Neighborhood high schools look to reinvent themselves

Ninth graders will get extra attention. Principals may adopt special themes and focus more on careers and college.

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

The District’s 20 neighborhood high schools — sometimes overlooked by families considering the academic options after middle school — are scrambling to find new lives as viable, even preferable alternatives to the city’s lineup of special admission, citywide admission and charter schools.

All of the neighborhood schools have opened 9th-grade academies, each with a newly assigned assistant principal, its own cadre of teachers and classrooms, and minimal interaction with upperclassmen for the students. There’s more focus on career and technical programming, and principals are being encouraged to open theme-based academies.

Roxborough High School, for instance, has three academies — sciences, arts and business. Sayre, in West Philadelphia, offers medical science studies and afterschool opportunities through a partnership with the Netter Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Penn Treaty High is among several schools that have introduced AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a college prep program that improves the odds of students – if they have the skills and are doing well in high school – to persevere and graduate college.

And in a pilot project, Sayre, South Philadelphia, Frankford and Kensington High Schools are getting even more support — including a career and college coordinator at each school for 9th grade only.

“Every high school has to become a high school of choice,” said Cheryl Logan, the District’s chief academic support officer.

“I don’t want any child to feel they have defaulted into a high school. If you want to stay in your neighborhood catchment because you want to be close to home, your local school should have programming to fit your needs.”

Sam Howell, principal at Penn Treaty, said, “The plan is to have a good school in every zip code.”

Daunting behemoths

The effort is both necessary and long overdue, in the opinion of some observers.

Most of the neighborhood high schools stand as behemoths — towering stone edifices visible from blocks away and utterly daunting the first time a new kid goes searching for his homeroom. Decades ago, nearly every public high school in the city was a neighborhood high school, accepting every student who walked in the door and offering a comprehensive curriculum that varied little, if at all, from one school to the next.

But that model of instruction and organization fell on hard times long ago. Too many students fell behind, dropped out, or ended up taking remedial coursework once they entered college.

“What you see in high schools in distressed urban settings nationally is that kids make backward progress once they get to high school,” said Logan, “and that’s not acceptable.”

Magnet and citywide admission schools siphoned off students who could meet admission criteria, while charter schools wooed other students away. But even now, neighborhood high schools enroll more students than District-run magnet and citywide admission high schools combined.

“We have had decades of neglect of these schools,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children & Youth (PCCY), the region’s leading child advocacy organization. Last winter, PCCY published “Separate and Unequal: A Path Forward for Neighborhood High Schools.”

The District’s recent efforts, including the hiring of an executive director of high school reform, are “a move in the right direction,” she said. The new director is Fateama Fulmore, formerly a high school principal in North Carolina.

Concluding that “there is no quick fix,” the PCCY report (which can be found at made numerous recommendations related to leadership, staffing and financial support. To improve student outcomes, the report recommended “smart and reliable” remediation, more skills-based learning, more access to college prep courses, and more arts, electives, and enrichment.

Some schools, including George Washington in the Northeast, have long had successful programming in place. Others revamped efforts more recently, and some are trying new approaches this school year.

“The District has pointed out, correctly, that not every neighborhood high school is in equally bad condition or has the same challenges,” Cooper noted.

According to the PCCY report, based on recent data, every neighborhood high school offers the coursework needed to enter college. Nine offer up to five Advanced Placement (AP) courses, five offer six or more AP courses, and two — Northeast and George Washington — offer the International Baccalaureate program.

Schools also are being encouraged to adopt the “restorative practices” model to reduce violence and bullying in schools — another recommendation of the report.

Anton Austin is a big fan of neighborhood high schools. The father of four children, two of whom are in high school, lives in the Overbrook section of the city. Austin worries about the schools’ reputation, but has high hopes for their renaissance.

“I’ve always felt neighborhood schools were valuable, but I’ve seen over the years that the resources in them have declined. If your child has a particular affinity or skill, programming might not be offered at the neighborhood school. That’s an issue they’re hopefully now addressing,” said Austin, speaking of the career and technical education (CTE) offerings.

One of Austin’s children is at Parkway West High,land the other high schooler, Aris Austin, is now in 10th grade at Overbrook. Aris Austin had been at the Building 21 program, but also doing Junior ROTC at Benjamin Franklin High School. The travel and scheduling hassles proved to be too much. At Overbrook, the youth has JROTC and a CTE program.

“I look forward to the day when you can track your kids from the elementary schools in your neighborhood all the way up to the high school and graduation,” said Austin. “It’s almost insane that you have to travel to some other neighborhood for something fairly basic.”

9th-grade focus

According to Logan, the chief academic officer, the focus on 9th grade is strategic, with the payoff coming later, in the upper grades.

“If we can reduce the number of kids who are credit-deficient when they come back for year two, that will really change the dynamics of the whole school,” she said. “The quicker we catch kids up, the better the outcome.”

Peter Jepsen, new assistant principal for 9th grade at Penn Treaty School, said his attention will be “laser-focused” on achievement and attendance issues.

“Any student absent more than three consecutive days will be assigned, in essence, a case manager,” he said.

Early intervention and mentoring will be key, he said, to ensuring that 9th graders graduate on time. Penn Treaty, which expanded from a middle school to 6-12 several years ago, touts itself as a STEM-based school, with all students studying physics and engineering, among other subjects.

The school also offers AVID, an elective that builds writing and organizational and study skills. The program, said Jepsen, is aimed at “B and C students who may be the first in their family to [aspire] to college, but who need that extra level of support to become college-ready.”

Karee Brown, 16, a junior, does AVID each year.

“Our instructors give us the step-by-step to succeed. I know I’m getting ready for college,” he said.

His goals are twofold: to study engineering or business in college and to pursue a career as a professional boxer.

Doing well in high school “is just like chasing your dream, in my case, boxing,” said Brown. “You have to be willing to put in the work.”

Penn Treaty and the other neighborhood high schools are gearing up for increased scrutiny and layers of initiatives.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Logan. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it.”

“This is a hugely important issue,” said Cooper. These are the schools, she said, “where the kids who have the least family support and the greatest needs end up – and where most kids go to school.”

Connie Langland is a freelance education writer who writes frequently for the Notebook.