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Students say small schools not all created equal

Student activists battle obstacles to conversion of large high schools.

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

Lawrence Jones-Mahoney is one of several student activists who have been in the forefront of the Philadelphia small schools movement. He has gone to more than a hundred meetings and traveled to several cities as a member of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), which has been pressing the District since 2002 to convert West Philadelphia High into four smaller, themed schools.

But while thousands of students have been able to attend some two dozen small high schools created here over the past five years, Jones isn’t among them. Nor are any of the PSU members from West Philadelphia High, a school with one of the lowest graduation rates in the District.

“We’ve been going through all of this stuff, and we just haven’t gotten anything yet,” said Jones, a senior. “It’s frustrating.”

PSU and their counterparts at Youth United for Change (YUC), which organized students at Kensington and Olney high schools, are among the unsung heroes who have helped create a small schools movement in Philadelphia. They have battled relentlessly not just for new high schools, but for a transformation of the secondary education experience for students now trapped in largely dysfunctional big schools. Their vision of more intimate, themed settings helped push the District to recognize the value of small schools.

For instance, while Paul Vallas came to Philadelphia with a plan to build new high schools of 800 to 1.000 students, the youth organizing groups touted examples of effective urban high schools serving as few as 400 students.

“They’ve been influential,” said Albert Bichner, deputy chief academic officer. “They got involved in small schools research and talked about what they’d seen. They were well prepared, asked good questions, and were advocates for their own future.”

Still, as small schools have proliferated across the city, they have not all started on an equal footing. So far, the new schools, including Constitution High School and the Science Leadership Academy, have had key advantages over small schools that were created by breaking up larger schools, like Kensington and Olney.

This has meant, for the most part, that students who fought hardest for change, those now attending the most distressed of the city’s neighborhood schools, have yet to see the full benefits. Some complain that the District has created a two-tiered system – a conclusion largely backed by a Research for Action review of small schools in Philadelphia.

That ongoing study cited “inequity” as one of the results of small schools creation in Philadelphia, along with more positive outcomes including innovation, energy, and momentum. The RFA study said that the small schools started from scratch phased in one grade at a time, had a full year to plan, were able to choose all their own teachers, received a higher teacher allotment per student, and received more freedom from the standardized curriculum.

“They never gave us a chance to succeed because they never even gave us the resources,” said YUC member Marcella Gibbs, a 12th-grader at Kensington High School of International Business, one of three small schools created by the breakup of Kensington High (a fourth school in a new building is planned).

“We had to fight for what we have and we’re still fighting,” Gibbs added.

To keep up their vigilance, both Kensington and West Philadelphia have “sustainability circles” made up of community members, students, teachers, and parents who meet monthly and continually prod the District for resources to transform their schools.

Student organizing around small schools started in earnest in 2002, after the District announced a $1.5 billion capital plan to build new schools and renovate old ones. Through YUC and PSU, students in Kensington, Olney and West Philadelphia seized the opportunity to research how the money could best be spent to enhance their educational experiences. They traveled to New York, Chicago, and Providence, Rhode Island to research small schools in those cities and recommended that the District divide their large comprehensive institutions into smaller, thematic schools.

The bottom line requirement in any new schools was “a positive environment for students and teachers,” explained Khaleef Dobson, a sophomore at West.

District officials decided that Kensington and Olney could be renovated, while West Philadelphia would be too expensive to fix and had to be replaced. That decision had repercussions for all these neighborhoods.

The Olney and Kensington buildings were divided – by walls built down the middle – and new small schools opened last year. But in West Philadelphia, waiting for new buildings has delayed the opening of any small schools at all as the problems in the huge, aging building escalated. During the past school year, some high-profile teacher assaults and other violent incidents caused further unrest.

In the meantime, Kensington and Olney have watched start-up small schools open elsewhere in the city with lots of fanfare and what students say are more resources. These brand-new schools got what the sustainability circles had asked for but didn’t receive – time to plan the new schools, extra start-up resources, and freedom to adjust the core curriculum.

Students feel shortchanged, both by the District and the media.

“The media looks at Kensington and says, ‘Oh, that’s still the same old Kensington,’” said YUC’s Saeda Washington, a 12th grader at Kensington Business. “I don’t think that’s fair because we’re really trying to work with what we have.” While other schools got new or renovated buildings, sometimes with state-of-the-art equipment, “in CAPA, we barely have a room where kids can practice dance. We didn’t get anything but a wall.”

Ellen Savitz, the District’s former director of development who was responsible for starting up five new small high schools, said that breaking up large schools created a set of problems not faced by the start-up schools. “I can see…why some of the small schools created from larger high schools may feel they did not get everything other schools got,” Savitz said. But, she said, the issue is more complicated than a simple denial of resources.

Savitz said the brand-new small schools were phased in one grade at a time and got a higher teacher allotment the first year so that ninth graders could have qualified instructors in all the core subjects. That disparity will level out as grades are added, she said. And since Kensington and Olney were not “new” schools as defined by the teachers’ contract, the union did not agree to full site selection, she added.

In hindsight, said Savitz, it might have been better to launch the small schools at Kensington one grade at a time and fight harder for full site selection of teachers.

But according to Bichner, a sense of “urgency” to make change as fast as possible prevented a long planning period and a gradual phase-in, which would have displaced the upperclassmen, something neither the District nor the community wanted. Without phase-in, thorough planning, and a handpicked faculty committed to the mission, it becomes harder to innovate, deviate from the core curriculum, or build a different school culture. YUC is now seeking financial support for a “retroactive” planning period for Kensington and Olney to more fully develop their themes and curricula.

Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy, agrees that to have a chance, small schools need what his school is getting, especially site selection of teachers. “Bringing in people who believe in the mission of the school is essential,” he said.

The West community is learning from Kensington’s experience. But first it has had to deal with political squabbling over a site for the new schools and fight off District attempts to cut off funding entirely. When, in early 2007, officials dropped the West schools from the capital plan, the sustainability circle successfully protested to the School Reform Commission and to Vallas. As a result, West Philadelphia was returned to the District priority list, and in June a request for design proposals was sent to 50 architecture firms. Now the District is projecting that the new facilities will be built by September 2012.

As a transitional step, West has been divided into four themed small learning communities and has a new principal, selected with the help of West’s sustainability circle.

“At West there are different stages,” explains PSU organizer Eric Braxton, “what’s going to happen immediately, and then, ‘How do we do the long-term planning to create the kind of small schools that we really believe in?’”

Students at both Kensington and West know that they need to maintain their advocacy. As the West Philadelphia sustainability circle goes forward with its planning, it is working to ensure that the new small schools opening in 2012 will be more than just smaller versions of a traditional high school. It has persistently recommended that the District hire principals at least one year before opening, and that school planning teams for each school have the freedom to develop innovative instructional approaches while adjusting the District’s core curriculum to its needs.

Given the District’s budget woes, YUC and PSU know that continued organizing is crucial to assuring that the small schools vision is not stopped in its tracks in the name of austerity.

West’s Jones-Mahoney, for one, doesn’t plan on giving up. He is optimistic, but knows that the students must continue to be watchful.

“As long as we can be organized,” he said, “we’ll be fine.”

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