This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Back to school, always an exciting time for students and parents, also comes with new challenges and changes.
The School District enters the year buoyed by good news. It is implementing new initiatives, and was able to make good on promises to hire many more teachers and counselors in time for the opening of school. Standardized test scores improved for the seventh year in a row, with proficiency rates exceeding 60 percent in some grades for the first time. Violent offenses at schools are down by 15 percent.
Now the not-so good news: During a weeklong principals’ summit, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said that despite gains, only one-third of the District’s schools met their academic targets last year. The achievement gap persists, with African American and Latino students lagging far behind their White and Asian counterparts, and it is not closing fast enough.
Looming over everything is a state budget battle that could cause a severe revenue shortfall and make it impossible for the District to pay for its new programs.
If those new programs do survive, there’s a lot to look forward to in the new school year. Several initiatives from Phase One of the District’s Imagine 2014 – reported to cost $126 million its first year – have already taken shape.
“We hired almost 1,000 new teachers, 200 new guidance counselors, and 30 new principals,” Ackerman said. Many of the new teachers are going into the District’s lowest-performing schools.
The addition of new guidance counselors will reduce the student-to-counselor ratio from 500:1 to 300:1 in middle schools and to 350:1 in high schools. Counselors will also stay with the same students for several years.
Other initiatives include smaller class sizes in the K-3 grades, 70 new reading teachers in the lowest-performing schools, student success centers in all comprehensive high schools, and two parent ombudsmen and two student advisers in each high school.
“When young people come to school, they will already see changes,” Ackerman said.
The District has geared up to start naming as many as 35 underperforming schools that will close and reopen in the next five years as charters or schools run by outside management companies. Called “Renaissance Schools,” the first 10 will be in planning this year and open in September 2010.
Six new charter schools open this fall: Arise Academy, a high school; Eastern University Academy, a middle and high school; Sankofa Freedom Academy, which will eventually serve K-12; KIPP West Philadelphia, a middle school; and two elementary schools, Tacony Academy and Franklin Towne.
Arise Academy, located in Center City, is the nation’s first public charter high school for teens in the foster care system. Any student of high school age in foster care and eligible to attend school in Philadelphia can apply, and enrollment is based on a lottery.
Founded by the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, Arise seeks to stem the dropout crisis among foster care students while giving them social supports.
“Students who are in foster care have a 75 percent dropout rate, and the data demonstrates that they have very poor outcomes in terms of rates of homelessness, pregnancy, and drug dependency, especially once they are aged out of the system,” said Arise CEO Roger Jackson. “Once they are out of the system, services come to a screeching halt and they may or may not be equipped to navigate life in general.”
Students wanting to get a taste of college can apply to Eastern University Academy Charter School. Located in East Falls, Eastern is a 30,000-square foot “early college,” high school – one that gives students the opportunity to earn up to 60 transferable college credits. It is also affiliated with the Big Picture Company, which has created several high schools built around internships and allowing students to follow their passions, matching them with the same adviser for four years. Students receive individualized learning plans with five goals built around the development of communication and reasoning skills and personal qualities. Before graduation, students must complete a 75- to 100-page autobiography.
“What we found is that what high school is asking our students to do is very different than what colleges are asking us to do, so what we’ve done as an early college is link the two,” said Omar Barlow, CEO and principal.
Admission is by lottery. This year, Eastern will enroll 7th and 9th graders.
Sankofa Freedom Academy, a Frankford-based “freedom school” inspired by those of the early 1960s, meshes a core curriculum with African and Caribbean history and culture, and what it calls “Sankofa enhancements,” or essential questions to help students better understand the concept of freedom. That means “empowering children to participate in social change, social justice, community development, and service learning,” said Ayesha Imani, the CEO and founder.
Sankofa will begin with grades K-4 and 9, but each year will add one elementary and high school grade. Admission is by lottery, but to relieve overcrowding, the District is requiring the school to give preference to students in Frankford.
There are also more alternative schools. In May the School Reform Commission approved more than $45 million in contracts to hire providers to run additional accelerated and disciplinary schools.
The Center for Art, Media and Communication (CAMaC), scheduled to open later this year, will serve up to 150 former dropouts. Operated by Youth Empowerment Services and the Allegheny West Foundation, it will focus on integrated media projects tied to core subjects and include skills development in video, audio, graphic and web design, and mural arts. It will also operate a daily student-run radio broadcast.
A year ago, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded grants to seven “persistently dangerous” high schools in Philadelphia to create programs that would decrease the dropout rate, reduce violence, and improve overall climate. Bartram, Germantown, Lincoln, Overbrook, University City, and West Philadelphia each received $6 million and FitzSimons got $4 million.
“The goal is to transform these schools into a place where young people are engaged in learning, feel safe, and can compete in a global marketplace after graduation,” said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, the District’s director of Multiple Pathways to Graduation.
While following Department of Labor guidelines, each school has tailored its own plan to its needs and has a “turnaround” assistant principal overseeing its implementation. Strategies must include case management for individual students, instructional improvement, mentoring, and programs focused on improving school climate. “This isn’t just a pot of cash where schools can just buy stuff,” Collins-Shapiro said.
Common initiatives shared by all of the schools include student success centers providing support services, year-round internships, and mentoring programs for at-risk students. This past summer each of the schools had a Summer Bridge program, where rising 9th graders participated in five weeks of intense four-hour days of academics and enrichment.
Lincoln principal Donald Anticoli said his school is using the grant to create a 9th grade academy, reduce 9th grade class size to 28, and expand its partnership with Philadelphia Academies.
While not a DOL grant recipient, Dobbins Career and Technical High School has a new program where students can earn a state barbering license.
“We’re the only school in Pennsylvania (at the moment) that offers a certified barbering program,” said Principal Charles Whiting. “Prior to this you had to graduate and go to another institution to get your license and that could cost you $12,000,” he said.
For just $345 for a barbering kit, students can learn in an authentic barbershop on school grounds that has professional cutting and shampoo stations, a check-out counter, and a barbering pole.
Forty-seven students – male and female – will enter the program this fall.
A few high schools got a facelift for the new school year. Others received a total makeover.
Lincoln opened a new building with 21st century technology, including electronic white boards in all main classrooms and three to four computers in every room. The school, which cost more than $84 million, will also soon boast a new football field and track.
Fels High School also has a new $80 million building, complete with a new pool.
And at Academy at Palumbo, $25 million in renovations include a new auditorium and gym, handicapped accessibility throughout, improved bathrooms, plumbing and electrical upgrades, air conditioning in the library, state-of-the-art science labs, and new music rooms.