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Countdown, Day 38: Despite downsizing, more new high schools on the way?

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

by Sonia Giebel

School District officials are still not sure what schools will look like when they open Sept. 9 – but that isn’t stopping them from planning for the future.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn explained to the Notebook on Thursday why the District was advertising in Education Week for two new “school design leaders” to help “develop innovative school models.” Kihn said that this doesn’t necessarily mean that a District that has just gone through a painful downsizing process will now be opening new schools.

However, he said, there might be new school models ready to unveil in September 2014.

“[In 10 years], high schools will not look very much at all what they look like now,” Kihn said. “We fully anticipate 20 or 30 different models of school that take more or less advantage of technology, partnerships in the community, and youth development work.”

The two positions would be funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Opportunity by Design Challenge Initiative, though Carnegie has not officially awarded the grant to the District yet. Kihn said he expects that to happen by early September. To get a jump on the process, the District has already started interviewing candidates, both internal and external.

The Carnegie-funded project is New York City’s experience in closing some 20 big neighborhood high schools and replacing them with 200 smaller secondary schools, mostly located in the same buildings, but each with its own theme and pedagogical approach. That initiative, studies have shown, has boosted student achievement and graduation rates.

Those schools have common principles, said Kihn, including high expectations, personalized, often project-based learning, a youth development component, and a staff committed to a common mission. The target students are not just the overage, under-credited near-dropouts now served by the contracted-out “accelerated" schools, but those who give up on school entirely as being irrelevant to their lives.

“We know none of this is going to happen fast, but if we’ve got good ideas based on evidence we believe will work, we can roll out in 2014," Kihn said. “If we can hire one or both design leaders … [they] could be running a school that looks like the model they designed.”

Kihn said that this is not a distraction from the District’s pending financial Armageddon, but instead “a way for us to invest in research and design when we ourselves have limited resources.”

It’s clear, he said, that the District needs to “look at the schools we’ve got and plan ways to improve them. How are we supposed to figure out what to do? Research.”

Sonia Giebel is an intern at the Notebook.


The School District of Philadelphia faces an unprecedented situation – uncertainty over whether it will be in a position to open safe and functioning schools in September.

This feature, appearing each weekday, is an effort to highlight developments and motivate action as we get closer to the beginnng of the school year. We encourage readers to send us information about both concerns and breakthroughs to countdown@thenotebook.org.

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