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Small high schools came to Philadelphia in a big way four years ago, when four new ones opened their doors.

small schools Philadelphia
Science Leadership Academy seniors await their graduation procession. Ninety-seven percent will attend college; 40 percent plan majors in science, technology, or math. (Photo by David Swanson/Philadelphia Inquirer) Credit: David Swanson/Philadelphia Inquirer

Less than three miles apart, High School of the Future in Parkside and Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Center City had vastly different beginnings.

Expectations for both were high. Both awarded their first diplomas this month.

But although leadership was identified as key to both, one had turmoil at the top and the other had a stable principal. Though both emphasized technology and were given freedom to innovate, one kept a close eye on district standards and the other initially veered from the path.

One accepted only top students, and its test scores were high. The other took mostly neighborhood students, including those who struggled, and its scores were low.

Jasmine Thomas picked SLA because she “thought it would be kind of cool to go to a place where you built it from the ground up,” she said. Thomas, 18, just earned her diploma and said she is thrilled with her high school experience.

Recent High School of the Future graduate Lafayette Marshall isn’t so sure.

“We were promised so much,” Marshall said. “It was supposed to open up the world for us. Everyone was going to go to a four-year college. But it didn’t turn out like that.”

A mandate for change

Small schools flourished under former Philadelphia School District chief executive Paul Vallas, who created 25 schools, each with no more than 700 students.

Of the district’s current 63 high schools, 32 are small, enrolling about a quarter of the 48,000 total high schoolers. The rest attend large neighborhood high schools.

Philadelphia’s New Small Schools

In September 2006, the Philadelphia School District opened four new small schools. They graduated their first classes this month.

Academy at Palumbo

Enrollment, Sept. 2006: 115.

Senior class, June 2010: 119.

Admission requirements: A’s and B’s in major subjects; advanced scores on state reading and math tests; few absences and latenesses; excellent behavior.

Focus: Modeled after the district’s Central High. Partnerships with the National Liberty Museum, Museum of American Jewish History, African American History Museum, and Mazzoni Center.

Principal: Adrienne Wallace-Chew, founding principal.

Constitution High

Enrollment, Sept. 2006: 113.

Senior class, June 2010: 83.

Admission requirements: Students must meet three of four criteria – all A’s, B’s or C’s, no more than 10 absences, no more than five latenesses, no negative disciplinary reports on the final report card.

Focus: Social studies and government. Partnerships with the National Constitution Center, the Ballard Spahr L.L.P. law firm, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the History Channel.

Principal: Thomas Davidson, founding principal.

High School of the Future

Enrollment, Sept. 2006: 170.

Senior class, June 2010: 119.

Admission requirements: Students are selected based on a lottery, with a requirement that 75 percent come from the school’s West Philadelphia neighborhood.

Focus: 21st-century curriculum, with an infusion of technology. Partnership with Microsoft Corp.

Principal: Rosalind Chivis, fourth principal, who came to the school in 2008.

Science Leadership Academy

Enrollment, Sept. 2006: 110.

Senior class, June 2010: 117.

Admission requirements: A’s and B’s, with one C permitted on the final report card; advanced or proficient scores on state exams; good attendance and punctuality; teacher or counselor recommendation.

Focus: Science, technology, math, and entrepreneurship. Partnership with the Franklin Institute.

Principal: Chris Lehmann, founding principal.

SOURCE: Philadelphia School District

At the outset, High School of the Future’s mandate was to transform the high school experience.

It wasn’t just a shift in technology for the $63 million school, built at the edge of Fairmount Park with technical assistance from Microsoft Corp. There were no letter grades and no central curriculum – teachers were free to match their lessons to students’ interests.

High School of the Future opened without the academic admissions criteria the other schools used. As a result, many students came with gaps in their reading and math skills.

Vallas gave the school a wide berth, and the district handpicked an experienced administrator.

But things did not turn out as planned. The founding principal left after a year. Vallas departed, too, and his successors have shown less support for the school’s new methods.

Rosalind Chivis, who helped plan the school, became the fourth principal in 2008.

Yes, says Chivis, an energetic, no-nonsense woman, she knows the problems. Test scores are low, with just 7 percent of students meeting state standards in math and 23 percent in reading, far below the district-wide average of 57 percent in math and 47 percent in reading.

The students had significant academic gaps, and no amount of new technology could compensate. Having no set curriculum or letter grades added to the confusion, Chivis said.

Initially, “you had a community of young, intelligent, committed educators desperately trying to create something out of the box without knowing what was inside the box,” Chivis said.

At first, Chivis made changes by aligning classes to state and district standards and transferring problem students out. That school year, she removed 60 students through expulsion or disciplinary transfer.

In the school year just ended, she focused on academics.

But change hasn’t been fast enough for Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

“The school is really struggling,” Ackerman said, asserting that a renewed emphasis on basic skills was needed. “Now we’re finding that we need to have a corrective course of action moving forward, starting in September.”

At a recent School Reform Commission meeting, parent Ivy Dixon lamented her daughter’s experience at the school.

“My child and I are taxed with having to pay for remediation at the college level, because they failed to educate her at the High School of the Future,” Dixon said.

Recent graduate Iman Griffin didn’t want to be at the school at first.

Initially, things were too experimental, said Griffin, 17, who will study communications at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“But it got way more understandable,” Griffin said. “It wasn’t good to do every single thing on the computer.”

Chivis brought a sharp focus on planning for college for the students, who are mostly poor and African American.

“We literally had to run some of these kids down, make them fill out applications, make them write essays,” she said.

Every one of the 119 seniors, even the 11 who did not graduate with their class, was accepted to a two- or four-year college, Chivis said. The 11 will first have to pass summer school, and some others will need remedial classes.

To Mary Cullinane, director of innovation for Microsoft Education and the company’s liaison to the school, that speaks volumes.

“For a neighborhood high school in West Philadelphia, everyone should hold their heads really high on that one,” said Cullinane.

Teacher Frank Machos came to High School of the Future two years ago because he wanted to work somewhere he could effect change for students who needed it. He loves the school, where he is creating a digital-music program and a recording studio.

Despite the school’s refocus on traditional learning, there’s still cutting-edge learning going on, he said.

Students swipe cards to open their lockers; they have an “interactive learning center,” not a library. They run a help desk to fix the school’s technology, and in many classes teachers use software rather than a blackboard.

“Innovation and change is driving the curriculum here,” Machos said. “It’s not a typical neighborhood high school, but they are traditional neighborhood kids.”

Microsoft’s Cullinane acknowledged the bumpy ride so far. But, she said, the company is invested in the partnership for the long haul and will continue to provide personnel hours, best practices, and other support.

“I think the school has made great progress,” she said. “It’s a school that has tried to bring innovation and look at things differently and do that while living through the challenges of urban education.”

Strong performance

Earlier this year, students at Science Leadership Academy showed off their biodiesel-generation project for Bill Gates, just one of a string of luminaries to visit the school. (Gates, the former Microsoft chief executive, was in town to receive an award from the Franklin Institute and followed an annual tradition of honorees visiting SLA.)

small schools Philadelphia
Graphic courtesy Philadelphia Inquirer

Virtually all of the 117 SLA seniors – 97 percent – are going on to college. Ninety percent are going to four-year colleges. Forty percent have declared majors in science, technology, or mathematics.

SLA, which operates in partnership with the Franklin Institute, outperformed the district on state tests, with 84 percent at or above grade level in reading and 64 percent in math.

The school was named an Apple Distinguished School in 2008; founding principal Chris Lehmann has earned multiple national awards and is considered a leader in the progressive small schools movement.

Steven Squyres, principal investigator of the Mars Rover missions, is a fan.

Squyres first visited SLA its first year. He was wowed, he said, by Lehmann, a talented group of teachers, and an inquisitive student body who must meet academic standards to be admitted.

“It’s such an inspiring place, an extraordinary educational environment,” said Squyres, who spoke at the school’s first graduation this month. “These kids are really, really fortunate.”

Parent Anne Marie Sweeney agrees.

Attending SLA allowed her daughter, Julia, to intern for four years at the museum and rub elbows with people like Squyres and Cornel West, the noted scholar and civil rights activist.

“I don’t know of any other place where this could have happened,” Sweeney said. “It’s been a whirlwind, absolutely amazing.”

Lehmann was hired a full year before the school opened, and he has worked closely with the district and the Franklin Institute, he said. The mission was clear and never wavered.

And while SLA provides laptops for every student, and technology is key, there’s also a focus on hands-on science.

“We were given the mandate to reinvent the core curriculum in a 21st-century, project-based way,” Lehmann said. “We were not told, ‘You must do x, you must do y.’ ”

While it is free to take a different path, the school still must meet district learning goals.

“I do feel strongly that the district has been and remains committed to support us,” he said. “We feel that the district is proud of what we do.”

Ackerman concurs.

“You walk into Science Leadership Academy and you know that the kids will succeed,” she said

And though SLA, located in a retrofitted office building a few blocks away from the science museum, has no gym, teaches only one world language, and doesn’t offer every sport, there are advantages.

“The secret to small-school development, in my opinion, is you do fewer things, but you do them very well,” Lehmann said. “We only offer Spanish, but we offer a really great Spanish program.”

Students who want to take advanced courses not offered at SLA, for instance, might take classes at Community College of Philadelphia or even the University of Pennsylvania.

Small schools in Philadelphia

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

Plus, “we had an opportunity to create any club we wanted,” said Jasmine Thomas, the recent SLA graduate. (And they did, including an improv club, a tech squad, and a “young women’s empowerment” group.)

Every student has an adviser who stays with him or her for four years. Each also has an “individualized learning plan.” For Thomas, that allowed her to work at a community-based nonprofit and tutor students at a local charter school.

History teacher Diana Laufenberg came to Philadelphia from Arizona just to teach at SLA. And yes, she said, it was worth it.

“I’ve been following it since it opened,” she said. “I wanted to be in a school that matched what I wanted to be a part of. This is a place where everyone is pulling in the same direction.”

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 June 30, 2010.

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