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New York City went for small high schools in a big way, and the country’s largest school system is still high on that education reform strategy.

Small schools in Philadelphia

Read the first part of the series that explores how the small schools movement has worked out of Philly high school students.

Oakland, Calif., opened 49 small schools in the last decade, but is closing six.

And in Philadelphia, the superintendent’s message is clear – small schools are fine, but don’t expect any new ones until inequities at big neighborhood high schools are fixed.

For a time in the mid-2000s, small schools were booming. They were supposed to transform the large, failing American high school, to engage students and boost their achievement to ready them for college.

But the results have been mixed, national and local research shows. Students at small high schools were more likely to graduate, have positive relationships with their teachers, and feel safer.

Still, they did no better on standardized tests than did their peers at big schools.

In Philadelphia, where 26 of the 32 small high schools have been opened or made smaller in the last seven years, some schools have thrived. Their presence has transformed the high school mix. Among the district’s current 63 high schools, the 32 small schools enroll roughly a quarter of the 48,000 total enrollment. The rest attend large neighborhood high schools.

Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a small magnet of 480 students in Center City, has drawn national attention for its innovation. A seat in its freshman class is becoming one of the most sought-after places in the city, and its graduates are heading to schools such as Princeton, Georgetown and Syracuse Universities. Others struggle.

High School of the Future was opened with great fanfare and international spotlight, a $63 million Parkside school of nearly 500 students that boasted a partnership with Microsoft Corp., a focus on project-based learning, and laptops for every student. But only 7 percent of its pupils reached state standards in math last year and 23 percent in reading. There has been upheaval in leadership and curriculum, and some think the school overpromised and underdelivered.

Philadelphia small schools
Arlene Ackerman

Since her arrival in 2008, Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has been cautious about small schools, saying they are a useful but costly strategy. In Philadelphia, she says, the small schools were opened at the expense of neighborhood high schools.

The math is simple, Ackerman says: Smaller high schools cost more money per student than large, comprehensive high schools.

“I was never on the small-schools bandwagon as the reform,” Ackerman said. “I’m very supportive of them. But I don’t think we should continue down this road, creating more small high schools, until we have rectified some of the inequities that we now see in some of the large comprehensive high schools.”

That’s not the view taken by former schools chief Paul Vallas, architect of the movement in Philadelphia.

“My approach with the large comprehensives was to slowly phase them out, knowing you were always going to have problems there,” said Vallas, now head of the New Orleans Recovery District. He thinks Philadelphia’s small-schools experiment has been successful: “We had to expand choice.”

Although the number of high schools doubled under Vallas and charter school growth has soared in the last decade, 72 percent of parents still feel they need more school choices, a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts concluded. And the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action found that demand for schools other than neighborhood schools exceeds available slots. In 2006-07, 73 percent of eighth graders applied to such schools and 51 percent were not accepted at any of their choices.

What has attracted many Philadelphia families to small schools – better climate, more attention, stronger student-teacher bonds – also caused the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to plow billions of dollars into small high schools around the country. As the movement gained momentum during her stints in school districts in Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco from the late ’90s through the mid-2000s, Ackerman said, she “was always a little worried about what happens when the Gates money leaves.”

And the Gates money did dry up. The foundation shifted its priorities away from small schools, saying the investment didn’t yield enough results. As a result, nationally the movement has lost steam. Looming budget crunches and mixed academic results have hurt small schools in places like Milwaukee and San Diego, for example.

But many still see the benefits of small schools. In Oakland, administrator Jean Wing said small schools remain important to the district, despite plans to close six of its 49 small schools.

Philadelphia small schools
Graphic courtesy Philadelphia Inquirer

“In most cases, the schools that have been closed have been a combination of very low enrollment and, in some cases, low academics,” Wing said.

New York has replaced more than 20 large high schools with 216 small ones, often creating several small schools inside one re-purposed building. A study released last month by the education think-tank MDRC concluded that New York’s small schools have increased graduation rates among struggling students.

In Philadelphia, a Research for Action study of the district’s small high schools in 2006-07 found that they contributed to student success, especially for struggling pupils. The Philadelphia research concluded that ninth graders in small schools were less likely to be suspended and more likely to pass algebra than pupils at big schools. Small-school students and teachers were more likely to feel safe.

But not all Philadelphia small schools were created equally. New schools – like School of the Future and SLA – got more support and planning time than “conversion” schools such as Kensington, a formerly large school that in 2005 was divided into three parts. Kensington Culinary, Kensington Business, and Kensington Creative and Performing Arts all opened with four grades at once and little say in curriculum or freedom in hiring staff. A fourth Kensington school, focused on urban education, will open in September, and activists are more satisfied with the planning time allowed by the Ackerman administration. The Kensington schools also lacked a strong long-term partner from their inception.

Partnering with the Franklin Institute has made a real difference at SLA, according to principal Chris Lehmann. Franklin Institute chief executive Dennis Wint helped hatch the idea for the school, and is thrilled by what it’s been able to achieve. He’s so high on the concept that he hopes to “replicate this model, both in Philadelphia and outside of Philadelphia.” Whether the museum would partner with other Philadelphia schools is under discussion internally, Wint said.

Ackerman said she’d be open to the idea – but in “large comprehensive high schools, if we decide we’re going with a small learning community or career academy. I am hopeful that the Franklin Institute will look at this as an option.”

Both the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University have expressed a desire to partner with the School District on high schools, but plans for those have stalled. Enlisting community partners is an idea that would appeal to Nijmie Dzurinko, executive director at the Philadelphia Student Union, a youth organizing group that thinks small high schools do a better job of educating students than comprehensive high schools.

Given Ackerman’s cautious approach to small schools, organizations like the Student Union have reshaped their strategies. Instead of working for small stand-alone schools, they’re moving toward meaningful “small learning communities” – themed academies within big high schools such as West Philadelphia High.

“We’ve lived through the inequity of small schools in Philadelphia,” Dzurinko said. “The answer to that is to equalize access for neighborhood students in high-quality smaller learning environments, something they don’t have right now.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University who has done extensive research on small schools, said the movement was “still pretty vibrant,” albeit more focused on small learning communities these days. Small learning communities can work, Darling-Hammond said, but only if they have “a common group of teachers and a common group of students working on a common intellectual agenda.”

But to small-schools proponents, it’s not time to give up just yet. Lehmann, of SLA, acknowledged that small schools are not a silver bullet, but said they have proven their value.

“There are wonderful schools that are big schools and do amazing things,” Lehmann said. “But a lot of kids need a personalized environment. Small schools are a piece of that puzzle.”

As for the argument that small schools are too costly, Lehmann prefers to take the long view. “When do you want to pay? If small schools can help with the dropout problem and help us close the achievement gap,” Lehmann said, “I think we’re an investment worth making. I think the payoff is worth it.”

Kristen A. Graham is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. This story was reported with assistance from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, through a Joyce Foundation fellowship designed to support journalism on critical topics in K-12 teaching. This story first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 1, 2010.

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