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District: We can create “personalized” high schools with 1,000 students

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

Will the District’s new facilities master plan mean the end of Philadelphia’s small high schools?

District officials say no, describing their newly announced recommendation that high schools should have between 1,000 and 1,200 students more a guideline for consideration than a hard-and-fast rule.

There are many who will be watching closely to see if that’s true: The student organizing groups that fought hard to get small schools. Researchers who found that size does matter, at least in terms of school climate and student-teacher relationships. Taxpayers who paid the bill for the $1.7 billion capital program through which many of the schools were created.

District officials say they want to hear feedback on their plans at a series of District-run community meetings, at upcoming School Reform Commission meetings, and via the District’s website. To help inform and encourage such public engagement, the Notebook and PlanPhilly have launched a new reporting partnership to cover the facilities master planning process.

Last week, District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd and consultant Tracy Richter of DeJong-Richter sat down with the Notebook for an extensive 90-minute interview. Each day this week, the Notebook and/or Plan Philly will run an edited excerpt of the transcript from that interview focusing on a key question about how the facilities master plan will work in practice. (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday)

Today’s question: What will happen to small high schools?

Notebook: How many high schools are you looking to get within that range [of 1,000 – 1,200 students]?

Floyd: I think that when people saw the number, initially it was, “Well are you trying to get rid of small schools?” That’s not what we’re saying. We know that there are students who thrive in that type of environment….[But] there will be changes that occur at the high school level. There [are] lots of different ways you can still do a school within a school model…and schools can be co-located and still maintain their identities and still maintain their programs, but then have access to appropriate high school amenities, which is difficult to do in smaller facilities.

Richter: There are buildings that have big footprints that are going to hold definitely 2,000 [students] in them. But the intent is to try to create smaller learning communities within that…When high schools, or any schools for that matter, begin to be too small, then you start to restrict yourself on program offerings. For instance,…it would be very challenging to offer Advanced Placement courses, even some career and technical services, those kinds of things.

Notebook: Would it be more accurate to describe that [size range] as one of many guidelines, or [to say] you’re trying to get as many high schools as possible into that range?

Floyd: The former statement. It’s one of several things that we look at.

Notebook: The discussion that happened at the District around the school size issue, what were some of the arguments that came up on one side or another?

Floyd: On the small school side of it…behind small schools in lower socioeconomic areas is some proven research about the impact on students…On the other hand, if you kept those schools small, are you limiting opportunities for students? That is a tough line to walk. What was really discussed that day was this whole idea of personalization. You can have a 250-student school that is as impersonal as a 1,000-student school. It’s a matter of how you administer a building and how you can deliver in that building…But we can’t make such a drastic change in this city because people have been accustomed to some smaller schools.

Notebook: Who was involved in that conversation?

Floyd: Well, certainly Dr. Ackerman and the assistant superintendents, we had a couple principals in the meeting, [central office] department heads, including special education, [career and technical education]…everybody that we could got some representation about how school size impacts them.

Notebook: I think you said the word came down from the administration eventually that the financial imperative was going to drive this. Is this really a budget decision?

Floyd: The bottom line is when you’ve got 40,000 high school students, if you have 500 per school, you can’t have [80] buildings out there. That’s just not financially feasible to do that. And so there has to be some financial sustainability to a building. And that does come with some sacrifice to size to get bigger, no doubt. So obviously it is part of the decision-making, it has to be. But again, generally I would say that 90 percent of [discussion] that day was about the education, not the finance of it.

Notebook: What kind of savings are you projecting … by dealing with these high schools? I assume that if a major [reason] to initiate this is cost savings, there is some projection of what you’re able to save.

Floyd: One of the things that we talked about over and over again is that there will be savings achieved from any type of closing, but there’s also money that you have to spend before that occurs … And so I don’t think that we’ve come up with target numbers per se about … what the overall savings will be … I think the superintendent has been really clear. This is not about closing schools to save money. That’s never what we intended to do on this.

Notebook: What specific to Philadelphia small high schools have you looked at in terms of their performance, their offerings, parent and student satisfaction, those kinds of things that have given you the notion that a different size would be better to deliver the programs?

Floyd: [About two-thirds of students don’t attend their neighborhood high school.] So we do an analysis for every high school boundary to say, “OK, where are students going?” And so if for instance we see that a multitude of students are leaving to get a business program somewhere, then somewhere along the line the District has to realign itself to say, “Look, there’s a high interest here and we’re not offering it here, why aren’t we offering it here?” That might be one [source of parent] dissatisfaction. Because they can’t get local access to programs.

Notebook: Why is local access so important?

Floyd: I think when students start to leave their boundaries, a sense of community leaves the school. Because if the kids don’t live in that community and the parents don’t attend those schools in those communities, well then your neighborhood school is almost obsolete …. [Also,] if students are traveling from one end of the city to another and they have to spend an hour and a half in transit, they might be better suited to go one or two schools over and spend a half hour in transit.

Notebook: The capital plan that is just finishing, which I believe was five years and $1.7 billion, was heavily focused on creating a city-wide choice system. The research has generally indicated that there have been a lot of improvements in climate at the schools, that parents and students and teachers have reported higher levels of satisfaction, there’s [fewer] suspensions, higher course passage rates, those kinds of things … Are those dynamics that you just described compelling enough to spend however much is necessary to reverse that?

Floyd: The school choice that Philadelphia offers is almost unparalleled in the country. We’ve heard from communities [that they] enjoy the choice we have. But I think in the same breath, a lot of them would tell you if [they] had that same program and opportunity here, closer to home, [they’d] take that.

Floyd: What I think you see in this administration is a commitment and belief that neighborhood high schools can offer and will offer viable programmatic options for families. That’s where we’re coming from with this. It’s not to try to take away from the small schools, but I will say that as a result of creating small schools, some of the larger neighborhood high schools have said what have we got to offer now? That’s the opposite side of it, and that’s what we’ve been hearing.

As part of the Notebook’s news partnership with WHYY/NewsWorks, an accompanying radio piece is being broadcast on WHYY.

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