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Extreme makeover?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Making Philadelphia’s schools smaller has emerged as a popular idea here. Endorsed by community groups and District officials alike, the small schools movement is also a national trend, bringing together people across the political spectrum.

Forces have aligned in Philadelphia so that the District actually has the resources at its disposal to perform a physical transformation of dozens of schools. In a rare turn of events, there is also a consensus about one place to start: making our large high schools smaller – particularly the city’s neighborhood high schools, which have been impervious to previous reform efforts.

The possibility of Philadelphia’s high schools undergoing such an extreme makeover may seem miraculous in a system that was facing bankruptcy just two years ago. But CEO Paul Vallas has already successfully raised nearly half the cash he needs for a $1.5 billion capital plan, and construction plans are moving forward at schools across the city.

The $1.5 billion question remains: how do we make sure this extreme makeover transforms the character of Philadelphia’s schools – not just their appearance?

A large body of evidence suggests that small schools can be a tool for improving student achievement, reducing violence, enhancing teacher satisfaction, and increasing parental involvement. There is evidence that students of color perform better in smaller schools and achievement gaps narrow.

Small schools can create a sense of belonging – a community where students are connected to teachers and to each other. In such a community, high expectations for students’ academic performance can take root and students’ individual needs can be addressed more readily.

There are significant issues to address about how small a small school should be. But whatever the target size, simply making schools smaller is not enough.

The power of the small school model rises or falls on the quality of the relationships in each school. For there to be strong parental involvement, an active professional community among teachers, and an engaged student body, a web of relationships must be built at the school level and given enough autonomy and authority to flourish.

Planning for a new school is an ideal time to work on weaving these relationships and helping all stakeholders feel that they have a say. In the words of Schools as Centers of Community, a US Department of Education publication:

Widespread participation in designing learning environments is valuable for the sense of shared purpose it engenders. When members of a community are given opportunities to come together … and make important decisions, this commitment is strengthened. When community members become visionaries, creators and owners, rather than cogs on a bureaucratic wheel, they are more willing to work together to set goals, solve problems, and, ultimately, provide their schools with the kind of ongoing support they need to be successful.

While the District has constructed a process for community input, it does not involve the broader community as "visionaries, creators, and owners." It offers only piecemeal involvement.

The experience of two student groups – Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change – is illustrative. Both groups have been studying small high school models and have been hard at work on plans for redesigning high schools. Both groups are trying to have a say in decisions about what is to happen at schools where they are active: West Philadelphia, Kensington and Olney High Schools. Together they have mobilized parents, teachers, and community organizations into an alliance supporting small high schools

They have been able to get audiences with District officials. They have learned that the District is setting up a small, representative school planning team for each construction project, and students have been encouraged to get themselves on those teams. There are to be town meetings for those who are not part of the planning team process.

But District officials also say that the planning teams and town meetings will focus only on design decisions. Decisions about a high school’s educational program – for example, should West Philadelphia be one big high school or four smaller ones – are to be made beforehand by high school chief Creg Williams. Top District officials give different accounts of what the ground rules will be. This leaves the process looking suspect.

The students’ efforts to gain a seat at the table and to design new schools rooted in research about effective educational practices should be celebrated and seized upon – not mired in a confusing bureaucracy laden with community outreach consultants.

The Vallas administration is to be commended for its vision and aggressive timeline for creating new schools and replacing and renovating school buildings. Its actions have created a historic opportunity for the School District, and its interest in small schools is encouraging.

But we need to keep our eyes on the prize – and the prize is not simply new, small schools. It is to have small schools that are participatory learning communities, and these cannot simply be created by orders from the central office.

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