To Be Honest

I’m going to admit something right now that I’ve only ever admitted to a few close friends in unguarded moments. I love the movie Jerry Maguire; it’s without question in my top 10. My girlfriend would say it has all the feels--the right balance of romance and football, a dangerous belief that one human can “complete” another, a black guy and a white guy who get along (albeit while playing racially stereotypical roles), and that kid with the big head who would’ve been cute reading Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. It works on every level. I defy you to tell me differently.

I don’t know how well you remember the movie, but it is about the aftermath of the lead character Jerry Maguire’s moral epiphany. Jerry bares his soul in a mission statement entitled, "The Things We Think, and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business." In the process of losing his “ability to bullshit,” he “becomes his father’s son again.”

Friends, I am not Tom Cruise. I don’t have his cheekbone structure or twisted views on psychiatry. I’m not a sports agent either. I am a school counselor; and this morning, I have lost my ability to bullshit.

For the last 8 years, I have worked inside of a system that is fundamentally flawed. I am talking about the Philadelphia School District’s high school application process. While my position as a counselor has given me a unique perspective, an entirely comprehensive understanding isn’t necessary to see that the process flies in the face of child development and quality education for all.

For those who aren’t familiar, let me briefly describe the high school application process as it exists for Philadelphia’s public school students. I’ll keep it as sexy as I can, but in the interest of not boring you, I’d suggest reading the following like Edward Norton narrating Fight Club. In fact, feel free to read everything I ever write like Edward Norton narrating Fight Club. That guy is the shit.

Here goes…

In September, the Philadelphia School District posts an online high school application. Most elementary/middle schools in the city serve students through 8th Grade; so most 8th Graders apply to high school. Students can apply to special admissions, citywide admissions, charter, and neighborhood schools. All are free, publicly-funded options.

Citywide and special admissions schools are criteria-based. Admissions teams look at a student’s grades, behavior reports, standardized test scores, and attendance in determining who is admitted. Most families I work with want their child to get into a special admissions school like Central High School or Science Leadership Academy. If they are denied admittance at special admissions schools, students and families are often devastated. Currently, 19,729 Philadelphia students attend special and citywide admissions high schools.

Charter schools have a lottery-based admissions process. Picture Powerball, but with a child’s education at stake. Families submit an application, and are entered into the school’s lottery. If the child’s ping-pong ball is drawn, he or she is admitted into the school. Around 20,000 Philadelphia students attend charter high schools, and another 10,000 are on waiting lists.

Neighborhood schools admit all students from their catchment area. Most families and communities in our city view neighborhood schools as a last resort option, but 18,240 Philadelphia students attend neighborhood high schools.

In essence, our high school application process is similar to and just as antiquated as panning for gold in the 1800s. Students who score well on tests or win charter lotteries get into special schools; while those who don’t, go to neighborhood schools. The process stratifies students based on academic ability. And, because academic ability is inextricably tied to socioeconomic status, exposure to trauma, and parent involvement, we are dividing students along these lines as well. 

I should mention that the criteria used in determining a student’s placement comes from his/her 7th Grade year. I have yet to find a person who would want to be judged on their most developmentally-erratic year of life. To help illustrate this, the photo of this blogpost is me in 7th Grade. Mentally, I was a train wreck inside a tornado, in the eye of a hurricane, on top of a tsunami. How arrogant was I to wear a paisley polo? Paisley and polos are plenty awful on their own.

Why, in education, are we so blind to our creation of systems wherein there are winners and losers? How can we afford this mentality? When a charter or special admissions school wins, who loses? Is our hope that, in leaving children underserved, they will disappear? Our citywide, special admissions, and charter schools boast over and take credit for standardized test scores, while our neighborhood schools and the children who attend them continue to go underserved.

I commonly hear students, staff, and parents threaten students with “If you don’t improve, you’ll be going to your neighborhood high school”--as if neighborhood schools are the ultimate punishment. It’s a pervasive thought, incubated by our high school application process.

There are two morally bankrupt ideas at play here. The first of which is that if a young person performs poorly during 7th Grade, he/she doesn’t deserve a quality high school education. Our young people are gifted, as gifted as they have ever been, but they need a chance to fail. If they underperform during one moment, the next day/year should present a new moment. I know very few folks who would attribute their success to anything other than opportunity. I would never have experienced academic success had I not been given numerous chances. Both of my parents would tell you that they had to caste the line a frustrating number of times before I ever took the bait, before I ever understood the value of my education. Our education system should afford students opportunities to fail without disenfranchising them from academia.  

The second corrosive idea, is that our overcrowded, under-resourced neighborhood schools aren’t doing their best to provide young folks with quality education. How can we set up our neighborhood schools to fail, and also be surprised when they do? If I handed one of my Kindergarteners a Rubik's cube and said, “Alright, go ahead...” I wouldn’t laugh when he/she couldn’t do it. The student didn’t have the proper tools or training to succeed. Our neighborhood schools contain young people every bit as great as the young people in schools everywhere. Yet many of us are fine laughing at our neighborhood schools when they fail or claiming that we’d never want our child to go there. We even publish their standardized test scores in the newspaper, right next to special admissions and charter schools who have in many cases prospered at the detriment of neighborhood schools.

Louis C.K. has a joke where he talks about owning an Infiniti. Paying it thought, he says owning an Infiniti is evil because the car is $20,000 more than he had to pay for a car, and that the extra $20,000 could be used to literally save the lives of folks in need. I don’t think the current high school application process is intentionally evil. The folks who designed it were probably well-intentioned. Most of us buy Infinitis, negligent to what the extra $20,000 could do. In the same way, we buy into and perpetuate inefficient systems--systems not set up to benefit all. When these systems directly impact our young people, they should be of greater importance. We should pay them more thought. Approximately 40,000 of our city’s 60,000 high school students are benefactors of special admissions, citywide admissions, and charter schools. The process continues to exist because there are enough of the right people who profit from it.

However, when we step back, we should realize that we can do better than our current system. I don’t know what the future of our business is (I’m much less certain than Jerry Maguire), but I hope it is child-centered. I hope we can find a way to make sure all students in our city receive a high quality education. I hope there are less winners and losers, and more opportunities. I hope citywide admissions, special admissions, and charter schools stop discussing school performance profiles like division championships. I hope we stop speaking negatively about our neighborhood schools and the great folks doing great things in them every day.

I hope we lose our ability to bullshit.