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Public Application High Schools: Making the Grade

As the open enrollment for DCPS high school application period is underway, many District students and parents are considering whether or not some of the city’s application high schools are a good fit.

District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) offers students access to seven application high schools. These high schools, among the highest performing schools in the system, are open to residents city-wide, but do not disperse seats randomly through the My School DC lottery system. Rather, they select students to attend through a rigorous application process.

There are currently six selective high schools in the District: Benjamin Banneker High School, Columbia Heights Education Campus (CEHC), Duke Ellington School of the Arts, McKinley Technology High School, Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School and School Without Walls (SWS, or Walls). A seventh offering, Bard High School Early College, will open in either ward 7 or 8 in the 2019-2020 school year.

DCPS says that application schools are a way to satisfy the needs of a diverse student body.

“We are committed to meeting the needs of every student through a variety of options across the District,” said a spokesperson.  “Every student is different, and having both application and comprehensive high schools allows DCPS to provide targeted instruction, supports, and opportunities so that every student is on the best path to graduation.”

A Kind of Equivalent to a Private Education
Together with Jessica Hockett, Chester E. Finn is the author of Exam Schools, a study of American High Schools that discusses one of DC’s application schools, School Without Walls. At a panel discussion shortly after the book’s publication in 2012, he said he thought selective schools were an excellent option.

“One of the reasons I like these schools,” he said, “is because they provide a kind of equivalent, in many cases, to a private education for families that could not afford a private education.”

The District’s application high schools are consistently the highest performers in the system, with the best test scores, attendance and graduating rates as well as low teacher and staff turnover. In part, this is because each school is allowed to pick what students will attend. This often means that the highest-performing students are selected, but also ensures that students are focused, because each has chosen to be there.

Most of DC’s application schools, such as SWS, Benjamin Banneker and the new Bard High School Early College provide access to college credit. Students can graduate with up to 60 hours college credit, or with an Associate Degree.

Some have a particular disciplinary focus, which helps students immerse themselves in fields of interest or prepare for future careers. Students focus on the arts at Duke Ellington, language and global awareness at CHEC, and on STEM fields at McKinley Tech.

Phelps ACE aims to prepare students for careers in fields such as engineering, architecture, carpentry and computer science, among others. Phelps’ small student body –according to My School DC, enrollment for the 2017-18 school year is 260 – allows for more one-on-one instruction and an individualized learning style. Through their relationships with partners such as the NAF Academy, students gain exposure and hands-on experience to future careers through paid internships and extracurricular clubs.

‘They Expect the Best’
Understandably, application schools are looking for hard-working students invested in success.

Phelps Principal Joshua Emmett said, “Students who succeed in the programs at Phelps are students who persist in the face of challenges and are goal-oriented. The selection process highlights the academic demands of Phelps to help students prepare for college and career exploration.”

Benjamin Banneker Academic High School is a rigorous academic school, offering one-on-one support through their community laboratory program as well as by providing a teacher mentor. The school offers Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs and has a 100% graduation and college acceptance rate.

“It is an excellent school because they push their students to the limit and expect the best from us,” wrote a freshman in an online assessment. “It’s worth it because they get you ready for college.”

Banneker’s Principal Anita Berger said that it is this drive and commitment to doing the work that characterizes successful students at Banneker.

“These students might not be at the top of their class in middle school, but they show persistence and are committed to developing the knowledge, talents and skills needed for success in post-secondary experiences,” she said.

Application Processes
These schools are in high demand, with some receiving six to ten times the applications required to fill available places.

Application to the schools resembles the college process in many ways. Although all of the schools have differing standards for admission, there are some similarities. Most parts of selective school applications are made through the My School DC system during the open application period, which began Dec. 10 and concludes for high schools on Feb. 1. Students submit essays and can complete application tests online.

Most applications require a transcript, and some have a minimum GPA requirement. Most schools also require recommendations from current teachers and counselors as well as an essay.

After the application is submitted and considered, students may be interviewed. Five of the schools will interview the parent or the entire family as well as the student. Admission to Duke Ellington, the noted school of the performing arts, includes an audition as well as an admissions test and family interview.

The schools emphasize the role of the family in supporting students throughout their education. “We are not a school where we see parents once at the beginning of the year and once at the end of the year,” said Banneker’s Berger, emphasizing the importance of year-round engagement with student success. “The work at Banneker is rigorous and requires a village of school, family and community support.”

The process is rigorous and requires parental attention, said parent Sue Capozzi. Two of her children attended selective high schools and had very different experiences. Her son Hans, who attended McKinley Tech, thrived in the environment. Interested in creating video games, he selected a computer science major and went on to study the subject in college after graduating last year.

“There are so many opportunities he got by being there and by being a part of DCPS,” she said. Hans met then-President Obama at McKinley. He also made a trip to Costa Rica, all paid for by DCPS.

She said the school had remarkable teachers who challenged him. In his first year, a teacher encouraged students to enter a contest to build an app for an iPhone. Verizon would build the winning entry. “She walked them through the process,” said Capozzi, “[and] our son and his group ended up winning for the DC area.”

However, she said that her daughter briefly attended Walls before deciding that it wasn’t a good fit. Capozzi said her daughter was very excited about being in a classroom with students who were focused on learning and studying, but things began to change around the time of midterms, when the pressure students put on themselves to succeed began to manifest itself.

”It’s for a special kind of kid,” she said of SWW, ”who is really competitive and has tunnel focus.” However, she said her daughter’s experience hasn’t stopped Capozzi from recommending Walls to friends with kids that match that profile.

Abby Svetlik is a student at Walls. She said that the school does attract a certain kind of student, kids who hold themselves to a certain standard and want to be more challenged academically, which could add up to a high-pressure situation.

“There are definitely people I’m intimidated by,” she said. “But I know I don’t have reason to be, because we’ve all chosen to be here, and we’re all kind of on par with one another.”

Abby said that the school is an excellent fit for her. “I am grateful for the fact that I go to Walls,” she said. “I don’t think there’s another public school in DC where I would be this comfortable or challenged.”


More information on applying to these schools can be found at www.myschooldc.org/how-apply/applying-high-school.

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