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From the archives: Neighborhood high schools prepare few for college

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 celebrated 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.

This piece is from the Summer 2000 print edition:


by Gordon Whitman

Six years into Children Achieving, data from the School District of Philadelphia indicate that only a small minority of students who enter 9th grade in the city’s 22 neighborhood high schools graduate having completed the basic course work they need to enter college.

Just 47 percent of students who entered 9th grade in the neighborhood high schools in 1993 even graduated within six years (by the end of the 1998-99 school year). A mere 36 percent from that entering class graduated within four years.

Given recent economic changes, data showing less than half of students graduating from these high schools within six years are alarming. A high school diploma is a "prerequisite for employment in the contemporary urban economy," according to a Temple University analysis of the Philadelphia economy published in 1991.

Most young people in the United States today not only finish high school, but also attend some form of post-secondary education. According to the Education Trust in Washington, about three-quarters of all high school seniors do so within two years of leaving high school.

Inadequate college preparation

Yet in Philadelphia, a minority of students graduate from neighborhood (or "comprehensive") high schools with the academic preparation they need for college.

The School District has analyzed the percentages of students who graduate having completed a basic sequence of courses required by most colleges. This sequence includes two years each of foreign language and college preparatory science and math courses.

While the District’s analysis for 1999 graduates is preliminary and has not been verified, it is consistent with results from previous years. It shows that only 43 percent of students who graduated from neighborhood high schools completed a basic six-course sequence they would need in order to attend college.

Factoring in that less than half of those who enter 9th grade graduate, this means that only about one out of every five students who begin at neighborhood high schools is graduating with the course credits needed for college.

Those who do go on to college from the comprehensive high schools are likely to end up in remedial programs, whether they are at two-year or four-year colleges, sources at local colleges say.

"The data show that far too many students from Philadelphia going on to CCP [Community College of Philadelphia] fail the placement tests in English and math," said Rochelle Nichols Solomon, of the Philadelphia Education Fund.

"Lots of students here go on to two-year colleges. But they’re woefully under-prepared. These students are not given the courses because they are not considered ‘college-bound.’ But many of them do end up in college," she said.

Of course, taking classes that are designated as part of a college prep sequence does not necessarily translate into being academically prepared for college. According to Lori Shorr, the director of school and community partnerships at Temple, "Even if you complete the minimum sequence, it does not mean you are college-ready. You may have taken a class labeled Algebra, but that may not have been what was actually happening in the classroom."

Shorr says that when she saw the data on comprehensive high schools in Philadelphia, "I was convinced that I was reading the data wrong. I could not believe that this city would allow a situation where the data could be correct and we would continue our daily lives. I was shocked."

To be sure, there are differences among neighborhood high schools, including those serving similar communities, in how well they prepare students for college. There are also glaring disparities among small learning communities (SLCs) within the same high schools.

Progress lags

The superintendent has pointed to significant academic progress for most schools in Philadelphia under Children Achieving. Yet, the neighborhood high schools are lagging in this story of increased academic performance. Under Children Achieving, the District measures school improvement against a two-year performance target. On the District Index, only 2 out of 22 neighborhood high schools — Northeast and Roxborough — met their performance targets in 1998 for improvement in test scores, attendance, and graduation rates.

The failure of all but two neighborhood high schools to meet performance targets stands in stark contrast to the progress made at other levels. Overall, 164 schools met their performance targets, including three-fourths of all elementary and middle schools.

Neighborhood high schools have shown real progress in attendance and graduation rates. Reorganization of these large high schools into small learning communities may have helped to insure that fewer students slip through the cracks. But whether that progress will be maintained in the face of the tougher new promotion and graduation requirements remains to be seen.

Some who have studied the high school achievement data also see a positive trend in high school test scores despite the failure to meet performance targets; however, others say the upward movement in test scores is too small and inconsistent to be meaningful.

Why have so many elementary schools moved forward academically while so few high schools have met their targets? Germaine Ingram, chief of staff in the District commented, "We’ve hit on some powerful tools at the elementary school Ievel: balanced literacy and the reduced class size are really galvanizing change." She added, "Things are happening at middle schools, [but] high schools are a tougher nut to crack. You have to deal with a whole different organizational culture."

Leadership vacuum

A lack of leadership has plagued neighborhood high school reform — a problem extending from the schools, to the District, to City Hall and Harrisburg.

At the school level, most neighborhood high schools have had a revolving door of principals, most with little prior school leadership experience.

The primary evaluators of Children Achieving, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) recently wrote, "Leadership is particularly problematic at the high school level. In the 18 comprehensive high schools (out of 22) for which we have data on the length of principal tenure, only 5 principals have been in their current school for two years or more. Some high schools have had multiple principals during that time period."

”It is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain a reform agenda if key school leaders are constantly changing," the CPRE evaluators added.

Dividing the District into 22 clusters, a move that was originally designed to support schools in transforming their instruction, has also contributed to the leadership void around high school reform. High schools were moved into the cluster structure without bringing a large cohort of people with high school experience into the cluster offices.

Chief of Staff Ingram acknowledges that even now, "We don ‘t have the same level of high school experience in the Teaching and Learning Network and the clusters as we have experience at the elementary and middle school levels. "

An educator who works with the District added, "Clusters should be able to function as mini school districts and develop a coherent K-12 curriculum. But they have been unable to provide guidance or a clear instructional vision for high school teachers."

One resource that the District provides to support change in high schools is a recently produced "Consumer’s Guide to Continuous School Improvement," which was distributed to all schools. All schools are expected to draw on the reviews of programs in this book to adopt research-based school reform models. Several high schools have recently adopted the ”Talent Development" model.

But high school teachers interviewed by the Notebook say that there is little familiarity with the whole concept of a research-based reform model — let alone clarity at the school level about when and how they are to choose a model for the school.

For example, one comprehensive high school had its research-based model chosen for it by its cluster office three years ago, and to date only a handful of teachers are participating.

One explanation for the lack of districtwide progress in the high schools is the often highly charged conflict between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and the District over school reform. The District has had difficulty winning broad support from teachers for its reform plans.

Many high schools, historically a stronghold of the PFT, have been the site of sharp conflict over Children Achieving initiatives. The attempt to "reconstitute" two troubled high schools, Olney and Audenried, which the union fought bitterly and ultimately successfully, was just the most public example of the failure of the superintendent and the PFT to reach consensus on how to upgrade high school education.

The lack of leadership and a coherent strategy to reform high schools reaches into the political leadership of Philadelphia and Harrisburg. While school funding, class size, vouchers, and Superintendent David Hornbeck were all big issues in the recent mayoral election, the question of what to do about the city’s neighborhood high schools was never discussed. And Philadelphia’s high schools struggling to change must work with about $2,000 less per student than the average school in the surrounding suburbs.

Instructional change is key

A key challenge for urban high school reform across the nation is changing the educational experience that students have in the classroom. Yet thus far in Philadelphia, high school reform "has been around the margins," according to Jolley Christman of Research for Action, a research group evaluating the ChiIdren Achieving program.

"Service learning projects, reorganization of schools into small learning communities, and block rostering have resulted in positive changes in the climate of high schools, but they have had little impact in and of themselves on instruction," Christman said.

Tom Clark, who co-chairs the School District’s High School Task Force at the same time that he heads the School District Office for Research and Evaluation, is more upbeat. "Certainly, if you visit our high schools, you find many hard-working teachers, trying their best to help their students," Clark said. "It’s time to acknowledge their hard work and the small victories they are experiencing, which no one seems willing to recognize."

There are many teachers at all levels, including high schools, who work extremely hard, build strong relationships with their students and create a powerful learning environment for their students. There are also a few small learning communities that have a reputation for systematically improving instruction.

But what appear to be missing are whole schools that have demonstrated an effective strategy to improve teaching and learning.

‘We’re not alone nationally in grappling with education reform for our older students. We know a lot about the changes that need to take place," Rochelle Nichols Solomon commented. "Will Philadelphia pay attention to the implementation of high standards in our high schools, or will we continue to allow so many students to drop through the cracks?"

How much attention is being paid to the high school crisis? The recent appointment of Cassandra Jones as executive director of the District’s Office of Leadership and Learning brings an administrator with high school experience to a leadership post in the central office. But two of the three chairs of the High School Task Force did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

Paul Socolar provided research assistance for this article.

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