This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Two years ago, at the launching of the School District’s high school reform plan – known as the "Secondary Education Movement" – District officials acknowledged the troubled state of Philadelphia high schools. They promised, "Change will occur in every area, from academics to facilities to athletics."
The man who has headed up secondary education for the District, Creg Williams, is heading for a new post as school superintendent in St. Louis this spring, but he pointed to evidence that the District has delivered on promises to high school students in the past two years.
A standardized, core curriculum has been put in place along with millions of dollars in new textbooks and classroom resources. There are new academic and technical offerings and more opportunities to do advanced coursework, as well as expanded athletics and arts programs.
Williams spoke enthusiastically about the growth of student government into a citywide organization and pointed to new supports for students like "Student Success Centers" and more guidance counselors.
This winter, the District announced an expansion of its small schools initiative and characterized it as a new stage of the Secondary Education Movement.
"They put some things in place that needed to be done," commented School District Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton, who came aboard last summer.
But some observers questioned whether the changes have gotten to the crux of the problem.
"Philadelphia’s large comprehensive high schools, like those in other cities, remain dispiriting, demoralizing places to be, whether you’re an adult or a student," said Jolley Bruce Christman of Research for Action, who has studied high school reform in Philadelphia for two decades.
"Any reform needs to be examined for how it’s changing teaching and learning," Christman went on. "For example, is it creating positive conditions for teachers to grow intellectually and improve their practice? Are students encountering learning experiences that are more engaging for them? That’s the heart of the challenge."
Thornton pointed to "deepening awareness and understanding around curriculum and instruction" as a key area of work for the District’s high schools.
He added that the School District needs to be looking at "how do we move technology into our mix and what will technology do with respect to improving the way students learn and teachers teach?"
Thornton described the District’s recently expanded small high school initiative as part of an ongoing effort to deliver services to students in improved ways.
Thornton said he hoped there could be more involvement of community stakeholders in helping District leaders decide what comes next.
"Is this a community that’s interested in virtual education? Is this a community that’s interested in twilight programs? And what do those programs look like? These are some of the things we need to have a conversation about," Thornton stated.
Here’s how the School District has done on some of the objectives of its "Secondary Education Movement":
- The number of students enrolled in college-level, advanced placement courses doubled in 2003-04 to a total of 3,400. Nearly all high schools offer at least one course, and 200 teachers have been trained.
- Enrollment in "dual credit" courses at local colleges is another new option, and 800 students from 40 high schools are enrolled in courses this year.
- More students are taking the PSAT, which qualifies them for college scholarships. But the number of students taking the SAT exam, which is offered to juniors and seniors and required for admission to most four-year colleges, remains stuck at about 5,500, despite a District invitation to cover costs for the test in May.
- The number of guidance counselors per student is now one to 410, though the ratio is significantly higher at some schools. In 2003, the District reported an overall ratio of one to 540.
- Ten schools have "Student Success Centers" providing a place to get counseling and college or employment information or learn about student activities. But a planned citywide mentoring program has not been fully implemented, Williams noted.
- With an increase in high school options, high school size is decreasing across the city. Sixteen high schools saw enrollment decrease by more than 10 percent.
- The number of sports teams citywide has grown by 50 percent. Philadelphia has joined the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.
- Over 1000 students are involved in student government, and students serve on planning committees designing small schools and new schools. But Williams added that most schools haven’t openly welcomed students into their decision-making processes.
- Driver education is now offered at 13 high schools.