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Small high schools show encouraging signs of change

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

In ninth and tenth grades, Inozencia Harrington was getting mostly Ds, attending school two or three days a week, and doubting she’d ever graduate. Today, at 18, she is a senior and student body president, attends school every day, earns As and Bs, and is waiting to hear from five colleges.

But to hear Harrington tell it, she’s not what completely turned around. Her school did.

Between her sophomore and junior years, Kensington High School, with some 1,300 students, split up into three smaller schools – one focusing on culinary skills, one on international business, and one on creative and performing arts. And that, she said, made all the difference for her.

“When I first came to Kensington, people were doing their hair in class, watching videos and walking around the school,” said Harrington. “There was fighting. Teachers were scared of students…[they] passed you with the lowest grade just to get you out of their face. I didn’t learn anything.”

After the breakup, Harrington chose Kensington Culinary, and the change in atmosphere was stark. Now, she said, the hallways are calm, students behave, and teachers provide real instruction. “I have to work to pass,” she said. “A lot of kids I thought would drop out [are still here]. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think I was going to graduate.”

If Philadelphia is to successfully tackle the crisis of out-of-school youth, it cannot simply create ever more programs to reconnect them after they’ve left. It has to prevent them from quitting school to begin with. One of the School District’s major strategies for doing that is the creation of dozens of smaller high schools – some by breaking up the large and increasingly chaotic neighborhood schools that have become what researchers call “dropout factories.”

Today, Philadelphia has 60 public high schools (plus 21 charters), nearly twice the number that existed five years ago. Thirty-three of them have fewer than 700 students, the School District’s definition of “small.”

The Kensingtons are among those created by breaking up bigger schools. Others, like Vaux and Sayre, are middle schools that gradually converted to high schools. Some, like Lankenau, were existing programs within larger schools that became independent. A few are magnet schools that have existed for decades, including Carver and Bodine.

And six, including the School of the Future designed by Microsoft and schools affiliated with the Franklin Institute and the National Constitution Center, were started from scratch.

Albert Bichner, the School District’s director of secondary education, said his goal is to downsize most of the troubled large neighborhood high schools and have a menu of choices for students in each region. Evidence that the small schools are making a difference in attendance and discipline is beginning to trickle in, he said: “Kids at small schools are suspended at half the rate of those at larger schools.” District researchers say that small schools have fewer violent incidents and higher attendance rates.

Academically, though, change is slower. More students in small schools than at large schools are passing their courses, a District analysis showed, but monthly benchmark testing still shows alarmingly low percentages – barely 5 percent in the Kensingtons – mastering what they’ve been taught in reading and math.

And a new study from Research for Action also indicates that Philadelphia is going about its creation of small schools in a more scattered fashion than any other big city, an approach that could jeopardize their effectiveness. It finds that many of Philadelphia’s small schools haven’t been given either the resources or the flexibility they need to fully implement the model.

“New York City has a comprehensive plan, guidelines, and the same standards across schools. In Philadelphia, it’s like they’re trying to juggle all the balls at once, and they’re doing it with not enough resources,” said Rebecca Reumann-Moore, one of the study’s authors.

Unlike New York and Chicago, Philadelphia has created its small schools without an overall blueprint and without outside funding. New York City created 83 small high schools with the help of $70 million in grants, most from the Gates Foundation. In addition, most experts say that true small schools should have fewer than 400 students, not 700, the number Philadelphia uses.

RFA’s study warns that small schools “are not just about size,” but about control over curriculum and autonomy to hire faculty willing to support the school’s theme. Except for the six schools created from scratch, Philadelphia’s small schools have limited ability to recruit faculty or to innovate.

The District’s budget crunch may also jeopardize the schools’ ability to fully develop their themes, alter schedules, and build in crucial teacher planning time.

“I don’t think the School District has given the small schools at Kensington the resources they need to be successful,” said Andi Perez, executive director of Youth United for Change, a student organizing group. Students in the group did research on high school reform and, starting in 2002, relentlessly prodded the District to break up Kensington and construct a new building, well before the District had embraced the small schools concept.

“There needs to be time for educators to…do some planning,” Perez said. “There has to be some kind of a shared vision and the feeling that the overall culture can and will change, and that the kids can learn.”

She noted that some of the start-up small schools had a full year to plan and extra teacher allotments for their first few years. The Kensingtons got neither.

The Kensington small schools still have some of the problems of larger urban schools – difficulty in attracting enough qualified teachers and high student transience.

For all the problems, however, some two dozen students, several teachers, and all three principals interviewed at the Kensington schools say that things are vastly better now than they were. They also expressed hope that the schools will get what they need to build on the improvements in climate and order. The District has promised a new building to house the creative and performing arts school, and a fourth school – themed on social justice – is in the works.

“When it became a small school, I said this isn’t going to be better because it has the same old students, the same old teachers, in the same old buildings,” said Adelma Ramos, a 17-year-old senior at Kensington International Business. “But when I came and I saw students working and nobody in the hallway, I said, ‘okay.’ Every day I had to go home and say something good about the school.”

Still, Perez says more is necessary. “There’s a whole lot of room for improvements in creativity,” Perez said. “The potential is there. If they give them more freedom and resources, the schools will take off.”

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