November 1 — 1:55 pm, 2005

Will new high schools combat old problems?

When eighth-grade students this month select which high school they’d like to attend next year, they’ll have five more schools to choose from than the class before them, with new choices built around specific academic themes.

The result, Philadelphia School District officials say, is “more options” across a new and improved landscape of high schools in Philadelphia.

But will this new configuration of schools contribute to reduced dropout rates, address disturbingly low test scores, and provide an education relevant to students’ future pursuits?

Perhaps the most critical barometer for all the changes will be the performance of the city’s neighborhood high schools, which still serve over 60 percent of the District’s high school students and where many of challenges to educating students are greatest.

Eighth-graders’ high school applications are due November 18, and their selections will reveal the popularity of all the high school choices.

Among the new offerings is the “High School of the Future” on Parkside Avenue in West Philadelphia. Launched in partnership with Microsoft Corporation, the school promises state-of-the-art technology use and a student-to-computer ratio of one-to-one.

The Franklin Institute teams up with the District next fall to open a much-anticipated Science Leadership Academy, at 22nd and Arch Streets. And a building on 7th Street near Market will house the National Constitution Center Partnership High School for Law, Democracy and Civic Engagement, a college-preparatory program with a service-learning emphasis.

A selective new school will be the Academy at Palumbo, at 11th and Catherine Streets. A small school whose program is modeled after the District’s acclaimed magnet Central High School, it sets admissions standards of nearly all A’s and B’s and at least an 88th-percentile ranking on citywide TerraNova exams.

The Science Academy sets similar admissions criteria, and incoming freshmen must attend an intensive summer science institute.

Who will benefit?
Two handouts promoting the Academy at Palumbo that were given out at the District’s high school fair in late October laid out two divergent statements of the school’s admissions policy. A brochure stated that all students at the school would come from the area south of Market Street or from Center City, while an information packet said that 75 percent of students would be admitted from the area south of Market Street.

The issue of admission policies at the new high schools is likely to be debated this month because the School Reform Commission is expected to take up a resolution on what District officials have called a “preferred choice” admissions plan. This approach, which has been strongly advocated by the Center City District for schools in Center City, would give a preference in admissions to students based on their region.

Al Bichner, who oversees the District’s high schools, however, could not confirm in a recent interview whether the three new schools located in the Center City area would be in consideration for set-asides or preferred status to Center City families, as a number of elementary schools may be next fall.

“Sometimes we have to take into account whether the residents of Center City are being served well,” he said.

However, a number of education advocates question whether the best educational opportunities are being distributed equitably throughout the city.

Len Rieser, co-director of the Education Law Center, said plans for the new schools were “exciting,” but noted, “It sounds as though these new schools may end up serving mainly students who are already high achievers, not the students who are struggling.”

Rieser said he supported the creation of the new high school options in Center City, but warned, “I can see it having a negative impact on the neighborhood high schools, unless there’s some strategy to avoid that, and I don’t know if that exists.”

He explained, “It does seem like you could be draining some of the more academically successful kids from the neighborhood schools.”

There is one new high school opening far from Center City. It is the District’s third new military academy in three years – the Philadelphia Military Academy at the Frankford Arsenal.

Another new program with strict admission standards that eight-graders can apply to for next fall is based at Northeast High School – the Northeast Medical, Engineering and Aerospace Magnet.

Brian Armstead, Education Coordinator for Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, argued that exciting high school options should exist in every region and should not be limited to downtown.

Noting the concentration of new schools around Center City, Armstead observed. “I don’t want to see other areas get exciting programs and ‘schools of the future,’ while North Philadelphia, for example, gets the ‘Staples Office Worker School.’”

Admissions criteria established for the Microsoft-sponsored school provide for 25 percent of its students to come from throughout the city, and 75 percent from its broad West Philadelphia catchment area, primarily areas north of Market Street.

Breaking up the high schools
Meanwhile, in the neighborhoods, the District continues to address a significant issue that studies show does impact at-risk students – the large populations of some of Philadelphia’s high schools.

Most Philadelphia high school students attend schools with more than 1,000 students, despite research that schools with more than 700 students have 10 times the number of serious violent incident reports as schools with 350 students.

At a number of large neighborhood high schools — Franklin, Olney, Kensington, Bartram, and Germantown — 90 percent or more of the 11th graders scored below grade level in both reading and math.

The District has been creating smaller schools by dividing up existing large high schools, making annexes or branches into separate schools, and converting middle schools to high schools, all a part of the District’s Small Schools Transition Project. By next fall, the District will have added 20 schools to its high school roster since 2003.

“Smaller school size – generally no more than 400 students – can help to counteract many of the problems plaguing high schools today, such as overburdened teachers who barely know the names of their students; low expectations for all but the highest-performing students; inadequate support for students needing extra assistance completing their coursework or planning for college; and curricula that fail to engage students in their own learning, ” explains a study from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provides funds for small schools across the country.

Some small schools advocates have cautioned against the approach of merely erecting dividing walls to create new schools. Lacking a complete structural and cultural overhaul, many attempts at downsizing schools creates not small schools but “big schools in drag.”

Indeed, when a wall was erected at FitzSimons School in a high school conversion effort that included establishing separate schools for girls and boys, students punched and kicked holes in the dividing wall.

This fall, that neighborhood has gender-separate schools: FitzSimons High School for Boys, at 2601 W. Cumberland, and Rhodes High School for Girls, at 3100 N. 29th St.

In another school that is being converted to a small high school as part of the Small School Transition Project — Sayre in West Philadelphia — the enrollment is actually rising. Because of a change in feeder patterns, Sayre’s ninth grade class swelled to over 400 students this fall.

But at Kensington High, reconfiguring a large school into a number of small schools has raised hopes for an improved environment.

The main school and its annex were divided this fall into three schools: Creative and Performing Arts, Culinary Arts at the Emerald, and International Business, Finance and Entrepreneurship. Reports pointed to a far more orderly opening of school this past September.

This fall the trio of schools falls under the name Kensington High School Multiplex, each of them housing a ninth-grade Success Academy. Which academy students attend is determined by their roster choices. During the ninth grade, students choose which of the themed schools they prefer to attend for the rest of high school.

School spokesman Joe Lyons said the District’s goal is to provide students with as seamless an experience as possible in regards to high school transitions.

Minimizing transition “is the kind of thing that will be worked out through time,” he said. This process “is what makes sense right now. Obviously, it’s not set in stone.” He said the District would practice flexibility and positive-impact decision-making for assignment of students to schools.

Similar to Kensington, Olney is now two schools that fall under the Olney High School Educational Complex. Olney 704 carries creative and performing arts and social justice themes; and Olney 705 carries allied health, business and carpentry programs.

New construction is a big part of the District’s plans. The District recently announced it has set its sights on ground for a fourth Kensington High School – to be built new. It has also begun negotiating for the 4601 Market Street site for a new West Philadelphia High School, which would have a state-of-the-art athletic field.

Officials say it is too early to determine what new schools might open in 2007.

Contact Notebook staff writer Sheila Simmons at 215-951-0330 x156 or sheilas@thenotebook.org.

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