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What's become of our comprehensive high schools?

By Eileen DiFranco on Jan 24, 2014 12:43 PM

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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Comments (29)

Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on January 24, 2014 1:31 pm
Sorry this is not an unsolvable problem. Have him transfer to Randolph which is a short distance from Roxborough HS. No need to add a program to Roxborough HS that is already available at a close by school.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 24, 2014 1:15 pm
I have to agree with concernedroxparent. There are several schools which offer vocational and cte programs. If the family is in automotive repairs and services perhaps the parents/family should have assisted this young man in choosing a school which offered this type of program. While I talk about my own children attending college someday I know it's ultimately their decision. But while they are in school, both middle and high school, I also require them to do their work. Whether they like the class and teacher, whether is a class they want or not. No matter what career they pursue, there will always be the chance that something is lacking. Whether not paid enough or lack of resources. Don't get me wrong. I too would love to see some of the things offered in suburban schools also offered here. And I and many others will continue to fight for that, but until a stable district is in place it is up to parents educators and yes even nurses and staff to make sure that the students here in Philadelphia are aware of the programs and resources that are still offered and where. And that while they are in school they must continue to do their best. Prove the system wrong graduate and perhaps use what they've experienced to make a difference in other students lives.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on January 24, 2014 3:07 pm
All CTE schools have admission requirements. This student may not have been admitted to Randolph. Neighborhood high schools are the only schools without admission requirements. Many students will not be accepted into a school with any requirements - including a charter. Therefore, by defunding and de-staffing neighborhood schools we are depriving students who probably need the most resources. (The exception is Northeast and Washington HS. They were allowed to keep many programs - including academic magnet programs - that were cut by Vallas from other neighborhood schools. This accelerated the depopulation of neighborhood schools when boutique schools like SLA, Constitution, Academy Palumbo/Rush, etc. were opened.)
Submitted by Kate S-L (not verified) on January 25, 2014 12:20 pm
"No need?" I suppose not, when it's not YOUR child and YOUR neighborhood school. It never ceases to amaze me how many responses are, "it's good enough...". When I attended high school, we had: home ec, typing, woodworking, mechanics, color guard, marching band, football, cheerleading, tennis, drama, photography, graphic art, Spanish, French and German, tumbling and track. I am POSITIVE I'm leaving out quite a few electives, too. Schools should be responsive community centers - yes, responsive to the entire community. Come on, what do we want for our country and children? Should all those electives, which go to making a well-rounded, CRITICALLY THINKING citizen, really be available only to a select few? I just don't get that mindset.
Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on January 27, 2014 8:46 am
MY child is in a neighborhood school. Do they have absolutely everything they need. No, but I am also realistic which I have noticed not a lot of people are on this site.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 27, 2014 4:35 pm
I attended the same kind of HS and my thought is that our money problems could have been avoided to some extent. Everything the SDP did was made into a crisis purposely, and the result was we have nothing so take what you can get. This is directed at parents, kids and teachers.
Submitted by Lisa Haver on January 24, 2014 1:56 pm
Eileen, Thank you. As painful as it is to hear, we are cheating our children more each year. The SRC has failed our students, and they must go. Enough.
Submitted by Gloria Endres (not verified) on January 25, 2014 11:47 am
You said it, Lisa. Nothing meaningful can happen until we regain local control. As others have asked repeatedly, why no educators on the commission? Simple: they are not interested in education. They only want to deconstruct our schools and privatize them. Philadelphians have to wake up before it is too late. This is a great piece by the way, by a very smart lady.
Submitted by simplyforposting (not verified) on January 24, 2014 1:40 pm
This is a really important piece. I wish the conversation about "school choice" could be reframed. We need to stop this false "choice" between schools, and have a real commitment to creating "choice" and options for students within every school. A student shouldn't have to leave an academic track and join CTE to have access to an industrial arts or home economics class. All students should have robust art / music / theater / and numerous extra-curricular activities.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on January 24, 2014 2:04 pm
Thank you Eileen: Your commentary sent chills through me. One of the best I ever read. Exactly right you are, exactly right you are.
Submitted by Diane Payne (not verified) on January 24, 2014 2:29 pm
Eileen, very well said and so very sad. I disagree with the previous comments about parents and children shouldering the responsibility of finding and getting to their correct high school placement and working hard throughout their school career. In a perfect world, parents would seek the best placements and children would consistently work hard. This is not a perfect world. When children come to school missing so much, it cannot be assumed that parents and children can navigate as these commenters suggested. Their posts are also leaving out the fact that our schools are empty shells. Great that there is a Randolph for kids to to go to but what about library, art, music, counselors, nurses, daily supplies, adequate staff, class size, clean buildings,etc. etc. in all our schools? Our Philadelphia Public School system is inadequate due to a lack of polictical will.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on January 24, 2014 2:48 pm
Unfortunately, the Vocational programs, now called Career and Technical Education (CTE) are not a district priority. However, the GOOD news is the district does INVEST in the existing CTE programs -42 programs of study in 31 HIGH SCHOOLS, 150 classrooms, across the city. Fortunately, our city and national government finally are beginning to recognize the cold hard reality that NOT EVERY STUDENT - wants, needs or should go to college. In addition to the hundreds of High Priority Jobs that go unfilled. I agree that every student should graduate "college and/or career-ready" (able to read/comprehend, speak, behave, manners, professionalism, etc.) .It becomes difficult to find time to help students gain the necessary skills when any non-academic time is rendered insignificant therefore the time must be DEVOTED and MANDATED to TEST PREP. Remember the nightmare a few years ago??? Test prep, Test prep and more test prep?? Students were pulled out of their CTE classes in order to meet the mandate that every student have "X" number of hours of test prep based upon their ranking "Advanced, Proficient, BUBBLE KIDS, Below basic, etc.). Thank God those days are behind us and God knows what Kihn and Company have in store for u, but we know this for sure: CTE is finally on the radar. Here' s some sage advice: Get counselors back in the buildings to help "GUIDE" students along this education journey. Then, we can help them find the right fit for their career aspirations/desires. Lastly, continue to complain about the SRC and how they have FAILED and continue to FAIL all children.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 27, 2014 4:27 pm
The game is take take take, then your school will be deemed as "failing" and have to close. This mentality is reflected in Race to the Top, so it's not totally about the Republican governor (although that's where most of the money comes from). Keep pushing because Corbett know this is his weakest issue.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 24, 2014 3:51 pm
Out of the mouths of babes!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 24, 2014 3:48 pm
Roxborough High--Concert Choir with Mr. Evans. In our seats by 7:30 a.m., warming up our voices at his direction while student section leaders took roll. Another student at the piano playing every piece flawlessly. Christmas concert at City Hall. City-wide concert choir competition. Singing at the Chapel of the Four Chaplains at Temple University. Early mornings and late afternoons rehearsing for our annual musical. My mother bought tickets to EVERY performance for each of those weekends! What a compelling reason to get to school every single day! I graduated from a small private college, received my master's at a university here in Philadelphia, and have had a very successful professional career. As much as I have always loved school, however, Roxborough High School Concert Choir was THE reason I loved Roxborough High!
Submitted by Ms. Chips (not verified) on January 24, 2014 4:29 pm
How different the schools would be if there were even one voice like Eileen's on the SRC, someone with pedagogical knowledge honed by inside experience who can connect with us all. Tell me again why it is required of all SRC members, past & present, to know nothing about kids or education.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on January 24, 2014 6:25 pm
The SRC knows how to follow orders and that's why they're there. UNTIL the people make---force---change, it won't. It's all only words and words are useless without follow up action. Sorry to hurt your feelings, comrades !! It will come though.
Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on January 24, 2014 5:32 pm
Eileen's points are correct, our kids are crying out for CTE (what we used to call Vo-Tech) programs. As an 8th grade teacher, I have many kids who want to build things, cook things, fix things, etc. The CTE schools and programs do not have enough room for all who would like to enroll--and, let's face it, they are special-admit school as well. When I was at a small-town public high school in Chester County in the 70's, you did not have to be in a CTE track to take CTE classes. I was college-track, but I was able to take Graphic Arts, Mechanical Drawing and a couple other electives. We had those plus auto-body and wood shop. All those classes were very popular with college-track kids and CTE kids. Our kids also need Art, Music,and real libraries with real school librarians. Students blossom with those opportunities.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 24, 2014 8:38 pm
The CTE option of going to a special school is not inviting to many kids because they prefer the neighborhood school with a diverse group of students. They don't want to be labled. The majority of CTE teachers are old, too, and very close to retirement. They do not have college degrees because that was not a requirement back in the days when the country manufactured things. They could not even hold a job in today's environment with their "equivalent" bachelor degrees in vocational education. The structure of relevant, up to date CTE programs was cut years ago, before the cuts in education as a whole. The opportunity for kids to actually work on the high tech cars of that need to be hooked up to expensive diagnostic equipment do not exist. They can get a job a Jiffy Lube changing oil at minimum wage without a CTE course. This article is more about the death of public education in the urban world, and the unwillingness of the population of tax payers to fund anything for kids in the cities.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 24, 2014 9:09 pm
Two words for the ruination of the comprehensive high schools, Magnet Schools..
Submitted by Education Grad ... on January 24, 2014 11:27 pm
Eileen, I appreciate your thoughtful and eloquent piece. Your point about CTE/vocational education really hit the nail on the head. Not everyone is cut out for or interested in going to a four-year university or pursuing an academic track. Giving students some real choice involves providing a variety of course offerings. Sometimes, the best way to increase student engagement is to provide students with preferred educational opportunities, instead of always putting the responsibility on teachers of academic subjects to fully engage students who are on a variety of levels, have a variety of aptitudes, and have a variety of interests. As a special educator, I also believe that CTE/vocational education is very important to offer for students with special needs, especially those with more significant special needs. Most of these students attend neighborhood high schools, so it makes sense to have CTE programs in neighborhood high schools to help meet transition goals and facilitate the development of skills of independence. Educator of Great Students
Submitted by Philly Activist (not verified) on January 24, 2014 11:39 pm
Wonderfully written Eileen - thank you for speaking with the students and finding out what their interests and needs are. There is no reason there can't be CTE Programs in all High Schools throughout the City. Why can't students have true choice without a Universal Application Process? They did a long time ago before 'Reform" came into being. The non-educators have ruined our schools!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2014 7:35 am
I've been saying this for years. Thank you for having the courage to put this in print. I've always said, "Where are the (put in skill) going to come from?" This summer I had some plumbing issues and the plumber brought his 12-year-old son, who was helping him. The father was asking him questions that required math and the son was doing it all in his head. I talked to him a bit and the boy was really interested in plumbing or HVAC. Good for him! I hope he finds a school that offers something like that. At Lincoln HS we had agriculture, automotive, Latin, choir, secretarial, business, gymnastics, etc. My mother encouraged me to take typing because I would be typing a lot of papers in college. Just as the OP, I loved getting to school at 7am for sports or choir practice. I eventually got into television production and wanted to teach in Philly. I do have a teaching degree and all of the required certifications but it's impossible to get a job anywhere. Unless you have a Special Education endorsement. That's what traditional schools are going to be reduced to, being SPED Clearinghouses. To work in a CTE position, I would need to get a specific CTE certification from Temple. Experience does not count in Philly. I even tried to get a job at one of the CAPA schools. Philly would rather let newbies, with no experience in the industry, teach these classes. It's cost effective. In Philly, it's better to just talk the talk. How about hiring people who walk the talk?
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2014 8:07 am
The SDP rather put Teach for America (TFA) drive by teachers into positions and grant them "certification" - especially special ed - even though they have not only no credentials but no experience.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2014 2:43 pm
Well done piece Eileen. You are speaking the truth!.
Submitted by Ms. Pat (not verified) on January 25, 2014 4:30 pm
Yes, Eileen! you are so right. Lots of students want to go to vocational programs, join the choir/band, put on a play, etc., but there are not enough seats available in the existing CTE programs, and we know how art and music programs have been cut to bare bones even in the special admit schools. Everyone in my generation had all of the wonderful programs you describe in your commentary, and our kids deserve them, too. How did we let this happen? What can we do to turn things around?
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on January 27, 2014 4:47 am
Wendell Pritchett is the biggest hypocrites on the SRC - he fought to "save" Rutgers-Camden yet he did not lift a finger to "save" Philadelphia public schools. While "beefing up" Rutgers-Camden, he let neighborhood schools die. Another example of why we need an elected school board - not SRC.
Submitted by doremon (not verified) on February 10, 2014 11:00 pm
concernedroxparent really wise in making decisions and rational sort. I have a lot of family members to participate in such activities. They have commented that it is very good
Submitted by doremon (not verified) on February 10, 2014 11:04 pm
concernedroxparent really wise in making decisions and rational sort. I have a lot of family members to participate in such activities. They have commented that it is very good

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