Smaller high schools give graduation rates a boost

Since 2000, the number of options has grown. More students are choosing schools where it’s harder to fall through the cracks.

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

At Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School, junior Gina Rodriguez said, she has found a place where she can be creative, express herself, and confide in teachers when she feels overwhelmed.

The principal, Lisette Agosto-Cintron, said the school is so small that everybody knows everybody.

“You feel coddled here,” she said.

At Constitution High School in Center City, teachers helped Taeniece Howard find an internship as a freshman and nudged her to join student government. And they taught her a valuable lesson: “You don’t know where you’re going until you know your past,” she said.

At Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker campus, senior Chris Everett wasn’t at all surprised one recent morning at 5:45 when he got a wakeup call from the dean of students. That’s happened more than once, just to be sure he gets to school on time.

And at Esperanza Academy Charter High School, teachers brainstorm via email when one tags a student as falling off track.

“We have some amazing, high-flying students, but we have some students who require a lot of our attention,” said David Solivan, the school’s director of community and parent outreach.

“But that’s part of who we are. We’re committed to serving every student, every parent, every home. And it’s exhausting.”

These four high schools represent a mix of the types common in Philadelphia. Esperanza and Shoemaker are charter schools, Kensington CAPA is one of four small learning communities that replaced Kensington High a decade ago, and Constitution is designated as a citywide admissions school, requiring certain grades, attendance rates, and behavior for admission.

All four of the schools are relatively small. Constitution enrolls about 400 students in grades 9-12. Kensington CAPA has 480 9-12 students. Mastery Shoemaker has 400 students in grades 9-12 and 400 in the 6-8 program. Esperanza is the largest, with 750 students in grades 9-12 and 650 in a new middle school.

All four are also relatively young institutions, emerging in a period when the number of public high school options expanded sharply. Only Esperanza, which opened in 2000, has been around as a high school for more than a decade.

And all four have shown at least moderate success in keeping students on track to graduation.

Their experiences shed light on what may be one factor in a four-year on-time graduation rate that has been inching steadily upward in the city over the last decade: smaller schools, either charter- or District-run, many of them with special themes that draw students to enroll. The schools are viewed as safe, with good climates, classrooms under control, and caring adults committed to working with students and their families.

“Kids don’t fall through the cracks here,” said Tom Davidson, Constitution’s principal.

Research in New York City concluded in 2014 that small high schools of choice had a positive impact on graduation rates, and the approach has won federal backing, with the Small Schools of Choice turnaround model winning pre-approval for districts seeking federal School Improvement Grant dollars. Small Schools of Choice are defined as “schools that are organized around smaller, more personalized units of adults and students, giving students a better chance of being known and noticed.”

Small size matters, said Sharif El-Mekki, principal at Mastery-Shoemaker, as do effective, engaging instruction and staff who can build relationships with students and families.

“I don’t think kids wake up in the hood thinking ‘I don’t want to learn,’ ” El-Mekki said.

“[But] there are so many distractions out there, there has to be something here at school that draws them. They’re making a choice to get to school at a 95 percent [attendance] clip.”

Finding the right fit

Senior Shinise Hopson left Shoemaker, but was drawn back.

“At the other school, I wasn’t getting no education, no homework, no tutoring, no help,” she said.

Hopson said she resolved to improve her behavior and won readmission.

“I realized bad behavior wasn’t going to get me nowhere. I felt like education is what I need.”

Hopson had stressors at home as she helped her single mom care for younger siblings.

“It’s, like, hard. I try to juggle, help out. I’ve got to keep going, but sometimes I just want to give up.”

Everett, the Shoemaker senior roused by the early morning call, said he considered dropping out after being held back in 11th grade.

“I thought I might get teased. But everybody was supportive. We have a good staff. They try to help you as many ways as possible, make sure you get the guidance you need,” Everett said.

“I didn’t want to return at first, but this is the school that’s going to help me get where I want to go.”

At Kensington CAPA, principal Agosto-Cintron credited the school’s focus on the creative and performing arts, graphic design, and film production as being “the glue that makes us special.”

“Our kids have opted to come here,” she said. “That makes a big difference. They saw something that interested them before they even walked in the door.”

“We talk about celebrating diversity, and how everybody has a talent, and so on. Why wouldn’t we have these special schools? It makes no sense not to.”

The school has offered Rodriguez, who’s studying design and sings in the school choir, and her classmates “a great opportunity to explore our creative side,” Rodriguez said. “That’s something I’ve never had at any other school.”

At her small school, she’s also developed as a speaker on issues of concern to students.

“My dad always used to say a closed mouth never gets fed,” Rodriguez said. “Just because we’re teenagers doesn’t mean we can’t change anything. We can do a lot just by speaking up.”

Matthew Lassus, a junior, said he feels watched over by teachers and staff. “If they see that you’re going through something, they pull you into their office to talk things over,” he said.

Every student counts

At Esperanza, a key goal is to hold on to all the students who enroll there, not just the high achievers, according to David Rossi, Esperanza Charter Schools CEO.

“We have to be a school for all kids,” he said.

Staffers monitor attendance, suspensions, and failing grades to identify at-risk students, who are assigned one or more mentors – a teacher, other staff, or possibly someone from the community. Students sometimes bristle at the attention, and parents sometimes are surprised by calls from school.

“We engage them a lot,” said Solivan. “We tell parents, we expect you to partner with us.”

“That’s one of the things we try very hard at,” said Rossi. “I’m treating the parent as my partner to treat the problem that the child is experiencing.”

Some students transfer, which can be the start of a slippery slope toward dropping out.

“The more dangerous pipeline is 11th and 12th grades – kids who have experienced failure, kids who get close to the end, but they’re old enough to say, ‘I’m going to go to work, or do this or that.’ Eleventh and 12th can be very tenuous,” Rossi said.

Most students persist to graduation. “Eventually the student sees that nobody gives up,” said Angela Smith, the high school’s director of instruction.

But it takes time – a long time – for students to drop their guard, she said.

For students who start at Esperanza in 9th grade, full buy-in occurs well into the 10th-grade year.

“It’s February of 10th grade,” said Smith. “Almost overnight, they’re behaving better. They’ve decided this place is safe. They don’t have to posture.They don’t have to fight. They don’t have to protect their stuff.”

“Why can our boys graduate at higher rates? I wonder if it’s that they don’t have to spend their days fighting, protecting. They can spend their days studying and building relationships that are healthy and appropriate.”

Esperanza recently added a middle school program and is seeking to add grades K-5, though that application was recently turned down by the School Reform Commission.

Mixing things up

Taeniece Howard, a Constitution High senior, says the mix of students at her school works in its favor. (Photo: Harvey Finkle) At Constitution, seniors Taeniece Howard and Sunny Morgan and junior Francis Strobel were in firm agreement: Their school has supportive teachers, offers lots of opportunities, and benefits from the fact that students come from all over the city.

There should be more schools like theirs, they agreed.

“They should mix things up. A lot more schools should be citywide,” said Howard. “All of us know each other, but we’re from different parts of the city.

“A lot of people bring their rivalries to school, and it affects everybody’s learning because there’s a fight like every other day,” she said, describing the troubles at neighborhood high schools.

“That’s not what school is for. School’s to learn, not to deal with all the negativity that goes on in the neighborhood.”

Connie Langland is a freelance writer on education issues.

This story will appear in the forthcoming print issue focusing on high school dropouts and graduation, due out May 22.