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Is Philly’s small schools experiment coming to an end?

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

Anyone who steps inside one of the Kensington small high schools, who was familiar with the old Kensington High School, will tell you that there is a world or difference. The hallways are clean and clear, students seem engaged, and there is a sense of collaboration and commitment among the staff.

Nonetheless, the District may be getting ready to convert some of these schools back into large schools.

In 2005 Philadelphia’s version of “small school” high school reform began.

That fall Kensington High School was split into three small schools. Students from Youth United for Change had been pushing for this change for a few years. At the same time, several annexes of larger comprehensive high schools became separate small schools, and a few new small schools were created.

The new small schools, as opposed to those that were converted from previously existing larger schools, were mostly magnet schools with special admittance requirements. These new small schools include Science Leadership Academy, Constitution High School, and Academy at Palumbo.

These new small schools also received a year of planning before opening, extra teachers during the first year, and waivers from the core curriculum to allow them to do innovative things. The converted small schools like the Kensingtons, on the other hand, continued to serve high-poverty, high-need students while getting none of the planning resources that the new schools received.

While the Kensingtons did not get all of the resources that they needed to do a complete transformation, there were some immediate gains. In 2004, the last year of the big school, attendance was 66.9%. By 2008 it had risen to 79.5%. There has also been gradual improvement on the PSSA although there were some losses in 2009.

In September, Kensington CAPA will move into a beautiful new building, something YUC students and the community have fought for for years. The community plan that originally called for the small schools calls for a fourth school to be opened in CAPA’s place in the old building. There are now concerns, however, that the District will instead just expand Kensington Business, returning it to a large school. Staff, students, and community members who remember what Kensington was like as a large school are worried.

It is true that the Kensingtons have not shown dramatic results in terms of test scores, but how could they without resources to improve instruction?

Over the last year, the Philadelphia Education Fund and Youth United for Change worked with the principals and staff in the school to raise private money. Over the summer they brought in experts who facilitated weeklong institutes for teachers in each school. This is the kind of education planning that should have happened before the schools were broken up.

Now, just as the schools are developing the kinds of plans that could result in real academic improvement, the District may convert some of the schools back to large schools.

The version of small schools reform that occurred in Philadelphia under the previous administration was highly inequitable. I hope that the current administration will address the inequity rather than throwing away the whole program.

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