How to Apply to a Public District High School

First-Time Registration

A student has to register to attend a Philadelphia district school if he or she is a new resident of the city or is transferring from a private, Catholic or other public school.

New students should register at their designated neighborhood school during the two weeks prior to the start of school, usually during the last week of August and the first week of September. If you are interested in enrolling at a neighborhood school other than your designated school, you should start the process a full year earlier.

Visit the district’s website for the list of documentation needed to register a new student.

Transferring Between Neighborhood Schools

High school students in Philadelphia transfer for two basic reasons: They are having problems at their current school, or they hope for better educational opportunities elsewhere.

Through the school district’s High School Selection program, students are eligible to attend any of the district’s 54 high schools no matter what part of the city they live in. While students can transfer between schools even as late as 12th grade, it’s usually much easier to find an opening in ninth grade; accordingly, students are encouraged to carefully consider their high school options early in eighth grade. If a student wants to transfer once high school is under way, school officials recommend starting as early as possible, particularly if he or she is considering a career program with a three-year track.

Except in emergencies, students who want to change high schools typically have an eight-week window to complete the transfer process. The application deadline for the 2019–20 school year is November 2, 2018.

While students can apply to attend any neighborhood school, space for those not living in the school’s assigned zone is often limited, and selection is made by lottery. (All students attending schools 1.5 miles or more from their home receive a SEPTA TransPass free of charge, but in some cases students have found that the travel time to and from their neighborhood places a burden on them or their family.) Parents and caregivers should be aware that few students are admitted to high-performing neighborhood schools through the transfer process, so it is best to have multiple options. Students are notified in the spring if their transfer request has been accepted.

Emergency transfers are available in rare cases, usually when a student feels unsafe or threatened and can provide documentation, such as a police report. There must also be a record of past efforts by the school and the parents to remedy the situation. These transfers are initiated through the school and can usually be arranged in a matter of weeks.

Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, students in schools designated as “persistently dangerous” by the state can transfer to schools not on the list as long as they meet the admission criteria. Schools are required to notify parents when their teen’s school is on the list and supply a list of receiving schools to which the student may transfer. These transfers can also be effective in a matter of weeks. Parents should ask what steps the school is taking to reduce the number of serious incidents and get off the persistently dangerous list.

Citywide and Special-Admission Schools

Some district high schools, called citywide-admission schools, do not have an assigned neighborhood zone; they are open to any student living in Philadelphia. This is also the case with many public charter schools. Students are selected by lottery to attend such schools.

Special-admission high schools, sometimes called magnet schools, have entrance requirements. Students are selected based on attendance, behavior, grades and standardized test scores. Some schools require an interview or audition (for arts-focused schools). Keep in mind that these schools are competitive and some receive thousands of applications every year, so it is important to do your research on each school and to have backup choices.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I find out the admissions requirements for a particular school?

School profiles in this guide and in the district’s High School Directory, available at, include the admissions requirements for each school. The student’s guidance counselor can help explain the requirements.

If a student doesn’t meet the exact criteria of a selective school, should he or she apply anyway?

Yes, but only if the student’s record comes close to meeting all the requirements. Schools often admit students who do not meet every criterion. Principals at selective schools may seek recommendations from the student’s current counselor and principal. Interviews can also make a big difference.

Certain schools have lots of applicants. How can a student improve his or her chances?

Before a student applies to Masterman, keep in mind that nearly all of its high school slots are filled by students from its middle school — the odds may be one in a hundred. Some of the other most selective schools may admit only one out of every 10 applicants. But other city schools that are not as well known have similar programs. Check them out. Applying to charter schools is another way of improving the odds; students are not limited in how many they can apply to.

If a student is placed on a wait list, what should he or she do?

If a student is placed on the wait list at a special-admission school or a charter school, there is still a chance of admission. Keep in touch with the student’s counselor and the desired school — these schools manage their own lists.

If the student is on the wait list for one or more citywide-admission schools, his or her name will be entered into a second or even a third citywide lottery to fill the spaces in those schools once students accepted in the first round have made their choices and some have opted out. While decisions for citywide-admission schools are not made at the school level, it doesn’t hurt to let the principal know of a student’s interest.

A student who is not offered a place during the additional lottery rounds should attend his or her neighborhood school.

Are there high schools that will help prepare students for a trade or career?

Yes, there are 97 state-approved career and technical education programs in Philadelphia, some of which lead to a certificate or credential along with a diploma that can help graduates in the job market. In state-approved programs students take academic and technical courses in their chosen field for three years (beginning in 10th grade). The programs are on the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board’s High Priority Occupations list, which indicates that the program is meeting the workforce development needs of the region.

Do any neighborhood high schools have special programs?

Many neighborhood schools house special programs in such areas as health occupations, culinary arts, criminal justice, communications and automotive technology. The district’s High School Directory includes a summary by area of interest of where these programs are located.

Can a student apply to a neighborhood high school in another area? Yes. Keep in mind that students outside the feeder area are selected by lottery — and only if students inside the assigned zone don’t fill the school.

Should a student with an IEP apply to selective high schools?

All students are encouraged to apply to any high school that interests them and for which they meet the basic qualifications. A court decision that resulted in the LeGare Consent Decree requires the district to maintain a minimum percentage of students who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in selective schools. There are separate lotteries for special-ed students (and English language learners) at the schools that have lotteries.

What are the rules for English language learners?

All schools are required to serve English language learners, and the district encourages ELL students to apply to selective schools. A court order called the YS Stipulation requires the district to maintain a minimum percentage of English language learners in selective schools and bars schools from denying qualified ELLs admission by claiming a lack of services. But some schools provide better ELL education than others. If you are an ELL student, insist that a school show you or your family its state test results in reading and writing for ELL students only. If a majority of ELL students are not proficient in reading or writing by 11th grade, that is an indication of a weak ELL program.

Besides his or her counselor, where else can a student get help with high school placement? Applications, high school directories and explanations of the policies and procedures for the selection process are available at eight Parent and Family Resource Centers around the city; see to find the nearest center.

More Information

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