This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The faces of young Philadelphia can be found sitting around a table in the sunny classroom of a neighborhood high school.
There’s a young woman from Bangladesh who loves learning, but who just two years ago spoke hardly any English.
There’s a young African American man who wants to be doctor, whose uncle once told him that he wasn’t college material.
There’s the daughter of Chinese immigrants who loves computers, whose three sisters all dropped out when school and work became “too much.”
And there’s a young African American woman who wants to be a nurse, who came from another city where she’d been bullied so badly she decided that “school wasn’t for me.”
All are students at West Philadelphia High. All are on track to graduate. With their personal challenges, any one of them could have dropped out.
Asked what keeps them coming back to school every day, all four – three seniors and a junior – respond with a variation of the same answer: the relationships.
“The teachers were all really nice, really supportive,” said Syeda Islam.
“I love the environment. It feels like a big family,” said Raymond Vorters.
“It’s my teachers,” says Yanting Liu.
“Everybody was friendly. It was a whole new experience,” said Moudiama Diagouraga.
Watching them with pride as they talk is their principal, Mary Dean. In her four years at West, she’s raised the graduation rate from less than 50 percent to a less appalling 68 percent – still below most special-admit schools and charters, but above the norm for neighborhood high schools.
She knows that keeping her students on track takes more than friendly teachers. It requires teamwork, organization, resources, hard work, and relentless optimism in the face of setbacks.
“There’s no excuses,” said Dean. “I used to have signs up all over the building: Don’t come to me with excuses.”
Finding them wouldn’t be hard. Four years ago, Dean opened her glittering, brand-new building with three assistant principals; she now has none. She has a beautiful library, but no librarian; a dance studio, but no dance teacher; five science labs, but only three science teachers.
And in this year’s bitter twist, she now has three brand-new 3-D printers donated by the Hamels Foundation – worth about $10,000, she says – but next year she’s slated to lose two of the three career-academy teachers who use them.
It can be demoralizing, Dean said, but she can’t let her students see her lose faith.
“Just keep moving,” she tells them. “Just keep moving.”
‘Schools of last resort’
Graduation rates are rising citywide, and they’re rising in many of the city’s neighborhood high schools, too.
But progress is uneven, and principals and advocates say that even modest gains are at risk, threatened by policy changes, budget cuts, and a recent focus on creating new, small high schools with more “individualized” learning experiences.
The massive, all-encompassing neighborhood high school was once “a great equalizer, but it doesn’t play that role anymore,” said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s top education adviser. In the decades since the heyday of neighborhood high schools, they have become the so-called “schools of last resort,” enrolling whoever couldn’t catch on somewhere else.
“The question is what we do with them now. I’m not sure that the answer is take them back to their former glory,” Shorr said.
But whatever their future might hold, the District’s 21 neighborhood high schools still educate almost 20,000 of the city’s students, including many of its neediest. Several waves of reforms have produced some improvements, but as a group, the schools struggle, outperformed significantly by most special-admission and charter high schools, all of which require students to at least go through an application process.
“I’m a West Philly High grad, 2003,” said Shanee Garner, an education specialist with Public Citizens for Children & Youth (PCCY). “I know seven other people from my class with bachelor’s degrees. We don’t have enough opportunities for kids in the comprehensive high schools.”
District data show encouraging results for some of the 21 District-run neighborhood high schools, but not all.
The latest School Progress Reports show eight neighborhood high schools graduating 70 percent or more, including Penn Treaty, Furness, Roxborough, and traditionally strong performers such as Washington and Northeast.
Besides West, just four more top the 60 percent mark, including South Philadelphia and Lincoln. Six schools graduate between 50 and 60 percent, including Franklin, Sayre, and Overbrook.
And two schools fall below the 50 percent threshold: Kensington International Business at 43 percent and Strawberry Mansion, at just 36 percent.
Results were also uneven for the District’s three charter-run Renaissance neighborhood high schools, but with an important caveat: All took over their schools in 2011, meaning that the 2014 graduating class was with them for only three years. That said, Universal’s Audenried showed a 70 percent rate, while Mastery Gratz and ASPIRA Olney both graduated 55 percent.
Exactly what all these variations reflect isn’t clear. District officials emphasize the need to bring more resources and better strategies to these schools.
Other observers agree that the range shouldn’t be surprising. Staff and leadership stability, the quality of the facility, and the specific challenges posed by a given school’s students and community can vary significantly.
Shorr said that in some cases, such as Bartram (72 percent), the graduation rate may have been bumped up by a 2013 merger with a small, selective school, Communications Technology High.
In others, like King (57 percent), the rate may have been driven down by students arriving from a closed neighborhood high school, Germantown.
And for some schools, low rates may reflect unique challenges: Edison (53 percent), for example, has a large number of Latino students, who typically graduate at lower rates than other groups.
“It’s definitely a difficult task, day in and day out,” said Steve Chicano, a math teacher at Edison. “This is a tough neighborhood.”
Principals and advocates agree that the same basic challenge unites all these schools: They enroll disproportionately high numbers of students who are statistically vulnerable to dropping out.
Special education students, homeless students, students with language barriers, pregnant and parenting teens, students engaged with the Department of Human Services or juvenile justice – all can be found in large numbers in comprehensive high schools.
“I had a freshman come in the other day and say, ‘How was your weekend? Mine wasn’t that great. I saw my mom for the last time until I’m 27. She’s going to jail,’” said Chicano.
“I said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ Then another student said, ‘You’re lucky, I’m not going to see my dad until I’m 30!’ I look at these two and I’m going, ‘Oh, my God – this is what you have to deal with?’”
Big buildings, shrinking schools
If the students represent a complex challenge, so do the politics and policies.
Decades of lean budgets have taken their toll. One reform effort after another has been launched with high hopes, only to fade. Most recently, former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Promise Academy model, introduced with great fanfare and generous funding in 2010, has been stripped by budget cuts of almost everything but its name.
At the same time, other options have expanded and students have taken advantage. West enrolled 1,500 students in 2003. That was down to 850 when the school moved to its new building four years ago.
It now enrolls less than 600. With few exceptions, the same pattern can be seen with the District’s neighborhood high schools citywide.
“They’re really small high schools in big buildings,” said Shorr.
Compounding the challenges is a kind of chronic, wholesale churn, with teachers, administrators and students alike cycling in and out.
“If there’s one word to describe the comprehensive high schools, it’s instability,” said Garner, of PCCY.
The roller coaster threatens even relatively stable schools. Three years ago, Dana Jenkins was an assistant principal at Roxborough High, where a team of three counselors was part of a schoolwide strategy for boosting graduation rates.
Since then, “we went from three counselors to no counselors to one counselor to two counselors, and maybe now heading back to one,” Jenkins said.
Now the principal, Jenkins has kept Roxborough’s graduation rate relatively high: 77 percent. High-quality staff who will go the extra mile is the number one factor, she said. “We may not have someone with the title of therapist, but we have someone on staff who’ll step in.”
Also key are her community and nonprofit partners, including Philadelphia Academies and the college readiness program GEAR UP, she said.
Dean, too, is constantly hustling to fill the gaps. But partners can only do so much, Dean says. Rigorous, engaging academics are essential.
Shorr agrees. “When kids are little, their engagement [with school] is more about their parents,” she said. “They get in high school and it’s more about them – they need to see the relevance of whatever they’re doing.”
Shortchanged, but plugging away
Digital media production teacher M. Azim G. Siddiqui said that programs like the one he teaches keep students engaged. But career and technical academies are at risk at West Philadelphia. (Photo: Raymond Holman) It’s precisely those kinds of academics that are most threatened by budget cuts – cuts that could soon undermine one of West’s signature remaining initiatives – its career and technical academies.
“It’s like you started a business making wine. It takes 10 years to produce your first bottle, and three years in, you wreck the barrels,” said one teacher whose job is now at risk, M. Azim G. Siddiqui.
A computer design specialist, Siddiqui gushes about his kids’ smarts. They can be astonishingly quick with both technology and teamwork, he said.
But that makes it even more painful to see career and technical education classes like his at risk, he said. The goal of the three-year programs is to foster long-term relationships between teachers and students, creating a caring community within the larger school while exposing young people to career possibilities – precisely the kind of strategy that experts say helps keep students engaged.
“It’s going to take time to build up this program,” Siddiqui said. “It makes no sense to close it down.”
District officials have said that the best way to protect such programs is to implement a fair funding formula providing stable, sufficient financial support districtwide.
But for now, students have to learn to live with the uncertainties – and there’s value in that, said Derek Stevenson, a teacher at Roxborough.
“I tell [the students] often, you will have a plan in life, and there’s going to be all kinds of roadblocks, all kinds of setbacks,” Stevenson said. “It’s inevitable. So keep plugging away.”
Back at West Philadelphia High, the four students agree: They love their school but it needs help.
“We need more resources so we can push ourselves to be better,” said Vorters, the aspiring future physician.
But Vorters also says that part of what West has taught him is to persevere – to keep “plugging away,” as Stevenson put it.
He wasn’t always so motivated. He arrived at West as an indifferent student, but a teacher saw a spark in him. “With a little help, I think you could be great,” she told him.
No one had ever said that to him before, Vorters said, but he embraced the challenge.
Now he’s been accepted at six colleges, including Morehouse in Atlanta. Wherever he goes, he’ll bring a valuable lesson from West that he might not have learned at a wealthier school.
“Every time somebody says no,” Vorters said, “I need to find a way for somebody to say yes.”