Over the last thirteen years I have spent a fair amount of time in Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools, first as Director of the Philadelphia Student Union and now in my new role as Small Schools Project Coordinator at the Philadelphia Education Fund. It seems that many people have come to recognize that there is something truly wrong with a set of schools that serves the majority of Philadelphia’s young people at some point in their lives and graduates less than half of the students who enter in 9th grade. The question is can we do anything about it?
About five years ago I was working with a group of students from West Philadelphia High School who started asking whether there were schools that work with similar populations in similar neighborhoods that really work. We started doing some research, and what we found was astounding. We found that there are dozens if not hundreds of public high schools across the country that serve high poverty students and graduate more than 90% of their students.
We started taking groups of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders to visit some of these schools. The best part of these trips was watching students, who only knew Philadelphia’s neighborhood schools, find out what a high school could be and meet students who look just like them excited about learning. I will never forget the trip that we took to Urban Academy in New York. One of the Philadelphia students noticed that there were no security guards in the hallways. He asked one of the Urban Academy students who makes them go to class. The student responded by saying, “no one makes us go to class. We like going to class.”
Several times now we have visited the Academy for Careers in Sports at South Bronx High School. South Bronx was one of the lowest performing schools in New York City. In 2002 it was split into three separate schools in a shared building. Before splitting into three schools South Bronx had a graduation rate under 40%. Now all three schools graduate more than 90% of their students and send more than 90% to four year colleges. What is perhaps more impressive to students is that this school in the middle of the South Bronx, with no special admittance requirements, is so safe that it does not need metal detectors.
The things being done at Urban Academy and South Bronx are not rocket science. In fact, they have even been used to some extent in Philadelphia, but only in places like the Science Leadership Academy that serve special populations. When Kensington High School, for example, was split into three small schools it did not get any resources for planning or flexibility to create an innovative program.
It seems clear that it is possible to create high schools that really work and that we even have some of that expertise in our own city. What will it take to apply that knowledge to transforming the schools that need it most?
Turning neighborhood schools around will take more than tinkering around the edges. It will require bold transformation of schools. The creation of a set of neighborhood high schools that truly prepare young people for the 21st century is a serious challenge, but I believe there is no challenge more crucial to the future of our city. I also believe that it is possible. The question is do we have the political will to do it? I hope to use this space as a place to discuss what it will take to meet that challenge. I look forward to your thoughts.