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From the archives: ‘Small schools’ experiment finds new life in SLCs

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

The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

From the Spring 1999 print edition:

by Ros Purnell and Helen Gym

In the mid- and late 1980s, Philadelphia became a testing ground for the "small schools" movement. The effort was led by the now-defunct Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, a group of educators who advocated smaller environments to break up the enormous, impersonal, and largely dysfunctional comprehensive high schools. The movement’s goal was to create smaller autonomous schools with control over budgets, hiring, and curriculum design.

The campaign for "small schools" in Philadelphia eventually sparked radical changes in Chicago and New York City.

But Philadelphia soon lost sight of the original vision, according to Michelle Fine, a professor at City University of New York and one of the architects of Philadelphia’s small schools movement in the late 1980s.

Fine said the small school model emphasized the creation of "educationally intimate" environments with a rigorous academic curriculum, where every student would be prepared for college-level work.

Fine said the vision began to unravel when union and District administrators protested the SLCs’ control over budgets and hiring. Instead, the District seized upon one aspect of the original vision — the "small" concept — and used it to break up enormous high schools but without a clear academic purpose.

"How small learning communities have evolved is very much tied to the history of high school education in Philadelphia and the culture that existed around expectations for teachers and students prior to SLCs," said Jolley Christman, a senior researcher with Research for Action, which has studied SLCs since their inception.

First and foremost, according to Christman, was Philadelphia’s practice of "tracking" students by their academic ability. Students with "special abilities" were sent to special admission schools, those with "average abilities" sent to neighborhood schools, and others to vocational and tech schools.

As a result, Christman said, many SLCs have a similar set-up — there are those that prepare students for a post-high school education and those that do not.

"That is the overall context of how people have seen high school education for years and years," Christman said. "It’s not surprising that SLCs entering a context that had this history got caught up in that culture."

This trend was obvious from the beginning, Christman said. Because SLCs were not mandated until 1992, high schools that set them up earliest tended to attract the most reform-minded teachers, who are often the strongest teachers in the classroom. As a result, even to this day, Christman says there is often unevenness in the quality of teachers by SLC.

Rochelle Nichols Solomon, director of the North Philadelphia Community Compact for College Access and Success, said that once SLCs were mandated for high schools in 1992, administrators and teachers became "obsessed with logistics ."

"It was [supposed to be a] vehicle to bring teachers and students together to have an impact on academic achievement," Solomon said. "People forgot about that because that’s the hard stuff to deal with."

Solomon also attributed part of the tracking mentality to the District’s naming of SLCs around career-based themes such as "business,” "health" and "communications."

"With those themes, people begin to narrowly define the students and the academic curriculum," Solomon said.

Despite these problems, SLCs have made some headway in improving the high school experience for many students. Christman said improved attendance in high schools and student persistence in graduating from high schools can be directly attributed to SLCs.

Solomon said she’s encouraged that parents and new teachers seem familiar enough with the SLC concept to begin using related language in conversations and discussions. More importantly, Solomon said she’s seen many SLCs, other than those labeled as "academies" or "motivation" or "special admission,” stress academics.

"They have increased the perception that smart kids are more than just the kids in ‘Motivation,’ Solomon said.

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