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Why some schools choose to stay small

A look at four small charter schools in Philadelphia

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

For several years, charter schools have been an outlet for those who want to create small autonomous schools in Philadelphia.

Since Pennsylvania legislators enacted the state’s Charter School Law in 1997, founding a charter school has been the primary option available to Philadelphians who wanted to teach an independent theme-based curriculum, implement their own organizational model, and create small schools with small enrollments and personalized instruction.

The state’s charter law provides for the creation of independent public schools that receive local school district funding and are held accountable for meeting the standards and requirements of other Pennsylvania public schools. Currently, 48 charter schools operate in Philadelphia.

The Notebook spoke to school leaders and teachers at four small Philadelphia charter schools: Charter High School for Architecture & Design (grades 9-12), Eugenio María de Hostos Community Bilingual Charter School (K, 5-8), Green Woods Charter School (K-7), and Mastery Charter High School (9-11).

We asked them about the importance of small size to their founding vision, their decision- making model, and their curriculum, as well as the advantages and disadvantages their schools have experienced as a result of their size. These leaders consistently reported on several themes:

Small charters struggle with limited resources.

Although charter schools do receive funding from the Philadelphia School District, resources are limited. The per-pupil allocation for charter schools is about $2,000 less than the average expenditure per pupil in the School District, although this comparison does not take into account a number of management functions that the School District must perform.

Most charters have to engage in a variety of fundraising activities in order to cover their costs. For small schools, shortages of funds often lead to fewer art and music teachers, a lack of sports teams and extracurricular activities, limited facilities, and sometimes greater difficulty in complying with District, state, and federal regulations.

At Green Woods, Chief Administrative Officer John Di Lello reported, “There is no economy of scale. We’re kind of out there on an island. We have all the same reporting and compliance requirements of a large school district, but not the funding.”

Small size facilitates more individualized instruction and closer relationships among staff and students.

At Mastery, Chief Executive Officer Scott Gordon reported that being a small charter allowed it to implement an instructional model in which individual students advance through their coursework at their own pace, based on their own goals and experience.

“Only because we are small and a charter can we have our grading and promotion system, which is unique in Philadelphia, if not the nation,” he said.

The biggest instructional difference between teaching in large and small school environments, said sixth-grade teacher Evelyn Rivera of de Hostos, is “being able to teach to the learning capacity of each child.”

Evelyn Lebron, principal at de Hostos, agreed that small size helps improve the quality of instruction. “We’re better able to meet [students’] needs because everybody knows everybody in our school.”

For Di Lello at Green Woods, the advantages in relationship building that small schools offer over larger ones are obvious.

“Learning takes place best when kids feel connected to place, to each other, and to the people teaching them,” he said. “The best opportunity to create this kind of learning community is in a small setting where they feel like a family and where they like learning.”

Lebron added: “Because we are small, students aren’t afraid to be themselves. Students aren’t afraid to be kids.”

Small size results in a sense of collaboration and collective responsibility among staff.

“Green Woods was started by five mothers in the neighborhood who wanted a smaller, more nurturing environment for their kids,” Di Lello said. “They wanted a school that had the texture of home schooling and that also included active, hands-on, project-based learning.”

He added that to create this atmosphere, Green Woods “employs a collaborative decision- making process that is based on relationships, trust, and a common vision,” and this takes the form of a committee process that includes parents, teachers, and board members.

At the Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD), “A lot is required [of the staff] that cannot possibly be put down on paper,” said its Deputy Chief Academic Officer Cristina Alvarez. “If you want innovation, you have to have people that want to work that way, and that’s why it works here.”

Lebron agreed that being small means staff members have to do more than they would at a larger school. “The teachers here have to do a little bit of everything,” she said, pointing out the importance of teamwork among the staff.

According to first-year English teacher Susan Cook, the culture of CHAD promotes collaboration. “It’s not as much a factory feel. It’s more of a workshop feel,” she said. “People speak their minds here.”

Small size can intensify the effects of teacher turnover.

Scott Gordon, of Mastery, described the disproportionate impact of any teacher turnover at a small school as compared to a larger one: “Because we are small, any teacher turnover is destabilizing.”

In addition, the first year for small charters is often rocky, which can result in difficulty with teacher turnover. Alvarez said that from a teaching staff of 26, she anticipates losing between 10 and 20 percent of teachers from year to year.

Lebron acknowledged that teacher turnover was a problem during the first few years of the school’s operation, but said it has improved as the administrative team has stabilized. Teacher turnover from last year to this year was still about 40 percent.

Small size allows for a curriculum that is suited to the individualized theme of the school.

CHAD’s curriculum focuses on teaching students how to apply design principles across disciplines in the core academic subjects.

Charters are allowed to have up to 25 percent of non-certified teachers, and administrators at CHAD have chosen to reserve all non-certified teaching positions for the design department.

“We highly value life experience and expertise in the field of design and architecture,” said Alvarez, who notes that all teachers of core academic subjects are required to have certification. Non-certified teachers must be enrolled in a certification program.

The curriculum at de Hostos features a unique dual immersion program in both Spanish and English starting in kindergarten, a program specifically geared towards the needs of its mostly bilingual student population.

The staff uses a variety of assessment methods to evaluate student performance. While Lebron acknowledged the importance of standardized tests in assessing students, she also noted, “That is not what’s going to drive our school.”

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