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New Arrangements: Reforming Philadelphia's High Schools From Within

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PHILADELPHIA--At 9:15 on a crisp, sunny fall morning, lines of students spill out the doors of Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia, a formidable Gothic-style building with castle-like battlements.

As the latecomers receive passes that will admit them to class, they file into the cavernous hallway of the school, built in 1927 in what has since become one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

At one time, Gratz was considered one of the worst of the district's 22 neighborhood high schools. But that sad distinction meant that Gratz differed from the other schools only in degree, not in kind.

By almost any measure--course passage, credit accumulation, dropout and graduation rates, performance on standardized tests, and students' experiences after high school--Philadelphia's comprehensive schools are troubled institutions.

These are the schools that serve the average child in Philadelphia, those for whom there is no spot in the city's 12 special-admissions high schools. Their students are likely to be disadvantaged members of minority groups, many overage for their grade and with poor academic records.

Staffed by aging teachers and hidebound in their allegiance to academic departments, this city's neighborhood high schools "tend to be almost like a little school district unto themselves,'' observed Robert B. Schwartz, the director of education programs for the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is based here.

"If you're looking for an entry point for structural changes,'' he added, "that's typically the last place you look.''

Nevertheless, the neighborhood high schools are the focus of one of the most comprehensive school-improvement efforts in the nation.

The Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, with more than $16 million in funding from Pew, has been working since 1988 to break down the anonymity of the neighborhood high schools by creating "charters,'' or semiautonomous schools, within their walls.

'We Cannot Go Back'

Each charter serves a heterogeneous mix of 200 to 400 students and is run by a team of 10 to 12 teachers. These teachers have common planning time and develop their own instructional methods and curricula, which are often interdisciplinary. Ideally, to forge a sense of connection and commitment to the charter, the teachers and students will remain together for four years.

These smaller units also have drawn parents back into the schools, collaborative officials say. Parents are invited to participate in many of the planning and staff-development activities, and receive stipends for their attendance just as teachers do.

There are now 97 charters in the neighborhood high schools. Every school has at least two charters; 11 schools are "fully chartered,'' meaning that all students and faculty members are attached to a charter. By the end of this school year, the collaborative estimates that there will be 120 charters.

Some charters have ties to universities and help to prepare new teachers. Some emphasize the humanities or multicultural studies, while others prepare students for careers in business or human services.

Despite its reputation for academic problems, Gratz is the home of what observers say is one of the most successful charters in the city. This writing-intensive program, called Crossroads, was the brainchild of veteran teachers who say that, with the collaborative's help, they were finally able to create a school that made sense to them.

Crossroads "has made a remarkable difference in the lives of some adults and children,'' said Marsha Pincus, an English teacher who founded the charter with two colleagues.

Talking with a reporter recently, she and Bob Fecho, another English teacher and a co-founder of the program, interrupted each other in their eagerness to talk about Crossroads.

"You're always cautious and cynical'' about new programs, Mr. Fecho said. "We'd plan and then say, 'If it doesn't work out, we can go back in the room and close the door.' ''

"Never having tasted this, we could do that,'' he continued, "but having tasted this autonomy, and sharing with other people, the continuity ...''

"Or that I could know these kids ...'' Ms. Pincus interjected.

"We cannot go back,'' he said.

"If this is taken away from me,'' she warned, "then, personally, I am out of here.''

No 'Precious' Programs

Aside from teachers' enthusiasm, there is evidence that the more personalized approach is paying off for students. The collaborative reports that students who are attached to charters have better attendance records and lower dropout rates, and pass more courses than students who are not.

The number of students who repeat 9th grade has also increased, officials say, meaning that they are returning to school for another year instead of dropping out.

The concept of creating "schools within a school'' is a familiar one in education, but the charters are not ends in themselves.

Michelle Fine, a senior consultant to the collaborative and a professor of education at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, makes no secret of her disdain for what she calls "precious'' programs that serve only the "creamy slice'' of the most able students.

Instead, the charters are seen as a lever for radically restructuring each high school and for decentralizing the district to enable the charters to flourish.

"Decisions and money should be at the site of practice,'' Ms. Fine asserted. "Schools should become autonomous sites for teacher work, student work, and parent involvement.''

In setting as its goal the realignment of the district's bureaucracy to support these small, personal units, the Philadelphia School Collaborative "has adopted a much more encompassing view of restructuring than that typically espoused by reform initiatives in other communities,'' concludes an assessment of the P.S.C.'s first three years.

Multifaceted Strategy

Janis I. Somerville, the executive director of the collaborative, and Ms. Fine have designed a multifaceted approach to school reform.

The collaborative has played a lead role in establishing shared decisionmaking and school-based management in the district. Nineteen of the comprehensive high schools have governance councils that are charged with developing educational plans for the schools that include provisions for planning charters. More than 60 parents serve on the councils.

Teachers in 12 charters are exploring the use of performance assessments for their students, also under the P.S.C.'s guidance.

The collaborative encompasses a College Access project to help inner-city students continue their studies, and the Algebra Transition Program, which is working to improve students' access to and passage of higher-level mathematics courses.

One of the collaborative's most difficult challenges is to identify the administrative and procedural hurdles that interfere with high school restructuring and to work with district officials to remove them.

The nonprofit organization occupies a prime spot for doing so: just down the hallway from Superintendent Constance E. Clayton's office in the district's massive Art Deco headquarters.

A $8.3 million grant from Pew paid for the P.S.C.'s first three years. Last summer, the foundation approved a $7.8 million grant for another three years. The gifts were the largest ever made to a district by a single philanthropy, Pew says.

Ms. Fine, explaining why she believes big-city school bureaucracies need to be broken down, compares the work here with the massive decentralization of the Chicago schools mandated by the Illinois legislature.

"Chicago is the best test of what the law can do,'' she said, "and we're the best test of what money can do.''

'Creeping Academics'

What Pew's money has purchased, collaborative officials say, is enriching professional opportunities for seasoned teachers that have spiced the charters with academically rich programs.

The charters receive some discretionary money from the district for materials and "release time'' for the charter coordinators to plan the program.

In the earliest days of the collaborative's work, Ms. Fine has written, teachers who were asked to dream about what schools "could be'' envisioned very traditional improvements: more teachers and counselors, more tracking, and more special-education placements.

The collaborative's task became to help teachers broaden their ideas, an approach she calls "neither top-down nor naively bottom-up.'' The result of the emphasis on including special-education students in charters and broadening all students' access to college-preparatory courses, she said, has been a phenomenon she calls "creeping academics.''

Schools were given a set of broad guidelines for creating charters, specifying that they should have "substantive themes'' to which teachers and students would commit for several years, teams of teachers, rigorous and integrated academic curricula, and varied instructional strategies.

The planning teams began their work by focusing on the 9th grade, a difficult transition year for many students. In Philadelphia, it is particularly so, because the district's promotion policies have resulted in as many as 25 percent of 9th graders being overage for their grade.

Through travel to national conferences, contact with teachers from around the nation who visited Philadelphia, and summer institutes and curriculum-planning seminars, the teachers began creating the new charters. Last summer, 1,300 parents and teachers registered for the summer institute.

The charters have provided a fertile environment for teachers whose intellects have been stimulated by such professional opportunities. In the past, teachers who developed new approaches were "sent back into institutions that were defeating,'' noted Morris J. Vogel, a professor of history at Temple University who helps teachers develop interdisciplinary curricula.

"In all of the charters, it's the same principle,'' he said. "You don't separate the person who designs the curriculum from the person who implements it.''

Message Gets Through

Teachers here have seen immediate results from their efforts.

Zachary Rubin, a history teacher at Lincoln High, which has a charter with a professional-development emphasis that is affiliated with Temple University, says his students' grasp of the subject has increased markedly since teachers at his school organized their instruction around such themes as "creation.''

Before the charter began, he said, "there was absolutely no retention. I realized I was not getting the materials across.''

Jacqueline Burton, a mathematics teacher who works with Mr. Rubin, recalled overhearing a student talking about how he heard about nothing but creation in his math, English, and history classes. She said she knew then that the interdisciplinary message was getting through.

Working as a team with other teachers also has cut down on attendance and discipline problems, Ms. Burton added, because students know that their teachers are in close contact with each other.

"If something happens in Mr. Rubin's room, I will know about it,'' Ms. Burton said. "It helps a lot, it really does.''

Ultimately, collaborative officials say, the success of the restructuring effort rests with teachers like Mr. Rubin and Ms. Burton.

"We are trying,'' said Ms. Somerville, the effort's executive director, "to build a constituency for change from within the ranks of teachers.''

Encountering Barriers

In doing so, and in pursuing the kinds of policy changes at the district level that will support the charters, the collaborative and leaders of the charters have begun to run up against some of the formidable barriers to urban school reform.

"A whole lot of dynamics are involved when it becomes a school full of charters, as opposed to an isolated program from the rest of the building,'' Ms. Somerville explained. "When the whole building is involved, there is this tremendous energy and questioning everything.''

At Gratz, a "fully chartered'' school, teachers in the Crossroads program have begun questioning some of the traditional high school staffing positions.

They wonder, for example, whether it still makes sense to have a full-time "roster chairman'' to schedule students and teachers, since charters are devising their own schedules.

The role of department heads--who teach a reduced load, order supplies, discipline some students, and observe but do not formally evaluate teachers--also has come into question.

The average high school class size is 33, a number that many teachers would like to see reduced.

"There are ways we could do it,'' Mr. Fecho said, "but not just with Crossroads. The whole school would have to buy in, and there are real turf problems. You don't talk about department heads teaching four classes.''

At Kensington High, said Shirley Farmer, a teacher in a charter there, "we have charter meetings instead of departmental meetings. It's clear to me that [system] is pretty obsolete.''

But these positions, the teachers note, have provided some of the few perquisites available to teachers and have spawned a number of union leaders who are loyal to the jobs.

There has been a great deal of reluctance, in general, to rethinking the organization and mission of the high schools, Ms. Fine said. She calls the lack of faith in change and suspicion that has grown up in some schools "communitarian damage,'' and frankly admits that the collaborative had underestimated it when the restructuring work began.

Teacher Mobility

Such attitudes have meant, not surprisingly, that the quality of the charters varies. Ms. Fine estimates that 15 are "really interesting,'' 30 to 40 are "pretty good and getting better,'' and that the rest are "not so good, but no worse than the high schools they came out of.''

The wariness that has greeted the collaborative's initiatives is easy to understand, said Mr. Schwartz of Pew, because there has been so little new blood in the comprehensive high schools. Special education has been one of the few exceptions to that rule.

"Particularly in high school English and social studies,'' he said, "there hasn't been anybody new hired for 20 years. You're dealing overwhelmingly with a veteran teaching force in these schools that has seen highly touted innovations come and go.''

Even though few new teachers have been hired, teachers themselves are highly mobile. Fluctuations in the student population, caused by such factors as mobile families and dropouts, mean that teachers must be reassigned.

The mobility of students and teachers, in fact, has emerged as one of the central challenges for the charters. Without finding a way to reduce it, teachers here warn, the goal of having teams of students and teachers stay together for more than a year will be impossible to attain.

Essie Abrahams, an English teacher at Lincoln High School and a charter coordinator, recalls the time during the end of her charter's first year when it was announced that the school could lose 17 teachers.

"I walked into our charter meeting, and it meant that the only person who would be there was me,'' she said. "We can't do everything they want us to do if they are constantly throwing away our people.''

The losses at Lincoln were prevented, but teachers say they are mindful that teacher turnover could undermine their best efforts to create cooperative faculties.

The problem is particularly acute given the fact that the charters began with the 9th grade, the level at which high school teachers with the least seniority are clustered, according to the evaluation of the P.S.C.

"The collaborative, district, and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers must examine policies related to teacher assignment and staff allocation to insure that charters are not jeopardized,'' it warns.

Worry Over Contract

The concern about teacher mobility was highlighted this fall, when the teachers' union and the district announced an agreement on a two-year contract that will move the district from a yearlong schedule into a two-semester calendar. The motive for the switch was to give students who were failing courses the opportunity to have a fresh start during the second semester, explained Ted Kirsch, the president of the union.

But some teachers involved with charters expressed fear that the district would have to realign teacher assignments during the middle of the school year, which could disrupt their programs.

The outcry of concern after the contract was signed was loud enough that Superintendent Clayton sent teachers a letter noting that they could ask for a policy waiver if they believed transfers would harm their charters.

The new schedule "has nothing to do with breaking up the continuity of instruction in the charter or in any other school,'' Ms. Clayton said. "I tried to put that to rest.''

The concern over how systemwide or schoolwide policies affect charters has raised a deeper question about whether charters might someday be completely autonomous units. Ms. Fine is enthusiastic about that possibility.

But Dick Clark, a consultant to the Pew Charitable Trusts, warned that a school cannot simply be a collection of charters because the overall environment must be a "healthy setting'' for students and teachers.

"The piece that hasn't been worked out,'' he said, "is what is the role of the schoolwide leadership? Is it a confederation or a republic?''

'Elitism' a Concern

Over lunch one day recently with Mr. Kirsch and an associate, Ms. Somerville and Ms. Fine threw out the question of whether teachers might be allowed to transfer into charters, rather than simply moving from school to school.

They argued that the option would help create a better match between teachers' interests and the charters' themes. Some teachers say they would like to go a step further and have the authority to hire their colleagues to work with them in the charters.

Others, however, adamantly oppose that idea, arguing that it would create an "elitist'' system that would discriminate against some teachers.

The teachers' union, Mr. Kirsch said, takes a "firm and consistent'' position that teachers should not start hiring other teachers.

"I don't see the need to hire their own teachers,'' he said. Focusing on the teachers sends the message that the program would be more successful with different teachers, he explained, which means that teachers are to blame for the current conditions. "I don't believe that,'' he added.

In schools where the topic has come up, said Jerald Hairston, a union official who assists restructuring schools, teachers have decided that "they shouldn't be about getting teachers to come in,'' but should concentrate on helping existing teachers to "buy into it.''

'In Constant Discourse'

The answers to some of the larger questions posed by restructuring the high schools ultimately will have to come from district officials, observers here note, and not classroom teachers. Some teachers remain skeptical of the extent of the administration's commitment to the charters.

"The district hasn't moved much,'' Mr. Fecho of Gratz's Crossroads charter said. "We are like a big person in a small room. We have pushed this district as far as it has moved. Unless downtown changes, this whole school is going to be stuck.''

At this point, observers say, the district and teachers' union are considered to be generally supportive of the high school restructuring, but each side appears to be keeping a close eye on the other to make the first move toward radical change. They note that the new teachers' contract was reached through traditional bargaining and contains little to advance the high school initiatives.

The problem of teacher mobility, Ms. Clayton asserted, is a "union issue.''

"We stay in constant discourse with the union on issues of that nature,'' she said. "I am trying to negotiate with the federation without having them feel that there's an erosion of what they worked so hard for and what they feel are the rights of their constituents. It doesn't happen overnight.''

Mr. Kirsch said he believes that, while the superintendent is supportive, "middle management gets in the way.''

The assessment of the collaborative's first three years concludes that its efforts to create an environment in the central administration that is "conducive to restructuring'' have been "stymied.''

But Ms. Clayton insisted that she has sent a strong message in favor of reform to her subordinates.

"We have tangibly and honestly taken a much stronger position of being of service to the field rather than issuing directives,'' she said.

Over the past 10 years under the superintendent's leadership, the district has achieved a remarkable degree of stability for an urban system, Mr. Schwartz of Pew noted. Ms. Clayton has balanced the budget, achieved labor peace, standardized the curriculum, and established a good working relationship with the board of education.

"The flip side of that continuity and stability also means that when you're talking about change of the magnitude that is contemplated in this restructuring effort, it makes it more difficult,'' Mr. Schwartz observed. "The key players have been in place for a long time, and they are accustomed to a certain way of doing business.''

Teachers Press On

As the larger questions raised by the reform effort are debated, hundreds of teachers throughout the city are pressing on with their programs.

At Horace H. Furness High on the city's south end, the creation of charters has "bred nothing but professionalism,'' said Bill Tomasco, a department head.

Before the charters were created, he said, the school was "languishing. It was a sleepy hollow with no direction.''

Now its students, many of whom are Southeast Asian immigrants, are using the city as their classroom to study immigration, planning trips abroad, and writing books about resettling in America.

The investment in their professionalism, said Valerie Nelsen, the coordinator of the school's multicultural charter, "makes teachers rise to the occasion.''

"Their creativity is at such a high,'' she added. "Plus, there's the enthusiasm of the kids.''

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