Pa. school rankings: Downingtown STEM No. 1; Phila. falters

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Knowledge Commons at Downingtown STEM High School. SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / File Photograph

For a second consecutive year, Downingtown STEM Academy is the top-scoring public school on the state's School Performance Profiles, released Thursday.

"Awesome; wow, this is very fortunate," principal Art Campbell said minutes after learning that the Chester County school was again No. 1 among more than 2,900 schools.

The second- and third-place schools also were in Philadelphia's suburbs: Central Bucks High School East and Lower Merion's Merion Elementary in Montgomery County. Each scored above 100.

Unlike last year, no Philadelphia schools cracked the top 25.

Central High School led city schools with a 90.8 score, but plummeted in the standings from second place to 302d this year. Its score was still slightly ahead of Carver High's 90.6 and Masterman's 90.1.

This marks the second year the state Department of Education has released the scores for nearly all 800 of the region's schools, including charters, to measure academic progress.

Last year, the scores were released in October. And while public education was a hotly disputed issue during the gubernatorial campaign, state officials said the fact that this year's scores were not released until after the election was about ensuring accuracy - not politics.

The profiles award each school a number from zero to 100, with the potential of seven bonus points based on PSSA and Keystone test scores, growth of test scores, graduation rates, and other factors.

Fifty-three percent of schools statewide received lower SPP scores compared with last year's, while 46 percent improved. A handful were unchanged. In the region, 55 percent saw decreases and 43 percent improved.

One positive for the five-county region: Last year, 60.8 percent of schools had an SPP score of 70 or above - a threshold that the state views as positive. Slightly more reached the mark this year, but it's still below the 72 percent for schools statewide.

Only 15.9 percent of schools in the Philadelphia School District, which suffered through a year of brutal budget cuts that led to program and staff cuts, hit a 70.

But some Philadelphia schools saw significant jumps. Sheridan Elementary in Kensington saw a nearly 12-point gain in its score, registering a 56.7.

Margaret Breen, the school's teacher leader, said Sheridan focused on phonics in the lower grades, bolstered math instruction, and even managed to add a science program.

Sheridan staff learned the good news during the school day Thursday and were jubilant, Breen said.

'We're printing out posters," she said. "We're so excited."

The profiles provide other data, such as attendance and graduation rates; math, reading, biology, and writing achievement; and SAT scores.

This approach replaces the system the state previously used to track achievement, which was Adequate Yearly Progress based solely on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams.

For some districts, in many cases those in affluent communities with healthy tax bases, the scores were affirming.

For others, it was one more indicator that the state's funding system penalizes lower-income communities that have grappled with budget cuts over the last few years.

"It shows if you have money and are able to put some things in place, you can do some things," Upper Darby Superintendent Richard Dunlap said.

Upper Darby High School and Charles Kelly Elementary School, which received School Improvements Grants - $1 million for the high school, $500,000 for Kelly - for the last three years, did fairly well, while other schools in the district remained static or slipped.

"This district has taken a pretty heavy hit financially the last couple of years and lost a lot of academic supports," Dunlap said.

The Norristown Area School District showed huge gains. Gotwals Elementary picked up 32.4 points to score 87.9, while Cole Manor Elementary added 27.1 points for a total of 88.9, showing the biggest increases in the region.

They were followed by two charter schools - Chester Charter School for the Arts, which scored 71.7, a 25-point gain, and Philadelphia's Mastery Charter School's Simon Gratz High School, whose score of 65.5 was a 20.5-point increase.

Ten of the 14 cyber charters performed worse this year. The highest performer, 21st Century Cyber in Downingtown, scored 66, below the minimum target of 70.

The schools with the biggest losses in the region were Overbrook Elementary in Philadelphia, dropping 19.8 points to 52.1, and Penn's Grove School in the Oxford Area School District, which lost 19.5 points for a score of 69.9.

 


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kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232 @kathyboccella