3 ‘innovative’ high schools coming to N. Phila.

DESPITE unprecedented financial challenges, the Philadelphia School District is opening three new high schools in North Philadelphia in September as it seeks to redefine urban secondary education.

The schools, described by the district as “small schools of choice,” are expected to add a grade each year and eventually to enroll between 475 and 600 students. The nonselective schools will draw half their enrollments from surrounding neighborhoods; the other half will be open to students citywide.

Each school will follow a new model known as project- or competency-based education, in which students display proficiency by addressing real-world problems in order to advance.

“It’s about creating more choice for kids,” said Grace Cannon, hired in July as executive director of the district’s Office of New Schools Design. “Most of our choice [now] is people applying to [special-admission] schools.”

The Workshop School, a first-year district high school, is currently the district’s only nonselective school offering project-based education.

Although some observers say the district’s new-school push is overly ambitious, Superintendent William Hite has said the district can no longer wait for transformation. One of the core goals of Hite’s Action Plan 2.0 is for all students to graduate ready for college and career.

“We’re not meeting the needs of all our students in the district – that’s really the bottom line,” Cannon said, noting that 64 percent of students in the district graduate in four years.



A Carnegie Corp. grant

Two of the new schools – the U School and the LINC – were created with a three-year, $3 million grant from the Carnegie Corp. of New York, a nonprofit organization that distributes millions of dollars for education each year.

The third school, Building 21, traces its origin to a Harvard doctoral project by three students, including Laura Shubilla, former president and CEO of Philadelphia Youth Network, who has a background in school design. Building 21 is funded by the William Penn Foundation and Philadelphia School Partnership, among others.

The schools share some common principles, such as personalized learning, which empowers students to create learning plans based on their interests. Like blended learning, personalized learning embraces the various ways students acquire knowledge – listening to a teacher, hands-on with computers, working independently or in groups.

Each school is also unique in some ways and offers different interdisciplinary courses. As an example, the LINC – an acronym for Learning in New Contexts – has different themes for each grade.

“The idea is that kids are taking an issue, they’re taking a theme,” said Saliyah Cruz, school-design leader at the LINC. “For first-year students, the theme is around identity and they’re looking at issues of identity as it plays out in science, as it plays out in English, as it plays out in math and social studies.”

Cruz, a former principal at West Philadelphia High School, said the model encourages students to apply problem-solving skills to challenges outside the classroom. “The idea is you learn the content, and you learn the content for a purpose,” she said.

The schools will offer dedicated resources like counselors and advisers, along with opportunities for internships or dual enrollment. Principals also will have more flexibility and will be able to choose teachers.



Big Apple research

The logic behind keeping the schools small is that research from New York City’s small, nonselective high schools shows that graduation rates and standardized test scores have improved greatly since 2002, including at schools located in some of the poorest neighborhoods.

“In small schools, most kids tend to find an adult to connect with who becomes their sort of advocate or listening post,” said James “Torch” Lytle, chairman of Teaching, Learning and Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and former superintendent of Trenton’s public schools.

“I think that’s extremely important for city kids who need adults in their lives who are considering them not just [as] a student in my English class, but as young people who are trying to survive and prosper when the world doesn’t always support that.”

Lytle, who also spent many years as an administrator in the Philadelphia School District, said the success of small schools is not magic, but simply relies on strong leadership and having teachers who are committed to the mission.

The teachers union is on board with the new-school movement. Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said project-based schools give teachers more of a voice in shaping curriculum and programs.

“It’s something that really I think tends to treat teachers more as professionals, as opposed to having the operation of a school dictated to them by someone above them,” Jordan said. “[Teachers should] really help to design a school if it’s going to run effectively and efficiently.”

The schools are recruiting students for the fall and will accept applications through April 25. Blind lotteries will be held to determine which students are chosen from the surrounding 11 ZIP codes and citywide.



A $14 million deficit

One major question facing the new schools is whether they’re sustainable. Grant money will pay for research, design and professional development, but the district will foot the bill for operating costs, which officials insist will be in line with other schools of similar size.

The district has a $14 million deficit with three months left in the fiscal year, and is asking for $440 million in new money from state and city government for next year – a figure that seems unlikely given the stinginess of the Republican-led Legislature.

Moreover, district schools already have lost counselors, nurses and librarians to recent budget cuts. Promise academies – the district-led turnaround model for low-performing schools – also have been underfunded, leading some observers to scoff at the notion of three startups.

“It’s one thing to start up a new high school – and start one; it’s a whole other thing to do three when we’ve got high schools all over the city collapsing under the weight of not being able to fund them properly,” said parent activist Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education.

Gym noted that some of the district’s newest schools, once considered innovative, have not been immune to the deep cost-cutting.

“I think this fascination with what’s new, rather than trying to think strategically about how to stabilize the district, is a big problem,” she said. “It’s a big problem with education-reform agendas in general, and it’s also a problem when you have high-turnover leadership that doesn’t remember what came before it.”

Lytle said funding isn’t a major concern because dollars should follow students who transfer from other district schools and possibly charters – a point also mentioned by Jordan.



Non-$ questions

But other questions remain, including the impact on enrollment at nearby district schools. Could the new schools lead to closing more neighborhood schools? And does the district plan to create more schools?

Cannon, who heads the new-schools office, said the district hopes to create more new schools, but also wants to scale innovations that work into existing schools. Blaine Elementary and William D. Kelley Elementary will undergo such “transformations” next year.

The district also will look for chances for the new schools to collaborate with neighboring district schools, Cannon said, with the hope of transforming all schools.

“There’s not 100 percent [high-quality] seats for kids in those neighborhoods,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s about quality seats.”


On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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