District plans five regional centers in place of accelerated schools

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

More details are emerging about the decision to close 13 privately run accelerated schools for over-age and under-credited students and replace them with District-run programs.

For the approximately 1,800 students currently enrolled in one of these schools who will not have earned diplomas by this summer, the District plans to open five regional centers, according to spokesperson Elizabeth Childs. They will be located at E.S. Miller and the Alternative Education Center at Hunting Park, both of which have housed disciplinary schools; Benjamin Franklin and South Philadelphia High Schools; and the Bartram Annex.

In addition, the District plans to use Department of Labor grants earmarked for programs that improve school climate and graduation rates to establish “twilight” programs, or evening schools, in 10 neighborhood high schools with high dropout rates. Each would serve 100 students already enrolled in each school who are in danger of dropping out.

It has asked some of the current providers if they want to operate these programs at $3,000 per student – well below what they spend now in the contracted alternative schools. Some have said they would consider it, according to Childs.

But the regional centers will be operated by the District. “These will be full-day programs based on the individual student’s needs,” she wrote in an email. “We will operate an interdisciplinary blended, ungraded, model similar to what is currently offered at PLA North and PLA South,” schools now operated by the District for students who have been expelled.

The move is designed to save $25 million to help close a projected $629 million budget gap.

But some of the providers said that the District was prematurely abandoning – without any discussion – an approach to re-engage disaffected students that was years in the development, starting to show results and attracting outside attention.

“The most alarming thing, here’s a program that is just starting,’ said David Bromley, president of Big Picture Philadelphia, which runs El Centro de Estudiantes in Kensington, one of the accelerated schools. “These out-of-school youth programs are just getting off the ground, and what’s happening here is a national model.”

A study last year showed that these schools boosted graduation rates, but that the success varied widely depending on the school.

The District, Bromley said, “is shutting down something that’s working and has the potential for replication. It’s shortsighted. And it is shutting this down with no conversation.“

The District has had alternative schools since 2004, but it is only in the past few years that it ramped up the effort, under Project U-Turn, to cope with the dropout crisis in part by creating a a “portfolio” of different schools and programs that would serve a population with varied needs and backgrounds.

Project U-Turn brings together the District, city agencies, foundations, nonprofits working on youth issues, parents, and students to cope with the dropout crisis and seek solutions. It is managed by the Philadelphia Youth Network.

“My students are highly upset,” said Marcus Delgado of One Bright Ray, which operates two accelerated schools with a combined enrollment of 390 students. “They don’t want to go back to comprehensive high schools or School-District-run programs.”

He said he expects 97 students to earn diplomas by August. “They have found success here,” he said. “It’s a small learning environment that accepts them for who they are.”

Re-engaging these students is expensive; it requires small classes, personal attention, and intensive services. Delgado’s schools offer child care, on-site social workers, and other amenities. The District, in announcing the closure, said it could enroll 500 more students and spend less money. Bromley said he didn’t think that was possible.

“They’re saying to us, it costs too much money working with hardest to reach kids that we’ve chronically failed, but we want to shut your schools down and we can do a better job for less money."

Policy makers who worked years to set up this alternative system to re-engage dropouts have stayed silent since the announcement.

Laura Shubilla of the Philadelphia Youth Network said Monday she was not yet ready to comment. Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education adviser who was also instrumental in promoting this approach to re-engage dropouts, did not return a phone call.