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Austerity, uncertainty loom large as Class of 2018 arrives

Despite the budget crunch, three new high schools are among the changes this fall

Photo: Charles Mostoller

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

Beginning high school is daunting enough for most young people. But this year, students in Philadelphia face worries that most of their counterparts in more reliably funded districts don’t have.

Will their schedules be disrupted if more layoffs become necessary and some teachers disappear? Will counselors be available to make sure they are taking the courses they need? Will their high school even offer all the courses they want – in some cases, courses that attracted them to that school in the first place?

Will a nurse be available if they have an asthma attack? Will their classrooms be cleaned regularly?

And for high school students in four charters facing possible closure: How long will my school be around?

Once again, the District is starting the year with resources that are insufficient to meet the needs of schools and students – the result of severe cutbacks from Harrisburg and the endless tug-ofwar between the city and state over who bears fiscal responsibility for the education of Philadelphia’s children.

Cuts last year and again this summer “severely and adversely affect many services our students and families depend on,” Superintendent William Hite said.

Despite its never-ending struggle for adequate and predictable funding, the District is moving ahead with new initiatives:

  • The high school application process is moving to an online-only system that officials hope will be more efficient and family-friendly so that “everybody chooses,” Hite said.
    Nearly 400 students will attend three new innovative, non-selective high schools that are working to reshape the teaching and learning experience.
    Students in all schools may be asked to do more analyzing, problem-solving, and collaborating as teachers implement Common Core standards meant to bring more rigor to classroom activities.

Charters appealing closure votes

There’s no word on whether the District plans another round of school closings. But the School Reform Commission wants to close five charters that have high schools: Arise, Community Academy, New Media Technology, Truebright, and Walter D. Palmer – as well as one charter elementary school, Imani. All the schools are appealing the actions. Actual closings could still be years away, if they happen.

Community Academy, Truebright and Arise (founded to educate foster children) have been fighting closure since 2012.

In voting to close Walter Palmer in April, the SRC cited academic and financial problems. Palmer, a onetime civil rights leader, has powerful political support and is contesting the action.

The schools will be allowed to operate for another school year, but one or more could be history by next September, leaving students scrambling for alternatives

Online applications

Creating an online high school application process brings the system into the modern age, but also has pitfalls. Until now, students filled out paper applications that were collected and submitted by the school counselor. The process was cumbersome, but it ensured that the counselor reviewed each student’s choices.

Under the new system, “the counselor is being cut out,” worried Heather Marcus, a counselor at Masterman. “When we had paper applications, counselors were in charge,” making sure all 8th graders submitted applications. Without that fail-safe, “we have no idea if students are on top of it.”

Karyn Lynch, the District’s director of student services, disagrees.

“Counselors are not excluded,” she said. Rather, “families have greater opportunities to become involved.”

Students will access the system using their student ID. Counselors will have their own logins and be able to see all the applications from their advisees.

“I believe this process will facilitate counselor involvement,” said Melanie Harris, the District’s chief information officer. The online process frees them up to “connect with students as opposed to standing at a copier.”

Marcus also is concerned about families who don’t speak English or don’t have Internet access at home. But Lynch said there are many places in the city where families can get online access.

Students can revise their choices up until the deadline of Dec. 12, Harris said. The aim is for all students to participate, including those planning to attend their neighborhood school.

The new schools

Three new, non-selective high schools – The LINC (for Learning in New Contexts), the U School, and Building 21 – have the ambitious goal of reinventing the teaching and learning experience for students not well served in neighborhood schools and not eligible for schools with admission standards.

All are located in North Philadelphia – the U School and Building 21 in the old Ferguson Elementary School near Temple, and The LINC in space at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Hunting Park. They are reaching out to 11 zip codes in that part of the city, but anyone can apply. Admission is by lottery.

This first year, some 1,800 students sought one of the 380 9th-grade seats. Building 21 has 150 9th graders and will grow to 600 students. The others start with 115 students and will grow a grade at a time to about 450.

“The demand was high,” said Grace Cannon, head of the District’s Office of New School Development. About a quarter of the applicants were from non-District schools.

Last spring, leaders of the schools visited all 8th grades in the target area to sell what the schools are trying to do: Emphasize youth development and customized learning that revolves around solving real-world problems, answering big essential questions, and working in the community. Students will show their competencies through projects and demonstrations more than tests.

Will there be enough money this year?

For a while this summer, it was touch-and-go over whether schools would even open on time. Hite declared on Aug. 15 that they would, but only after more cuts.

The crisis became acute when the state legislature recessed in July without passing enabling legislation for a Philadelphia-only cigarette tax approved by City Council to help fund city schools. Even if those revenues come through, however, the District is tens of millions short of what it needs just to maintain the pared-back level of services it had last year.

More layoffs are still possible. Combined with the traditional October “leveling” when teacher staffing is adjusted to match actual enrollment, this could change the course offerings in schools.

Last year’s reduction in nurses means that some schools have one for only part of the week. Counseling staff is still at low levels, making it difficult for high school students to get the help they need to apply to college.

And 8th graders will have less guidance to help choose the right high school.

Teachers were carefully recruited and had to be willing to “go outside their comfort zone,” said Neil Geyette, designer and principal of the U School. Teachers spent a month in professional development over the summer. “They had to be thinking of themselves as facilitators and activators of student learning,” he said.

Saliyah Cruz, former principal of West Philadelphia High School, is leading The LINC. Laura Shubilla, former head of the Philadelphia Youth Network, helped design Building 21.

Design costs were covered by outside grants. But some have criticized the creation of new schools when existing schools are starved of resources.

Cruz hopes the project will pioneer changes that will ultimately benefit all students by modeling an education with more relevance and rigor than what most students are exposed to now.

“We are trying to get young people to see themselves as creators, that school is not done to them or for them, but is a process,” she said. “We want to get them to think of themselves as a partner in the experience.”

Common Core

Enough money or no, the District is expected to prepare students to take new state tests aligned with the Common Core standards, designed to promote deeper and more analytical teaching and learning. To carve out time for training teachers on the new standards, the District plans to dismiss students three hours early one day a month.

The Common Core push is part of the District’s effort to provide more “personalized learning,” tailored to each student’s needs. Another part of this initiative is the use of more interactive, online technology, including new materials from the CK-12 Foundation that students can access from anywhere.

Editors’ note: The print version of this article incorrectly reported that four charters with high school grades are faced with closure, omitting New Media Technology Charter High School, which the SRC voted to close in June. The print version also incorrectly refers to one of the three new high schools as Project 21. The school is called Building 21. The Notebook regrets the errors.

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