Principal of KHSA: Don’t start a charter. Invest in my school instead.
Recently, my school, Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA) has been at the center of Philadelphia’s debate about charters vs. traditional schools. KHSA is a neighborhood public high school serving 465 amazing children in the Kensington neighborhood. We have four career pathways, three of which are health-related Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs.
During the summer of 2019, the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), a nonprofit organization that invests in educational projects across the city, met with me to discuss the goals we had for our school. We talked extensively about what we have learned from the partnerships we have created, especially in medical settings. Then, PSP asked to visit us on Sept. 25 for the morning. It was a wonderful visit, and our teachers and students were engaged in great learning, as they are every day. The day finished with an in-depth conversation about the challenges of building partnerships with settings such as hospitals and clinics.
Then, before Thanksgiving break, I received an email from PSP stating that they had “an exciting opportunity for KHSA” and that they wanted to share it with me. I was, of course, elated and scheduled a meeting with them on Dec. 2.
The news they wanted to share was that they were giving seed money to a potential charter founder to form a health sciences charter high school in North Philly. I was confused. How was this an exciting opportunity for KHSA?
It actually felt like creating unfair competition for my school for resources that are already scarce, especially because charters can manipulate admissions and enrollment policies to their benefit, and neighborhood schools cannot.
I asked PSP how this charter school would be helpful to KHSA, and they said that my school “could learn from their charter model.” I replied that we are trying to build a model for our neighborhood students and that we need support. They then explained what I believe is the real answer as to why they were not investing in us: Because KHSA is a neighborhood school and not a charter school, they cannot control enrollment for their dream school.
Although it might appear that KHSA does not want a health sciences charter school to exist just because they copied our school’s theme, that is not the reason. The reason actually is that many charter schools create the illusion that they are educating children better than neighborhood high schools. The reality is that neighborhood high schools are serving our highest-needs children and that society should be investing the most in them.
The children who come to my school each day are the most resilient, charismatic, and loving people I have ever known. Some of my students’ reading and math levels are not as high, but that’s not their fault. It is society’s fault for not better supporting the children who are most in need. PSP’s explanation of why it is not investing in a neighborhood high school perpetuates this inequity.
I testified at the school board meeting on Dec. 12 and a charter school hearing on Dec. 20. I have had countless conversations with colleagues and opponents and have thought tirelessly about the charter vs. traditional school debate. I have heard so many arguments for both sides of the story, but the idea that I find the most compelling is one shared by one of my teachers, Jenifer Felix: Parents want what’s best for their own children. Teachers want what’s best for all children.
The problem with school choice is that it creates segregation. Choice takes away limited resources from inclusive neighborhood schools and leads to even fewer resources being spent on our students who are most in need.
Ms. Felix is both a teacher and a parent. She lives in Kensington and enrolled her daughter at KHSA at the beginning of her junior year. We all love her daughter, and I was honored that Ms. Felix trusted me and our staff with her own child’s education. Although this is common in suburban districts, it is rare in Philadelphia’s largest high schools.
Decades of institutional racism drained neighborhood high schools of resources and made them less than ideal places to educate children. In the early 2000s in Philadelphia, the idea of charter schools providing choice became popular and understandable.
Neighborhood high schools in Philadelphia have become the safety net for many children whose parents do not have the means (time, understanding, or navigation skills) to send their children to a special-admissions or charter school. Unlike other high schools in the city, neighborhood high schools must enroll any child that comes to their doorstep at any time. We welcome children who are transient, homeless, have been through the juvenile justice system, and have been kicked out of charter schools.
KHSA is a special place, and we have many families who actively choose to send their children to us. They love that our school police officer hugs them every time they walk in the door. They love that our community school coordinator will do anything to try to help their teenager find a meaningful summer job. They love that our teachers and counselors are working tirelessly each day to give their children the best education possible. Students thrive in our CTE courses, our AP courses, and our newly established dual-enrollment courses with Penn State Abington.
But because our school accepts all children, not just children whose parents are able to complete applications or show up to charter lotteries, our teachers must work even harder. Their classrooms are filled with students who are reading on a college level and students reading on an elementary level; students who live with two parents and students who are supporting themselves; students who slept in a warm bed the night before and students who slept on the street.
As we move into the new year, I ask the City of Philadelphia, the State of Pennsylvania, and private investors like PSP to make a resolution: Fund our neighborhood schools. Don’t just do what’s best for some children. Do what’s best for all children.
Nimet Eren has been the principal of KHSA since 2017. She came to Philadelphia in 2007 with Teach for America and taught at Olney High School from 2007 to 2015, during which time it was converted from a District to a charter school. She is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. She won the Lindback Distinguished Principal Award in the spring of 2019.