Drawing on her own experiences, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman believes that large neighborhood high schools can be made to work, and maintains that Philadelphia’s small schools’ movement has only further exacerbated inequities.
In an interview, Ackerman gave a glimpse into her ideas for tackling what is probably the District’s thorniest reform issue – neighborhood high schools that lose as many students as they graduate.
These schools “lack personalization, they lack rigor, they lack relevance,” Ackerman said. “They lack many of the kinds of enrichment and electives that would be of interest to young people and give them opportunities to explore the creative as well as the cognitive side of the brain.”
In her Imagine 2014 reform plan, Ackerman outlines many strategies for keeping young people in school, but she makes no specific reference to reaching Mayor Nutter’s goal of cutting the dropout rate in half by 2014.
Still, city and school officials are collaborating on this effort, and a Graduation 2014 task force has been meeting to discuss “what does the [high school] experience need to look like,” according to task force chair Tomas Hanna, the District’s director of operations.
He said it focused on what all young people need, “whether it be a large school or a small school.” This includes “what rigor and schedules look like, what leadership looks like, how do we attract the best leaders, and how do we ensure that teacher teams are working collaboratively.”
Ackerman’s strategic plan reflects the task force’s ideas, as well as some proposals from a recent Secondary Education Blueprint process convened by the Philadelphia Education Fund.
She wants to double the number of counselors in high schools and have them stay with the same students. She plans to introduce a schedule in which math and English teachers would keep their students for two years.
Each student would get an individual graduation plan and an adult advocate. High schools would offer a three-day summer orientation.
“My guidance counselor started ninth grade, they followed you throughout school, and that made sense,” she said. “They knew …what issues you were facing.”
Schedules would be arranged so that students work with teams of teachers, and all high schools would have daily advisories. Each school would have an eighth period for remediation, more extracurricular activities, and centers where students could stay late to do homework or get help with college applications.
Other goals include more work-based opportunities and more arts programming.
“We know what works, and those programs are lacking in our high schools,” she said.
Ackerman sees personalization as a key, but as not requiring school downsizing, a solution pressed by student and advocacy groups and employed by the previous superintendent, Paul Vallas, who created 25 small high schools.
In fact, Ackerman sees small schools here as coming at the expense of large high schools and most of their students.
“I am not opposed to small high schools, I am opposed to small high schools that lock [students] out,” she said. Most of Philadelphia’s newly created small high schools have admissions requirements.
But that is not how the modern small schools movement here started out. Under the Philadelphia High Schools Collaborative, reformers sought to use small schools to provide more personalized and rigorous education for students in neighborhood schools.
Michelle Fine, a leader of that effort who is now a professor at the City University of New York, said the ideal fell short.
“Philadelphia failed to agree as a system to turn the corner and use small schools as part of an equity agenda, and instead privileged small schools for either the most elite or motivated young people,” she said.
Under Vallas, neighborhood small schools carved out of Kensington High or created by transitioning middle schools like Sayre did not get extra resources or a year for planning like new selective admission schools did.
“Small high schools have not been the answer for a majority of young people and they are not the answer here,” Ackerman said. “I am not on that bandwagon.”
At the same time, there is no record of large inner city neighborhood high schools anywhere that have been turned around while serving the same student population without some reorganization into smaller, autonomous units. The most celebrated charter high schools are all small.
Student groups, including Youth United for Change, have visited such schools in New York and have been pressing for doing it here. But Ackerman said that the students and families she talks to aren’t asking for small schools, but competent teachers and more career and technical education.
Her plan does include a proposal to create one new small high school for prospective teachers and three new career and technical academies, including a charter school approved for opening in 2010.
What students and families want, she said, are “the basics. So let’s give it to them.”