On a rainy Saturday afternoon in October, Great Philly Schools’s K-12 Philly School Fair at the PA Convention Center feels defiantly sunny.
Eager students form lines. Educators beam smiles from behind tables. Cheerleaders do their thing. Teenagers stop families in the aisles to tell them how much they love their respective high schools. High school teachers pull you aside to tout such outstanding institutional attributes as…
“Our building is only 20 years old: We don’t have asbestos.”
The annual fair is a one-stop-shop to introduce Philadelphia students and their families to prospective schools citywide — mostly public catchment, charter and special admit, but also some private.
The mood here is high. The bar, however, is low. At District high schools, building and personal safety, a lack of educators and educational resources, not to mention attendance, test scores and graduation rates, remain serious concerns. While things aren’t ideal for most of these high schools — the struggle is really real at neighborhood high schools.
“Our building is only 20 years old: We don’t have asbestos.” — setting a low bar at the high school fair.
The same cannot be said for a select group of neighborhood elementary schools, including elementaries just blocks away from these same 9-12 schools. These smaller schools, often flush with the progeny of relatively new residents, have seen drastic turnarounds in the past decade or so — thanks to serious community and/or devoted institutional involvement.
Is there a way to replicate that model for neighborhood high schools? Can a similar focus — from residents, local institutions, city government — turn neighborhood high schools into schools that all families want to attend? Are there other models we could adopt to incorporate the big neighborhood schools into community assets for all families?
How some neighborhood elementary schools did it
The K-8s with the highest scores on Great Philly Schools’ PSSA-based measurements for reading, math, science and attendance include Meredith, McCall, Greenfield, Penn Alexander and JS Jenks elementary schools. Not coincidentally, these schools are in some of Philadelphia’s wealthiest neighborhoods, where they feed off the catchment (the qualifying blocks for attendance) and the catchment feeds off them.
Meredith Elementary in Queen Village, for example, receives substantial support from a well-run home and school association. The 20-person group raises funds — $148,000 last year — for all manner of operations. The HSA also hosts breakfasts with the principal and monthly meetings, sells school merch online, organizes loads of events, and posts all about it on social media. The result: Meredith consistently ranks at the very top of public elementary lists. Another result: Housing prices have skyrocketed, which means fewer lower-income families now live in the neighborhood.
What’s more, Meredith’s success has spread southward: Nebinger, Southwark and Coppin (formerly Jackson) elementaries have, in recent years, also seen higher scores, higher attendance and more family involvement. In these cases, community engagement makes all the difference.
Things happened differently across the Schuylkill in Spruce Hill. In 2001, the District, in close partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, debuted Penn Alexander Elementary, science garden and all. In just a few years, West Philly families were camping outside school grounds, concert-tickets-going-on-sale-in-the-90s style, to score spots in next year’s kindergarten. (A lottery system put a stop to that practice.)
Penn contributes about $700,000 per year to Penn Alexander. The school has won two National Blue Ribbons for closing achievement gaps between Black and White students — although far fewer Black students attend these days — and the school’s test scores reach well into the 80 percent proficiency-and-up range. Penn is working on a similar model for nearby Lea Elementary School. Today, the price of a house in the Penn Alexander catchment exceeds its neighbors’ by $200,000
Several other elementary schools have a version of the same story — most often in middle- and upper-income (and White) neighborhoods, where parents are often better educated and have more money and time to give to the school. This has contributed to a wide gap between the highest-achieving schools and those with far fewer resources — something replicated in high schools of choice vs. neighborhood schools, even though the same middle class families live near neighborhood high schools too.
Then, there’s your, neighborhood high school
Quick explanation for my friends who understandably can’t keep all the terms straight: A neighborhood high school has no academic or attendance criteria for entry. Anyone can enroll, even, in most cases, students from outside the neighborhood. (The one exception to that is Northeast High School, where enrollment — 3,217! — remains high.) Special admit or “criteria-based” schools — what used to be called “magnets” — have academic and attendance enrollment requirements, and over the last few years have admitted qualified students through a District-wide lottery that favors students from traditionally less-represented neighborhoods. These include Masterman, Central, Bodine, Palumbo, GAMP and Science Leadership Academy.
These schools may all have been created equal. But they don’t work that way.
Take two random public high schools. One special admit, Science Leadership Academy (SLA), and one neighborhood, West Philadelphia. According to our friends at Great Philly Schools, of 498 SLA students, 83 percent are proficient or advanced in reading, 77 percent at least proficient in math, 51 percent in science, and 60 percent attend at least 95 percent of the school year. Of 482 West Philly students, 18 percent are proficient or advanced in reading, 0 percent in math, 12 percent in science — and 30 percent attend at least 95 percent of the time.
Debates continue on the value of standardized tests, but they measure something, and they’re what we’ve got — and very few neighborhood high schools meet a 50 percent threshold in any single standardized criteria.
“Strong neighborhood schools … serve as the centers of their community by hosting various sporting events, theater performances, and community-directed events … They have the potential to be the driving force of a prosperous community.” — Sanchir Avirmed
From the 1950s through the early 2000s, as the city’s population declined, so did school enrollment, which led (and leads) to smaller individual budgets for staff, building maintenance, learning materials, toilet paper, etc. — you know, the essentials. In 2009, that declining enrollment led the District to close William Penn High School. In 2014, it closed eight more District high schools. (One, Vaux, reopened in 2017.) Meanwhile, more charters and cybers cropped up, as did more asbestos.
Today, 19,098 out of approximately 100,000 Philadelphia teenagers are enrolled in neighborhood high schools. Meanwhile, loads of middle class families pay little to no mind to these schools (and, therefore, their students).
Take me, for example. As someone who lives in Philadelphia by choice and is raising a child here, I’ve spent the last 15 years wrongly assuming South Philadelphia High School, “Southern,” was our neighborhood school. Nope. It’s Furness. (Fun fact for my fellow ignorami: Furness students pronounce their school’s name correctly, as “furnace.”)
Over years of education-obsessed conversations among my fellow middle class, Philly-by-choice parents, I’ve asked about their catchment high schools. To a person, these progressive, smarty pants, civically-involved parents that I like a lot — could not name a-one. Not because they don’t care about their kids’ education, but because they do.
Philadelphia families with money and time often stress over the ever-changing admission policies for criteria-based District schools. Families whose kids don’t win the school lottery — or who opt out of it — are widely known to auction off an organ or two in order to pay private school tuition. Worse, some give up and move to Collingswood.
My ilk will seemingly do anything not to send our kids to the free high schools closest to us, erstwhile the most logical and convenient choices.
And this isn’t just urban pretenders like yours truly who grew up in the burbs and moved into town for the superior dining and drinking scene, or to be closer to work, theaters, sports arenas, museums, universities, diversity, block parties, bars, breweries, cocktail bars, sports bars, dive bars, and public transit. (Or, in order not to mow.) Neighborhood high school avoidance applies to my neighbors who’ve lived here all their lives, raising their children in the same rowhomes where they grew up.
“What’s happened to Southern: It’s a sin,” says one friend, a graduate who also worked there.
She’s not wrong. About a decade ago, Southern was making national news for race-based bullying that was so bad, a bunch of Asian students launched a boycott. Things seem better there now, but it’s not what it once was. Attendance is still low, as are test scores.
This is not a perception problem. This is real. But does it have to go on this way?
What is the value of a thriving neighborhood high school?
Honestly, though, is there any reason we privileged types should care about Olney or Sayre or Frankford or Bartram? Isn’t it enough that we’re gracing Philadelphia with our wage taxes, stellar voting records, and over-the-top local shopping habits, including the purchase of sweatshirts printed with the word “jawn” so that it looks like “Wawa?”
There are actually many reasons to care, whether or not you have children. For one thing, your property values rise when you live near a high-performing school. Also, nearby businesses thrive more, according to a report by the University of Chicago’s Sanchir Avirmed.
Better neighborhood schools strengthen both community ties and student performance, since proximity increases families’ proven-to-work accessibility to teachers and programs. Also, writes Avirmed of Chicago, “Strong neighborhood schools … serve as the centers of their community by hosting various sporting events, theater performances, and community-directed events … They have the potential to be the driving force of a prosperous community.”
This was the idea behind the City’s Community Schools initiative, wherein the Beverage Tax funds special coordinators and programs at select District schools. The goal: Bring together stakeholders, and bring in needed, community-specific services and resources such as counseling, health care, food, clothing, job opportunities and cultural events. By the City’s account, Community Schools have been a moderate success, with increased enrollment and slightly higher test scores. Today, there are 20 such schools, including Dobbins, George Washington, Southern, Frankford and Kensington Health Sciences Academy high schools.
Furness High School in Pennsport is not a designated Community School, so, Furness Principal Daniel Peou and staff do community outreach themselves. Peou, an alumnus who came to the U.S. from Cambodia in 1981, became the school’s assistant principal in 2008 and principal in 2012. He says he works each day to battle the belief that neighborhood high schools are “a last resort.”
Peou is there from 6:15am until at least 5pm on weekdays. He’s there on weekends and in summer. Every school day, he or his assistant greet students at the doors. When he sees a student without a warm enough jacket, he brings them into his office to find them one. (Furness’s unofficial clothing closet could use some winter coat donations; sneakers too. Its food pantry could always use stocking.) Right now, he is raising funds to purchase jackets for the girls’ volleyball team, who’ve had a great season and, he says, deserve the recognition.
Since he’s become Furness’s principal, the school’s enrollment is up, from 555 in 2012 to 822 today. Also up: students for whom English is a second language: 36 percent 11 years ago and 53 percent today. Furness students speak a total of 18 languages. Peou is proud of the student body’s diversity. Every spring, the school hosts a two-day multicultural fair — one day for performance and art, one day for food.
He’s also deeply proud of his students’ commitment to learning and thriving. Furness’s scores on standardized tests, which are notoriously difficult for ESOL students, remain low, but have nonetheless increased by 10 percent.
Today, 19,098 out of approximately 100,000 Philadelphia teenagers are enrolled in neighborhood high schools. Meanwhile, loads of middle class families pay little to no mind to these schools.
These kids work hard and stay out of trouble. Peou wishes more people, especially neighbors with kids, would come by to see what the place is like for themselves. “Just walk in the building,” he says, “take a look.” (Call ahead for an educator- or student-led tour.)
During classes, hallways are quiet. Inside classrooms, students learn the same curriculum as any other District high school. School spirit is high, too. During that Great Philly Schools Fair, students showed off bracelets they’d made for a sale. One bragged about their soccer and baseball programs.
And yet: Less than one quarter — 24.3 percent — of all eligible students in the high school’s catchment area, which includes those from up-and-coming and just-up Meredith, Nebinger and Coppin, attend the school. Furness has the capacity and the promise. Families, especially well-to-do families, choose to send their children elsewhere. One of the greatest assets of these schools is their size. They have the capacity for more students. Many more.
New ideas for neighborhood high schools
Imagine if even half of these schools’ rising 9th graders chose Furness. Imagine if their families used their model HSAs to raise funds for all the essentials they support in their children’s elementary schools. Imagine if they helped create a community that is economically diverse, in addition to diverse in all the other ways, which research has shown helps students thrive. And imagine if everyone in the neighborhoods from East Passyunk to Queen Village was part of the same neighborhood high school community, creating the kinds of connections across demographics that make cities such vital places to live.
If there’s one thing I know about us middle-class urbanites, it’s that we love a trend. Could we start one, and hasten a neighborhood high school turnaround?
For a neighborhood — or any — high school to work, you need a really great principal. Someone who understands the student population and goes out of their way to give them everything they need to succeed. Peou is one example. Former Robeson Principal Richard Gordon — known for openly telling his students “I love you,” keeping his office stocked with snacks, and forging partnerships with Penn, Drexel, and endless local organizations and businesses — is another.
But no one person can do the job. And one idea most likely does not fit all.
One educational consultant shared a dream about turning a big neighborhood high school building into a K-12 school for the community, like some charters. MAST schools in Tacony and Somerton, the Community Academy of Philadelphia (CAP) in Juniata Park, Sankofa in Frankford, all K-12s, report higher-than-average test scores and good rates of graduates going onto college.
Plus, who doesn’t like the idea of older siblings walking younger ones to and from school, of creating one solid foundation for students’ entire school careers, a place where educators know you from the jump, where families wouldn’t have to deal with fraught new school transitions? What if a high school could also function as a community center, a place for organizations to meet, maybe even with its own, student-run coffee shop?
Or, what if we revived the idea of small high schools of the kind former Superintendent Bill Hite opened a decade ago, putting them by side-in-the-same oversized building, so neighborhood kids of different needs and inclinations might still be able to take advantage of shared community resources?
Of course, such ideas require serious design and development — the sort of bold, proactive facilities master planning the District has talked about but rarely executes. It requires the kind of visionary leadership Philadelphia hasn’t seen in a while. Maybe once the PA legislature finally figures out how to distribute equitable, court-ordered funding for District schools, something like that could happen. Maybe our new mayor, a former teacher herself, will lead the charge.
But there’s also a role community members — especially those of us with the time, funds and capabilities — can play. We can go to a high school’s sporting event or two, attend a performance. Be part of a fundraiser. Request a wishlist. Take a tour. Reach out to the principal to ask what they need.
We can make these schools part of our communities. To start, we can know our neighborhood high schools.
MORE ON PHILADELPHIA SCHOOLS