Education and Schools in Philadelphia

Public education and schools in Philadelphia are points of contention due to job losses and budget cuts that have occurred. Despite this, there are options for expat parents who can afford a world-class education for their children.

The city has public and private schools that are nationally recognised for the quality of their education, from elementary schools to universities. 

Public schools in Philadelphia

The School District of Philadelphia is responsible for the administration of public schools. The district has a history of problems with public school funding, which has led to job cuts and reductions in extramural programmes – a problem many US cities have had to contend with over the past few years. 

Public schools in lower-income urban areas have suffered the most as a result of staff shortages and behavioural problems. As a result, parents who live in the city and can afford it send their children to private or charter schools, or opt for homeschooling.

Public schools in Philadelphia are funded by property tax, which means that schools in more affluent areas are less affected and continue to employ highly skilled educators. As a result, the city still has good public schools while private, international and charter schools in Philadelphia are nationally recognised for providing an excellent level of education.

One way to assess the quality of a school is to check its Philadelphia School District classification. “Vanguard” schools are the best performing schools in the district and often have special admission criteria. “Non-vanguard” schools are adequate, while “empowerment” schools are usually struggling schools that the district attempts to assist.

By law, expat children are entitled to attend public school in their area. Children who are new to Philadelphia usually need to be registered for public schooling at their local school in August.

Expat parents will need to take supporting documents when registering their child for public schooling in Philadelphia. This includes proof of the child’s age, proof of address, immunisation records and report cards.

Charter schools in Philadelphia

Charter schools in Philadelphia still receive government funding and are ultimately accountable to the state. They are created by an agreement (charter) with the state and have to fulfil specific conditions such as academic performance in order to receive funding. Like conventional public schools, charter schools are tuition-free. At the same time, they are independently run and have more control over their academic programmes.  

Expat children can apply for admission to charter schools, with preference given to children who live in the area around a school. If there is not enough space for all of the students who apply, they are selected by way of a lottery. 

By law, charter schools in Pennsylvania are not allowed to restrict admission based on academic or sporting ability, language or disability. They are, however, allowed to restrict enrolment to specific grades as well as limit admission to students who are likely to fail due to limited skills in English, poverty or academic problems. 

In practice, admission to charter schools is competitive and they can have various admission requirements. It would be best to check the requirements of the individual school being considered.

It is worth noting that although tuition at charter and public schools is free, parents should be prepared for the hidden costs that come with lunches, extramural activities and the wealth of special events that are part of the American schooling experience.

Private schools in Philadelphia 

With the state of education in Philadelphia, more parents are selecting private education for their children. Expats can select from a variety of schools, most of which offer a good quality education with some consistently obtaining high national rankings.

As is usually the case, private schools in Philadelphia have better student-to-teacher ratios, advanced facilities and a wider selection of extramural activities. Of course, this comes at a price which expat parents should be prepared for. That said, many schools offer substantial financial aid packages, some of which are open to foreign residents.

It almost goes without saying that the best private schools in Philadelphia are also the most selective, and that there is a high level of competition around admissions. Parents should apply early and carefully check the admissions process for each school they are considering.

While each school has its own process, basic requirements generally include application fees, entrance tests, letters of recommendation from old teachers, report cards and interviews with the child.

International schools in Philadelphia

While the only strictly "international" school is the bilingual French International School of Philadelphia, some schools do offer the International Baccalaureate Programme. Information on schools that offer the curriculum can be obtained from the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Counselling, College and Career Readiness. Most expat parents in Philadelphia do, however, find some form of local schooling to be adequate.

Homeschooling in Philadelphia

For parents interested in homeschooling in Philadelphia, the school district requires a series of affidavits and application forms to be completed, and should be contacted for more information.

Universities in Philadelphia

Philadelphia has a large number of colleges and universities that provide higher education for roughly 368,000 full- and part-time students. Greater Philadelphia contains two Ivy League universities, six law schools and six medical schools, along with schools in dentistry, pharmacy, veterinary sciences, optometry, podiatry and osteopathy. The University of Pennsylvania (commonly referred to as Penn or UPenn) is a private, Ivy League, research university located in Philadelphia, while the Gwynedd Mercy University offers one of the best hands-on nursing programmes in the state.