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Students show the way

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

One of the most hopeful signs in a still-grim high school landscape in Philadelphia is the emergence of an effective student-led campaign for small high schools. Young people have put forward well-researched plans for making radical changes in their school experiences, and adults in the community and in the District are taking note.

Students from Youth United for Change and Philadelphia Student Union have first stated the obvious – their high schools are not working. They have become Philadelphia’s most vocal advocates for replacing large, troubled neighborhood high schools with small schools of 400 or fewer students. Their first targets are Kensington, Olney, and West Philadelphia high schools, but their arguments could easily apply to some 20 other District high schools.

In Philadelphia, setting aside the special admission magnet schools, most of the District’s high schools fit the label "dropout factory." The typical Philadelphia high school produces at least one dropout for every two graduates. Daily absenteeism of 20 to 30 percent or more is the norm. Many students never get beyond the ninth grade. Those who go on to graduate often lack skills needed to succeed in college and work.

But Philadelphia student activists have visited other cities and witnessed small high schools that appear to be working. They can envision schools that take advantage of their small size to create a strong community of learners, to maintain safety, to develop democratic decision-making, and to pay attention to relationships among students and staff – ensuring that education is engaging and students want to be in school.

In a system that has always tolerated high schools where most students are on a track to nowhere, the students’ determination to bring about change has struck a chord with many adults. A growing small schools movement has begun to change the conversation about high schools in Philadelphia.

The School District’s leadership has apparently been listening, too. A year ago, District officials argued that 400 was not an economically optimal size for a high school. The District’s capital plan proposed rebuilding a number of large high schools for more than 1,000 students with only incremental decreases in school population.

But now CEO Paul Vallas has agreed with Youth United for Change on the idea of breaking up Olney and Kensington High Schools into multiple small schools for about 400 students. Philadelphia Student Union’s plan for converting West Philadelphia High School into four small schools has met with some resistance but is still being discussed.

And when the School District unveiled the "second phase" of its high school reform program in February, it outlined a broad initiative to create more small schools across the city. By 2008, a total of 28 new, small high schools will have been created, mostly by dividing up existing schools and by converting middle schools to high schools.

There is a growing consensus that the large, "comprehensive" high school is "obsolete" – to use the language of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. But there is no such consensus on exactly what should take its place. Even proponents of "small schools" often express differing ideas about what, exactly, "small" means.

One likely area of contention is the curriculum. The high-stakes, punitive approach of the No Child Left Behind Act pressures all schools to focus on standardized test performance. The District says its new, standardized curriculum, which was designed by Kaplan, the test preparation firm, will ensure that students are prepared for college. Philadelphia’s student activists are clear in their desire for a rigorous curriculum that is also engaging. Around the country, small schools have fought to maintain some autonomy in the face of standardization, so that students and their needs – not test scores – are at the center of the educational process.

Another flashpoint is inclusive decision-making. While encouraged by the creation of 28 small schools through the District’s "Small Schools Transition Project," many small schools advocates lament the District’s continued reluctance to share power. Too often, the District makes important decisions first and consults with the school and community later. The small schools initiative could unleash new energies and provide a real opening for creating a climate of participation and a professional community at schools. But that will only happen if parents, teachers, and students can take part in meaningful decision-making.

An emerging planning process in the communities around Kensington and West Philadelphia high schools shows great promise. Concordia, a nationally recognized design firm, has been developing a blueprint for how a community-based school-planning model could be implemented in those neighborhoods.

The School District should support that process and entrust participants from those two communities with a significant role in the important decisions about what new high schools should look like – not only the design but what will go on inside those buildings. Then we will get to see the difference students and community members who are empowered to take part in the creation of new high schools can make.

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