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Two student groups formulate vision of small schools

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

Kensington and West Philadelphia High Schools will be replaced with new school buildings as part of the School District’s $1.5 billion capital plan. Philadelphia Student Union members from West Philadelphia and Youth United for Change members from Kensington have researched and developed proposals for how their new schools should be built. These are excerpts from the proposals.

Plan for the new West Philadelphia High

by West Philadelphia High School Philadelphia Student Union chapter

West Philadelphia High School is in need of major change. In the six years that Student Union has been at West, we have had eight different principals. The school has often been in a state of chaos. We had 39 fires in one year, and we have some of the worst test scores and dropout rates in the state.

Still, we in the Student Union have a vision for West Philadelphia as a model of excellence in inner city education. We are pleased that our school is scheduled to get a new building. We see this as an opportunity to change not only the physical structure of the school, but to redesign the way that teaching and learning happen.

We have been researching excellent inner city high schools. We visited schools that are having success with similar populations in New York, Chicago, and Oakland. From our research, the thing that seems to be working the best in turning around big urban high schools is breaking them into smaller schools.

Our high schools are too large and impersonal to adequately educate and support students. The Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform recommends that high schools have 300 to 500 students. The Gates Foundation defines small schools as schools that have no more then 100 students per grade. Research shows that small schools can:

  • Raise student achievement
  • Reduce incidents of violence and disruptive behavior
  • Combat student anonymity and isolation
  • Increase attendance and graduation rates
  • Elevate teacher satisfaction
  • Improve school climate
  • Be more cost effective.

We also held listening campaigns with over 300 students at West. We used their input and our research to develop this proposal.


Our plan for West is to have four autonomous schools and a common building. Each of the buildings will house no more than 400 students, with its own staff and administration. We want the buildings to look like this:

Common building: This building will contain a library, lunchroom, gym, and auditorium that will be shared by the four schools.

Business and commerce building: This building will be for students who are interested in the field of business management and starting their own business. The school will have a strong focus on socially responsible business.

Automotive building: This building is for students interested in a career in automotives. West already has an automotive building so we would like to keep that building.

Health and fitness: This is for students who have an interest in careers in the health and sport fields. We are not just talking about being a sports superstar. We want to have educational options for students interested in the law, medical, and communications fields that have to do with sports.

Creative and performing arts: This school will be for people who are interested in the arts. West has always had an excellent choir and dance troupe. We want to keep this part of the school’s culture.

Plan for the new Kensington High

by Kensington High School Youth United for Change chapter

In December 2002, Paul Vallas, the CEO of the Philadelphia School District, announced his Capital Improvement Program. The program calls for the building of a new Kensington High School in 2005. We went from classroom to classroom at Kensington listening to over 300 students to find out what they would like to see in the new building. We took this information and research we have done about the Small Schools Movement and developed a proposal for our new school.


We propose that Kensington High School be broken up into four small schools. Each school would have its own principal and would service approximately 400 students. The schools would be built on the same piece of land and share some facilities like tracks and fields. Extracurricular activities, especially sports, would also be shared by all four schools. All of the schools would have a multicultural, technology-integrated curriculum.

Based on data gathered from our classroom presentations, we propose the following themes for the small schools:

Business: This school would focus on small business development, entrepreneurial programs and business administration. It would also house some shops including culinary arts and cosmetology/barbering. The idea behind bringing these programs together is so students who graduated would be prepared both for college and/or starting their own business in their field. Located on the proposed property on Front and Berks is the Mercado which is run by Norris Square Civic Association. The school could partner with the Mercado to develop students’ business skills and sell student-generated products.

Creative and performing arts: The Kensington community is filled with creative students. However, there is little opportunity for students to explore and develop their skills in a school setting. This school would service all of the students interested in art, drama, dance, and music. It would also include graphic design, web page design, and photography courses.

ESOL/Bilingual and dual immersion: This school would support Kensington’s ESOL/Bilingual community. It would also include students interested in dual language programs and international studies. The school would have computer-equipped language labs. This is a natural fit because currently there are 300 ESOL/Bilingual students at Kensington High School and there are three elementary schools that feed into Kensington High School that have dual immersion programs. They are McKinley, Willard and Sheppard, all of which are becoming K-8 schools under the proposed Capital Improvement Plan developed by the School District of Philadelphia.

Urban studies: This school would take a social action approach to education. The curriculum would focus on critical thinking and problem solving. Courses would include ethnic studies, multiple history courses, and multiple political science courses. This school could partner with numerous local community organizations and have an intensive community service component.


The site we are proposing is at Front and Berks. This property is located close to public transportation and is accessible to the entire Kensington community. It is located close to two recreation centers and community organizations like New Kensington CDC and Norris Square Civic Association, which would open endless opportunities for collaborations between the schools and the larger Kensington community. It is also located in Philadelphia’s Empowerment Zone.

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