This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In the minds of many, Olney High School is a symbol of what’s wrong with Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools. Housed in an aging building at Front and Duncannon Streets, the school serves some 2,300 students, largely African American, Latino, and Asian, two-thirds from low-income families.
Olney is one of eight Philadelphia neighborhood high schools where over half of the school’s incoming student’s don’t graduate. About one-third of the students are absent daily. Only 12 percent of 11th graders can read at proficient levels according to standardized tests, and only 10 percent demonstrate proficiency in math.
In 1997, Olney became a focus of then-Superintendent David Hornbeck’s high school reform efforts. Citing persistent school violence and academic failure, Hornbeck "key-stoned" Olney, a measure that would have allowed the forced transfer of up to 75 percent of the school’s teachers. But the keystoning was thwarted by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers after the union claimed Hornbeck had failed to follow the union contract, an argument that was upheld by the courts.
Since then Olney has had a steady stream of principals and campaigns to jump-start student achievement. The numbers, while not the District’s lowest, paint a picture of continued failure.
Olney is trying to make a fresh start this year with a new principal. School CEO Paul Vallas has targeted Olney as one of a number of schools to get a new building and be broken up into smaller schools. The Youth United for Change (YUC) chapter at Olnet has been a strong voice for small, student-friendly schools and a curriculum that reflects student interest and needs.
The Notebook talked with some Olney students in February at dismissal time outside the school and at nearby Cousin’s Market to hear their views on their school.
Aneeta Dass (left), an 11th grader, sees improvement in the time she has been at Olney. She gave the new principal, Karl Perry, high marks for improving school climate. "Discipline is improving," Dass said, "except that sometimes they get rid of the wrong students. Teachers are better too," she added.
Eleventh grader Wakeem Hill (left) is outspoken in his criticism of the school. "We need better teachers, more security, more money for books….We need everything – good couches for our football and basketball teams. I could go on all night." Hill too said he lived the new principal.
Montel Hayes, an 11th grader who works at Cousin’s Market after school, is on the honor roll. He says the school and his job are getting him ready college. Another student who works at Cousin’s, 11th grader Elizabeth Lopez (not shown), doesn’t think the school is preparing her for her goal of becoming a health technician. While acknowledging some good teachers, she complained others "don’t care about you or your education." Lopez cited a new health tech room as one change for the better.
Alexander Griffin dropped out of Olney last year when he was in the 11th grade. "Fires, fights, lots of shootings, that’s the main reason I left," he explained. Griffin said he wasn’t challenged by the school. "They teach you the same thing year after year. They barely gave any homework. My favorite subject was art." Now working in construction, he says he plans to get his GED in the future.