Groups determined to see high school plans implemented

'Sustainability circles' press for small school vision at West and Kensington high schools

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

Philadelphia has seen more than a few lofty plans for high school reform go unfulfilled. But in both West Philadelphia and Kensington, where community members have worked for months to develop a vision and plan for reforming their neighborhood high schools, there is an organized effort to make sure that these latest, ambitious reform plans come to fruition.

Few Philadelphia high schools have as much room for improvement as Kensington and West Philadelphia high schools, both reporting that half or less of their students graduate and more than one-fourth are absent daily.

At a May 10 School Reform Commission (SRC) meeting, six speakers from the West Philadelphia High School community presented their shared vision of a high school campus of four small schools, while expressing their determination to bring a change to the quality of education and student life at West Philadelphia as quickly as possible.

Since 2003, West Philadelphia has been promised a replacement high school building as part of the School District’s capital plan.

“Every day I walk into West Philadelphia High School, and I feel like I’m walking into a prison,” junior David James told the SRC.

West Philadelphia senior Raymond Williams described the profound impact of a trip he took, organized by the Philadelphia Student Union, to a successful small school in the Bronx that maintains a safe environment without metal detectors or student ID cards because the school is such a tight-knit community.

Tenth-grader Tiffany Fogle talked about an academic vision for a new West Philadelphia High that would be based upon “the three R’s — rigor, relevance and relationships,” while using hands-on learning and tackling “real-world community problems.”

These three students were among 180 community stakeholders who took part in a recent seven-month planning process for the proposed new school, led by Concordia, an architectural consulting firm.

School District CEO Paul Vallas called the resulting plan for the construction of a campus of small schools in West Philadelphia “splendid” and added, “Hopefully we’re close to a community consensus on where the site of the school should be.” The School Reform Commission needs to settle on a location for construction to move forward, he added.

“The quickest way to get this school built is to do it on the present athletic field,” Vallas added. “That way we wouldn’t have to relocate the kids until the school is built.” Vallas said construction could be completed by 2009.

While in West Philadelphia it was a chapter of the Philadelphia Student Union that provided the impetus for a planning process, in Kensington, it was the student group Youth United for Change that led in pressing for a new high school and demanding a community voice in the plans. A similar planning process, led by Concordia, was conducted for both schools.

Kensington, with its 1400 students, was broken into three small high schools last year, and the District’s capital plan includes construction of a new building for a fourth small high school in that community. A “Sustainability Circle” has been created at Kensington to encourage ongoing community efforts to improve the schools.

“The value of this community-based process has been bringing people together who learned that they share similar ideas about strengthening their neighborhood school and about building partnerships,” said Tia Keitt, small schools project coordinator at the Philadelphia Education Fund. The Ed Fund has been a facilitator of the planning process at both Kensington and West Philadelphia high schools.

Keitt explained that the community members who continue to meet in Kensington “have decided to continue to push for a new school and to try to get the community’s recommendations implemented.”

Elsewhere, five new high schools are slated to open in Philadelphia this fall. For the past three years, the District has been creating smaller schools by dividing up existing large high schools, making annexes or branches into separate schools, and converting middle schools to high schools as part of the District’s “Small Schools Transition Project.”

By fall, the District will have added 22 schools to its high school roster since 2003, nearly all of them with fewer than 500 students (see list).

CEO Vallas said the District’s efforts to downsize high schools would continue. Besides the plans for a new high school in Kensington and the small schools conversion in West Philadelphia, other small schools in the works for 2007 and beyond include a University of Pennsylvania-sponsored school on international affairs, a creative and performing arts school in the former Rush Middle School, and conversion of Pickett and Sulzberger middle schools into high schools.