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Reforming Philadelphia’s troubled high schools – what’s been tried

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

1962 One of the first magnet programs within a neighborhood high school, the SPARC aerospace academy, opens at Northeast.

1963A teacher at West Philadelphia High creates the first “Motivation” program, designed to prepare “average” students for college. Soon, nine neighborhood high schools have them, some in separate buildings. Students stay with the same teachers for four years and are required to take extra courses and attend cultural events. Several present-day small high schools, including Lankenau (originally part of Germantown) started as Motivation programs.

1967The District creates the Parkway program as one of the first “schools without walls” in the nation. Students direct their own learning and many courses are based in the community. While the schools still exist, they gradually reverted to more traditional curricula.

1969The Philadelphia High School Academies is founded, which in partnership with industry sets up small, themed vocational programs in neighborhood high schools. The first one, the Academy of Applied Electrical Science, opens in Edison High School in 1969, followed by the Philadelphia Business Academy at University City and the Automotive Academy at West Philadelphia. Today, Philadelphia Academies, Inc. is a nonprofit with 30 programs in 17 middle and high schools.

1970sIn response to a continuing desegregation lawsuit, the District creates several magnet high schools, including Creative and Performing Arts, Engineering and Science, Bodine (International Affairs), and the Girard Academic Music Program. Some principals of neighborhood schools warn that the “magnets” will worsen problems at their schools as the “best” students are siphoned off.

1988The Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, with $16 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts, begins to break up the large comprehensive high schools into autonomous, themed small learning communities of 200 to 400 students. The goal of these “charters” is to allow teachers to plan a rich learning environment, develop lasting relationships with students, and offer challenging curricula to all without tracking by ability. Evaluations showed that the charters positively affected teacher satisfaction, parent engagement, student attendance, and graduation rates. But both the administration and the teachers’ union resisted changes in scheduling and seniority rights needed to make the charters work as intended. In some schools the charters became a vehicle for ability tracking.

1998Johns Hopkins University, with the Philadelphia Education Fund, brings the Talent Development (TD) reform model to several schools, including Strawberry Mansion and Edison. TD creates separate ninth-grade academies and uses a four-period day that allows for more intensive work. It also offers an after-hours program for students with serious attendance and discipline problems. Despite promising results, the program loses the support and the extra resources needed to make it work during the administration of Paul Vallas.

2002The District turns over 45 of the lowest-achieving schools to private management, but none of them are high schools. The following year, Martin Luther King High is taken over by the nonprofit Foundations, Inc. and two middle schools begin converting to high schools while under for-profit management. Nineteen charter schools serve at least one high school grade.

2003CEO Vallas moves to create the first of two dozen new small high schools – some started from scratch, some converted from middle schools, and others carved out of existing high schools including Kensington and Olney, where student groups had been calling for such a breakup. This initiative increases the number of District high schools to 63. Studies indicate that new neighborhood schools without admissions requirements didn’t get as much planning time or support as the new schools that could select their students.

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