This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After nearly two decades of bumpy and disconnected efforts at high school reform – from the establishment of small learning communities in the 1990s to the creation of dozens of new schools under Paul Vallas – Philadelphia is now embarked on a comprehensive planning effort that advocates and officials hope will finally get it right.
It is called the Secondary Education Blueprint, and it is bringing together outside stakeholders with District policymakers, as well as some principals, teachers, and students. They are charged with thinking through what it will take to improve graduation rates and academic attainment in the upper grades, and making recommendations for wholesale change.
A large planning group, coordinated by Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF), has been at work since the fall of 2006, shortly after a Project U-Turn report detailed the stubbornly grim numbers: only half of students graduating on time, 11th grade math and reading proficiency numbers in the teens, alarming attrition between freshman and sophomore years, and graduates unable to read well enough to get jobs.
They are putting together a five-year plan that will rethink education from the sixth grade on, devising ways to catch students before they go off track and then redesigning what high school education looks like.
Despite the fits and starts of the past – and the whirlwind of activity under Vallas – there has never been a “unifying vision” for change, said Candace Bell, education program officer at the William Penn Foundation, which is helping to fund the effort.
“Philadelphia has a 35-year history of high school reform, but what you need to do in the 21st century is different from what you needed to do 35 years ago,” said Cassandra Jones, interim chief academic officer.
Jones and Albert Bichner, the deputy chief academic officer, emphasized that the process is meant to be collaborative.
“A lot of this is to get partnerships,” Bichner said. “This is not something to be handed down from a think tank, but a process involving the community, parents and students. That’s the biggest difference I see” from what went on in the past, he said.
For the coming school year, the group will be asking the School Reform Commission to fund several major initiatives, many of them focused on identifying the most at-risk ninth graders and keeping them on track. They include a five-day summer orientation academy for incoming freshmen and separate orientation sessions for their parents. Planners also want money for a pilot project in ten high schools and their feeders to develop academic transition plans for students most likely to drop out. Studies have shown these students can be identified with near certainty as early as sixth grade by looking at attendance, behavior and reading and math failure rates.
Paul Adorno, the secondary education planning director at PEF, said that they chose to focus on ninth grade because that is “the most sensitive time for kids, a key time to keep them from dropping out.”
Another initiative would more closely track the progress of each student towards graduation, making sure they are taking the right courses and accumulating the right credits. Planners discovered that at many schools, counseling is so overstrained that students are not being rostered into the courses they need to graduate.
The planning group has also put on the priority list hiring a principal to begin laying the groundwork for a new small school in Kensington, as well as taking a new look at the needs of already created small schools in Kensington and Olney.
One of the most developed plans is for a “re-engagement center,” a well-staffed clearinghouse for dropouts seeking to return to school. Right now, there is no central place for dropouts to go if they want to come back, and no single database that has all the relevant information on the student – how many credits they have and whether they have had contact with other city agencies such as DHS.
As the District continues to struggle with a budget shortfall, officials are figuring out where resources can be redeployed and how much new funding will be needed. They are counting on proposed increased state aid from Gov. Rendell’s budget, which if passed by the legislature would funnel more than $80 million in additional funds into city schools, as well as some outside funding for the re-engagement center.
Jones noted that the changes being talked about are “huge” and emphasized that this process is a five-year commitment, at the end of which high school opportunities will look very different for students.
To be sure, Vallas remade the high school landscape during his six-year tenure. He created 40 new, mostly small high schools, including several new charters. He expanded privately operated disciplinary and alternative schools. He mandated a core curriculum that required low-scoring ninth graders to take two periods each of reading and math each day.
But many people inside and outside the District worried that those changes were too scattershot and did not pay enough attention to the quality of instruction and how best to deliver an engaging, rigorous curriculum that met diverse student needs. Students who have participated in the planning so far have emphasized that courses are not interesting or challenging.
Improving curriculum and instruction is one of the main tasks of the blueprint planners, and that effort is very difficult and behind schedule, according to Bell. “A big chunk of work hasn’t been done yet,” said Bell, whose foundation has contributed $500,000 to the planning effort.
The planning process has tackled other nagging issues like the failure of most career and technical education programs to lead to industry certifications in the field. Even the vaunted automotive academy at West Philadelphia High School leaves students short of the hours they need to be certified auto mechanics. Reform efforts could never work out the right scheduling mix. Such glaring shortcomings exemplify the continued inability of city high schools to provide students with courses and services they need.
Improving career and technical education in ways that will more directly prepare students for the work world and college is another focus of the blueprint planners.
Past efforts fell short
Before Vallas, there was a long history of attempts to improve comprehensive high schools, including the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative in the early 1990s, when most comprehensive high schools were subdivided into “Small Learning Communities.” But those did not lead to much improvement either, primarily because in many schools the SLCs became just another vehicle for tracking students by ability.
At their February 13 meeting, the planning group heard a cautionary tale from Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and a former director of the Philadelphia Education Fund.
Simmons said that the major reason previous reform efforts have failed in Philadelphia is that while goals were set and changes made at the school level, systems weren’t changed to accommodate them. “Most districts don’t pay attention to central office redesign,” he said.
And while many schools were restructured – they were made smaller, they were designed around themes – few real changes happened around content and pedagogy, he said.
“Most secondary schools continue to sort and deliver academic standards by race and class even when redesigned,” he said. He said that students lack clarity about what it takes to succeed in school, while teachers lack clarity about what good instruction looks like.
Simmons added that the city’s high school landscape should be reconfigured to provide for a “portfolio of schools that support different pathways for students.”