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Philadelphia’s public schools welcome back students in sixth through ninth grade

The phased-in reopening shows racial and economic divisions

Teacher and students at the U School on the first day on in-person learning for ninth graders
From left, USchool teacher Sam Reed and ninth graders Keith Gillespie, Chester Mackall, and Khaylihah Townes on the first day of in-person learning.
Matthew Johnson / U School staff

For Khaylihah Townes, it was about needing social interaction. Keith Gillespie is hoping to “better my grades a little.” Chester Mackall wanted “a feel of the school.”

On Monday, the School District of Philadelphia welcomed back the last cohort of students eligible for some in-person learning — sixth through ninth graders, as well as all high school students who qualify for multiple special education services.

Just 18% of students in that cohort decided to return or about 6,800 out of 37,000 eligible students. Among ninth graders, it was 21%.

That compares to about a third of students from prekindergarten through fifth grade who were given the option, according to district data. Figuring in this final cohort, overall, 27% of all eligible students have chosen hybrid.

Townes, Gillespie and Mackall were among 13 freshmen who opted for hybrid learning at the U School — a small, innovative high school in North Philadelphia with about 300 students, which was founded several years ago to provide students with hands-on, project-based learning.

They will attend two days a week between now and the end of school on June 11, a total of 10 days. But they say it is worth it, even at this late stage of the school year.

“I wanted to be around my peers,” said Gillespie, 15, who is from North Philadelphia. “I was tired being stuck up in the house. I was slacking at home.”

Socially distanced, outdoor class at the U School
U School students gather for a socially distanced class on the first day of hybrid learning.
Jessica McAtamney, U School staff

Since Philadelphia reopened most of its school buildings starting on March 8, more than 70% of students eligible to return have decided to stay home for the remainder of the school year. Younger students were brought back to school in March and April.

The pattern of students returning for in-person learning in Philadelphia has followed what is happening nationwide, with stark differences based on race, ethnicity, and economic status.

According to the district’s dashboard, white students were by far the most likely to opt for hybrid learning. Nearly half of eligible white students decided to return to school buildings, compared to 30% of Black students and 23% of Asian students.

Economically disadvantaged families were also less likely to select hybrid, and schools in wealthier areas of the city, like Center City, Mount Airy and University City, saw higher rates of students choosing hybrid.

The differences by school are stark. Masterman and GAMP — both special admission schools — are seeing hybrid participation rates above 70%. Tilden, a neighborhood middle school in Southwest Philadelphia, saw only 3% of students return.

At Meredith Elementary, a predominantly white school where only 20% of the students are economically disadvantaged, 80% of the students have chosen hybrid.

And younger students are far more likely to return than older ones. More than 40% of kindergartners returned to school buildings, with that number steadily declining for each subsequent grade.

The dashboard does not yet include the breakdowns by ethnicity, economic status and other factors for the latest cohort eligible to return. But according to the grade breakdown, just under 18% of sixth graders elected hybrid, 17.2% of seventh graders, 16.7% of eighth graders, 20.7% of ninth graders, and 22% of those who qualify for multiple special education services, many of whom can attend four days a week.

For ninth graders interviewed, they all expressed similar sentiments: they felt they weren’t doing their best, they wanted to meet their new Zoom friends in person, they wanted more focus. They said they also craved the close supervision of their teachers, and the chance to form real relationships with them.

Said Mackall: “I wanted a feel of the school. I also wanted help with my work so I could improve.”

Townes yearned for a sense of normalcy, even if for a short time. “This is my first year in high school,” Townes said. “I wanted that experience. When I heard we could do hybrid learning, it was exciting.”

Samuel Reed, who advises a group of freshmen and teaches world history, said he noticed immediately that more students were handing in their assignments. “Work completion went up by 50%,” he said. “There’s a different dynamic.”

At the Walter B. Saul Agricultural High School in Roxborough, 45 ninth graders, or 26% of those eligible, chose to return. Principal Alexa Dunn said that was one of the highest percentages in the city, which is not surprising since much of the curriculum revolves around caring for the horses, sheep, cows and other animals on the school’s farm. Saul is the only urban agricultural high school in the country.

“We offer a different kind of programming,” said Dunn. “A lot of our learning is experiential in nature.” Plus, she said, in the virtual classes, “I think kids formed a tight relationship with adults and were eager to see us in person.

James Davis, 15, a Saul ninth grader from Germantown, agreed. He said he came back for three reasons: to be more productive, to work with the animals, and “to see the teachers and students I’ve been talking to for so long.” He was excited to report that he made a new friend in his first class.

He described his first day of classes as “livelier,” with a lot more participation than on Zoom. Just “walking around the school” was fun, he said.

Jade Jones, 14, who lives in Manayunk, said that she was unmotivated at home. “The reason I came back is I knew I would get the work done,” she said. “And I wanted to see people I met and talked to online.”

Jones and her English class walked across Henry Avenue to the school farm and got to see the animals. “It was cool,” she said, chuckling. “But they stink. And you got to watch where you step and everything. It’s crazy.”

Davis hopes September will bring a return to full-time in-person school, “when I plan to try all the sports and clubs, soccer, basketball, chess, anime, I want to try it all.”

Neena Hagen contributed reporting.

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