low incomes, this means there is little revenue for the schools, and therefore little educational opportunity for Philadelphia’s children. The wealthy, however, can buy their way out of this misfortune by going to the suburbs or carefully choosing their neighborhood.