District pursues creation of new, smaller high schools

Over two-year period, number of high schools to increase by 14

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Responding to growing evidence that large, urban high schools often are not as good learning environments as smaller schools, the School District is expanding its roster of high schools and thereby aiming to reduce student enrollment at large high schools.

Creg Williams, the District’s deputy chief academic officer in charge of high schools, said the District is implementing a "small schools" strategy not only to decrease the numbers of students in large high schools but also to provide "a whole lot more programmatic options for young people."

Besides starting up high schools from scratch, the District is dividing some high schools with multiple sites into separate schools and converting several middle schools into high schools. Based on current plans, there will be 14 more District high schools next September than there were a year ago – the majority of these with populations of 300-500 students.

While many of these schools involve new configurations of students in existing District buildings, each of the 14 new schools will have its own principal, budget, and curricular offerings.

Williams said that when the District constructs a facility for a new high school through its capital program, enrollment will be limited to 800-1000 students. But where existing high schools are being rebuilt, these schools may still be larger than 1000.

While some local community groups say the District’s target high school size should be 400 or fewer students, Williams and other District officials maintain that schools with enrollments under 600 are less cost-efficient.

District data show that a majority of Philadelphia high school students are now enrolled in schools of 1,500 students or more.

Here are the details on the three primary strategies for expanding high school options.

Conversions of middle schools

Williams said the District looked for "large middle schools suitable to become high school buildings, where the middle school enrollment was low, or the middle school wasn’t working." Five such middle schools took on a ninth grade this year and will keep adding a grade each year to become full-fledged high schools.

Three of the five schools – Vaux, Wanamaker, and Sayre – are also dropping a middle school grade each year. At FitzSimons and Rhodes, there was not enough space in the feeder schools this year to permit dropping the sixth grade at the middle school, Williams said.

An unsuccessful conversion took place at a sixth middle school. Pickett was slated for high school conversion and added a ninth grade this year, but Williams said the building is not suitable for a high school, and it will be back to middle school status next year.

The process of conversion to a high school is not an easy one for struggling middle schools, and since February the District has been providing stepped up training for the administrative teams at these "conversion schools."

Williams explained, "That group needed to be trained together as a group. Although they were experienced principals and administrators, they were transitioning to a high school, and that’s a much different school environment than a middle school."

Dividing schools with multiple sites

Three new schools with new principals were created last fall by turning auxiliary sites into separate schools. Five more high schools will be created that way this year.

Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia spun off two small schools last fall, with two more to come this fall. Parkway High School by next fall will be three separate schools – in West Philadelphia, Northwest Philadelphia, and Center City – each with its own principal. Also becoming autonomous schools next fall are Randolph and Lankenau, currently attached to Dobbins and Germantown, respectively.

Each of the resulting schools will serve fewer than 500 students. "The facility dictated the enrollment size in most of these cases," Williams explained.

The additional, ongoing cost of creating these separate small schools is about $225,000 each, including the cost of hiring a principal, a nurse, and a librarian, Williams stated.

At least one high school scheduled for reconstruction, Kensington, has an annex that Williams said will be considered as a possible site for conversion to a separate, small school.

Creating new schools from scratch

The most talked-about plan for a new school is the demonstration school backed by Microsoft Corporation, now slated to be built on a piece of park land in West Philadelphia near the Philadelphia Zoo. This is to be a new, technology-centered building serving about 800 students. The projected opening is September 2006.

Another high school on the drawing board will be the product of a District partnership with the Franklin Institute, aimed at developing a magnet high school focused on the sciences and technology.

One new school scheduled for opening this fall is a "military high school" – a model brought by CEO Paul Vallas from Chicago. The District is crafting a proposal to make Leeds Middle School in Northwest Philadelphia a middle and high school with a military program for high schoolers. A District spokesperson said community meetings will be scheduled for input on the plan.

Last September, the District added a privately managed 100-student disciplinary high school in Northeast Philadelphia, the Delaware Valley High School.

Still more to come

Williams said his office would continue to explore possibilities for expansion of small high school options. "We’re going to look for opportunities to rent and to lease additional spaces. If parochial schools close, we’re going to look at those opportunities."

Less is happening districtwide on reducing school size for grades K-8. In fact, while the middle school conversions should reduce the enrollment at established high schools, some K-8 and elementary schools across the city will grow larger as they have to hang onto their middle grades students. This year, 26 Philadelphia elementary schools added a grade to accommodate more middle grades students.

One new elementary school will be created next year by spinning off the annex of Sheridan School in North Philadelphia as a separate school. In addition, construction is scheduled to get underway later this year for a new elementary school at G Street and Hunting Park Avenue.