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What's become of our comprehensive high schools?

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A rough-and-tumble kid came to eat lunch in my nurse’s office recently, having spent an upsetting morning with some of his classmates. He liked to talk, so he went on telling me about his father, uncle, and older brothers, who were all car mechanics.

"You know, nurse, if you offered car mechanics here, the kids wouldn’t get bored and fight, because they would be interested in what they were doing,” he told me.

This student recalled how he had excelled academically in grade school but lost interest in school by the time he reached 9th grade. It wasn’t his teachers; he liked them. He just didn’t want to go to college. By then he knew he wanted to be a car mechanic -- as did many of his classmates.

Roxborough High had an automotive vocational department once. Generations of students graduated to well-paying jobs in gas stations up and down Ridge Avenue. In 1999, the School District decided that vocational education was too expensive and cut the program, leaving nothing but college-prep classes for significant numbers of students who wouldn’t, couldn’t, or didn’t want to attend college.

When Stephen Brandt, a former principal of Roxborough High School, was a student there in 1992, the school could boast of more than just a good vocational program. There was also a large business department and a strong academic program that offered five sections of calculus. Students could also study French, Spanish, Italian and Latin for all four years. The school also had a marching band, a choir, a newspaper, and a play. Even a home economics department.

For Brandt and generations of kids who grew up in Roxborough, their neighborhood school had a lot to offer. In the comprehensive neighborhood high schools, there was a place for everyone. There was no need to go elsewhere.

Roxborough High was not alone. Jerry Jordan recently recalled the wide array of educational opportunities available to him at West Philadelphia High School a generation before Stephen Brandt entered high school. I have written about the numerous resources available to my father at the old Northeast High School, even during the depths of the Depression. The neighborhood school was a place that generations of kids called home and looked back to with pride and gratitude. My father certainly did, as did Jerry Jordan. 

All that is gone now. Comprehensive high schools are just a shadow of their glorious past. There are no marching bands with drum majorettes or choirs singing the school song. The newspapers and plays have fallen by the wayside, and even sports have fallen off the curve. Just about every library in the District has closed. 

Worst of all, kids who had loved coming to school are left now with a sterile learning environment. Kids are shoved into college-prep classes, regardless of their wants or desires. Mantras like “individualized instruction” are supposed to make the dull uniformity more palatable. The Common Core is supposed to make them smarter and better test-takers. Despite the pared-down resources, endless testing is still what matters most.

Don’t think for a minute that our kids haven’t noticed that their schools have been taken apart. They talk to their elders. They watch television. They have friends who attend suburban schools.

They know about Upper Dublin High’s state-of-the-art auditorium that rivals theaters on the Avenue of the Arts. They have seen the well-manicured grounds at Cheltenham High School. They know that kids just like them who attend high schools in the suburbs have far more course selections within their own area high school than they will ever have.

They also know that their own schools have been publicly declared “failing” and “low-performing” by adults. These negative attitudes do not make our students feel good about themselves.

Those in charge of the schools throw up their hands in despair over the “low-performing seats” and look to a business model of management for fixes. Sadly, those who run the schools have become immune to the wishes of the community and the welfare of the children.

Education is not a business. It cannot be done on the cheap. Educating children costs money. It always has, and it always will in communities that care. As my Northeast High School-educated father used to say, “How expensive is expensive?” What has the destruction of the comprehensive high schools cost the city of Philadelphia? Most important, what has it cost the students and their families? 

A city that truly cares about its children provides for the education of its children – even if it’s expensive.

Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 23 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Eileen DiFranco

Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 25 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.

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