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'Rightsizing' Philadelphia's high schools




District officials set off alarm bells across the city last month when they announced as part of their facilities master planning process that the new recommended student enrollment for high schools will be between 1,000 and 1,200 students.

With only five of the District’s 61 high schools currently falling within that range, the announcement seemed to portend sweeping changes – and perhaps the end of Philadelphia’s small high schools.

But the initial furor over the announcement quickly died down, swept away by concerns about the huge budget shortfall. Nearly six weeks later, the District has announced one proposal that, if enacted, would begin filling up neighborhood high schools: creating five new regional centers and up to 10 new twilight programs to deliver alternative education services. Most of these would be housed in underutilized high school buildings across the city as part of a plan to replace 13 privately run accelerated schools for dropouts and near-dropouts.  

But other than that, there has been little new information about how the city’s high schools are likely to be reconfigured in the coming years.

District officials say they will not share any more plans about possible changes – which include closures, consolidations, boundary changes, co-locations, and reconfigurations – until October. Until then, they are keeping any plans for specific schools a closely guarded secret. They have also discouraged speculation based on independent analysis of data.

“Absolutely no decisions have been made on what schools will be recommended for closure in the coming years,” said District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs. “Staff and experts with decades of experience on these matters are analyzing a broad range of data, policies, and stakeholder feedback before making the first of these recommendations in October. Any list of potential school closures before that time is pure speculation and not supported by the School District.”

Nevertheless, the Notebook compiled a spreadsheet of some data (PDF version) about the existing public high schools, including utilization of each school compared to capacity, enrollment, building condition, and academic information. District leaders have said these factors will figure in its decision-making.  

The spreadsheet includes the following data:

  • High school type
  • Grade configuration
  • Facilities Condition Index (FCI)
  • Current enrollment
  • Enrollment trends
  • Utilization rates
  • % of students transferring out
  • School Performance Index (SPI)
  • AYP status

Based on the Notebook’s review of this data, here are some issues worth paying attention to and some possible strategies the District could choose to pursue.

Small high schools

In an April interview, District staff and consultants seemed to indicate that they might be more likely to co-locate or consolidate some small high schools rather than close them. Parkway Northwest is over-enrolled (it is at 130 percent utilization) and Douglas has a building that is in poor shape (its “FCI,” which is a measure of what it would cost to repair the building as opposed to replace it, stands at 75 percent.) Both stand out as potential candidates for co-location – especially Parkway Northwest, which is in a rundown building and has an expensive lease that is about to expire. District officials could propose putting it inside an underutilized neighborhood school nearby, like Roxborough. Parkway West and Robeson, which both have fewer than 300 students and are just a mile apart, could conceivably also be candidates to share a building. 

Promise Academies

Six of the District’s eight Promise Academy high schools (FitzSimons, Germantown, King, South Philadelphia, University City, and Vaux) are either currently operating at less than 50 percent capacity and/or are expected to do so next year. Despite budget concerns, Superintendent Ackerman has shown a desire to expand the District’s internal turnaround model – 10 new Promise Academies were initially designated for 2011-12, and now King is going to be a Promise Academy, too. Could we see two Promise Academies (say, FitzSimons and Vaux, only about a mile and a half apart) be consolidated?

Career and Technical high schools

District Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery is personally overseeing the proposed revamping of the District’s career and technical offerings. The goal, it seems, is to create “Centers of Excellence” that serve as regional hubs providing CTE programs to students throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. The District has already announced that Audenried’s diesel technology program will be one such center. It would seem almost certain that Dobbins (67 percent FCI, 39 percent utilization) is in for some kind of rightsizing treatment. Mastbaum (28 percent FCI, 32 percent utilization) could be, also.

Magnets and Citywide admission schools

Five of the District’s selective admission high schools (Bodine, Central, Masterman, Parkway Northwest, and Science Leadership Academy) are operating at over 100 percent capacity. And three of the District’s citywide admissions schools (Constitution, Motivation, and Robeson) are up near 90 percent capacity or higher. The District is also leasing the facility that houses Constitution (126 percent utilization), an expense it could be looking to shed. Messing with the magnets could be politically tricky, but could we see a co-location or two (say, Constitution with Palumbo, which is in an old elementary school building and has extra space)?

Northeast High

What can be done to relieve the pressure at Northeast High? It’s the city’s largest school, with an enrollment of over 3,200. It’s bursting at the seams, operating at 143 percent capacity, the highest in the District. The building is not in good shape with an FCI of 68 percent. It seems like something has to be done. Redrawing the school’s boundary could limit future enrollment, but would likely just push more students into nearby Abraham Lincoln High, which is also over capacity. District officials say they are loath to undertake new construction with so many empty seats across the city, but is there another way to relieve the overcrowding at high schools in the great Northeast?

Frankford High

Frankford High is another example of a big high school (1,800) that is at or over ideal capacity (99 percent compared to the ideal of 85 percent) and in bad physical condition (66 percent FCI). The surrounding community is among the fastest-growing in the city, but almost 63 percent of the families opt out of Frankford to attend another high schools. One of Frankford’s feeder schools (Smedley Elementary) is already a Renaissance charter, and two more (Edmunds Elementary and Harding Middle) are on the Renaissance alert list. District officials have hinted on multiple occasions that they may be trying to steer new charter growth to this part of the city. As part of a larger strategy to ease the pressure at Frankford, could there be a new high school charter option, perhaps as part of the Renaissance process, for the lower Northeast?

This story is a product of a reporting partnership on the facilities master plan between the Notebook and PlanPhilly. We encourage readers to weigh in with thoughts about small high schools and options for high school reconfiguration.

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