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Now in college, Philly grads give advice on deficits in curriculum

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

With a newly stated goal of sending 80 percent of graduates in 2008 on to postsecondary education, the School District of Philadelphia has created a clear benchmark for evaluating high schools’success in getting students ready for college. The District’s new standardized core curriculum for grades 10 and 11, rolled out in September, will play a key role in determining schools’success in meeting this benchmark.

With this in mind, the Notebook spoke to four recent graduates of Philadelphia public high schools who are currently attending college. The students reflected on their experiences with the District’s previous secondary curriculum and their current classroom experiences at their respective colleges. All are graduates of the Philadelphia Futures Sponsor-a-Scholar program.

All described experiences like those of Dotan Johnson, a 2003 graduate of William Penn High School and current Bowdoin College student, who said, “You’re playing catch-up when you leave a public high school in Philadelphia and attend a college or university.”

Jorge Arcay, a 2003 graduate of Edison High School who currently attends Kutztown University, summarized the difference between high school classes and college coursework: “College is a whole ‘nother world. Every class at Kutztown is hard. College is much harder [than high school], much more is required from you, there are more assignments, and you have to take it without complaining.”

These four students provided a number of specific suggestions for a secondary curriculum that they believe can help prepare Philadelphia high school students for college.

More reading, writing, and resources

Sharita Patterson, a 2002 graduate of William Penn High School who currently attends Gettysburg College, expressed a common sentiment that more and better-designed reading and writing assignments would have better prepared her for college.

"At William Penn, there were not as many reading assignments, papers to write, articles to read,” Patterson said. “There was never anything [to write] that had to be longer than two to three pages. At Gettysburg, I have a five-page paper every week in one class, maybe a 14-page paper for another class. You have to back up all of your research, check all of your citations, everything."

Virgen Ruiz, a 2003 graduate of Edison High School who currently attends Dickinson College, felt unprepared for the college-level science coursework she plans to take this fall.

"I don’t feel comfortable taking math and science at Dickinson because we didn’t have a chance to take much of it at Edison. I’m supposed to take chemistry this year, and I’m extremely worried,” she explained. “[I took] physics and chemistry at Edison, but I don’t remember doing any labs. I don’t blame the teacher. There was a little lab equipment, usually one set, so the teacher had to do the lab for us."

In addition to more resources, students wanted higher expectations in science and math. Arcay stated, “Afourth year of math is no longer required [by the School District], which was stupid. It’s required for college…. Don’t take away what’s necessary for students to go to college. Let [students] have those classes under their belt so that if they want to go [to college], they can."

Faster pace needed

The students interviewed by the Notebook also suggested a faster pace and heavier workload across the high school curriculum.

Ruiz expressed frustration that “we never had homework. I could count on one hand the number of times I had to do homework at home while I was at Edison.”

As a result, Ruiz described the academic workload she encountered at Dickinson as “extremely challenging. At Edison, teachers babied you and kept up with what you could do. At Dickinson, you have to keep up with what [professors] want you to do.”

Johnson likewise felt frustrated with the pace at which high school teachers progressed through the curriculum. He appreciated that the secondary curriculum “followed a logical sequence” but said that teachers “spent way too much time on one thing and didn’t go as fast as they should have. You found yourself doing Algebra 1 when you’re in Algebra 2.”

Patterson, like the other students, recognized a dilemma faced by policymakers and teachers alike. “I would pick up on something right away, but the whole class wouldn’t. The teacher would have to slow down the pace. It was this way in most of my classes…. You want everybody to learn and to understand, but you also don’t want everyone to be held back because of a few."

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