Meeting District Needs

Hands-On Career Academies Struggle to Get Off the Ground

By Benjamin Herold — June 10, 2014 2 min read
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For the past two years, the nonprofit Philadelphia Academies Inc. has worked to bring “wall to wall” career academies to 11 city schools, including Roxborough High. The model seems closely aligned with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s vision of high schools focused on real-world, inquiry-based learning.

But the district’s budget woes—and Mr. Hite’s decision to give priority to other approaches, such as creating three new high schools—have helped prevent nine of those schools from moving beyond the planning phase.

Even though Roxborough is one of the lucky ones, it is in a precarious position, facing a second straight year of trying to support its career academies with sharply limited resources.

Faces of Change

Philadelphia educators experience hope, disappointment when pursuing hands-on, technology-rich school models. Hear what five of these educators had to say about their efforts.

Gianeen C. Powell
Principal, James G. Blaine Elementary School

Daniel E. Ueda
Teacher, Central High School

Lisa J. Nutter & Dana A. Jenkins
President, Philadelphia Academies Inc. & Principal, Roxborough High School

Grace J. Cannon
Executive director, Office of New School Models

Andrew A. Biros & Joshua D. Kleiman
Teachers, Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts

It’s enough to bring tears to the eyes of Lisa J. Nutter, Philadelphia Academies’ president.

“It’s almost easier to start over with a new school, new teachers, and a new principal,” Ms. Nutter said. “But most students attend comprehensive high schools. So there’s also value in helping people who … are working their hearts out to transform existing schools.”

This school year, rookie Roxborough principal Dana A. Jenkins didn’t get the green light to attempt new career academies until mid-August. The timing set off a mad scramble.

Already committed to take in more than 125 students from a nearby high school that was recently shuttered, Roxborough then received an unexpected, last-minute influx of 20 troubled students from nearby disciplinary schools that were also shut down.

To top it off, Ms. Jenkins started the year without any counselors and short a teacher, assistant principal, and numerous support and administrative workers.

“I wake up tired,” she said. “But we’re keeping hope alive that the district can secure the funds to give us the support we need to run this model the right way.”

Despite signs of progress at the school, that aid appears unlikely.

About This Series

“The Innovation Gamble” follows a city district resting its hopes on a tech-themed approach. This is the third of three parts.

Part One: Philadelphia Seeks Salvation in Lessons From Model School

Part Two: Innovative Ed. Model Challenges Teachers to Adjust

Part Three: Phila. Funding Crisis Threatens Spread of Innovation

Video: Watch Christopher Lehmann discuss the motivation for Science Leadership Academy’s switch from Mac laptops to Chromebooks.

Video: Watch Karthik Subburam, a teacher at the Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, work to change how he teaches.

Multimedia: Replicating a Model School: The People Behind the Effort

Ms. Jenkins’ saving grace this school year was an assistant principal who arrived at the school Nov. 19. That position is slated to be eliminated in next school year’s budget.

Ultimately, said Ms. Nutter, who is the wife of Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, systemwide improvement will occur only if the district can find ways to support and sustain meaningful efforts to innovate within existing school structures.

To do that, she said, Philadelphia schools need more money.

“This isn’t happening because Dr. Hite is not making the right choices,” Ms. Nutter said. “It’s happening because, in Pennsylvania, we don’t fund schools rationally.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as Hands-On Career Academies Struggle to Get Off the Ground

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