High school choices have expanded dramatically in Philadelphia over the last decade, but at a steep price: The large comprehensive schools are "hanging on by a thread," according to a new study by a local child-advocacy organization.
Though more options are available through new Philadelphia School District specialty schools and charters, the vast majority of city teens still attend neighborhood high schools, which have grown poorer, needier, less rigorous, and less stable, says research released Monday by Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY).
"All of the energy that's gone into creating alternatives could have been used to make these schools vibrant," said Donna Cooper, PCCY's executive director.
Unlike other types of schools, the 19 comprehensive high schools must take all students, regardless of behavioral history, learning needs, or other issues. And they enroll students who leave other types of schools throughout the year.
Of 30 students in a typical comprehensive high school class, PCCY found, four don't speak English, seven require special-education services, and seven are involved in the child-welfare system.
"Special admits and charter schools dump students here for behavioral issues," one neighborhood high school principal told researchers.
"I get funding in the beginning of the year," another principal said. "I'm not funded for the kids that come partway through the school year."
Neighborhood high schools also suffer from high turnover of administrators and teachers: From 2009-2015 the comprehensives averaged four or more principals in five years, researchers found. And many large, needy schools have too few or no assistant principals at all.
The neighborhood high schools absorbed the most significant budget cuts of the past several years, too - there are now 400 fewer teachers at comprehensive schools than there were in 2011.
"Impossible circumstances," the report concluded.
But with rising state and local political focus on education, researchers point out, these schools represent an opportunity. By focusing on the basics, putting better systems and resources in place, leaders can affect change for large swaths of now-underserved students.
Amid the trouble, a major bright spot emerged from the data: though they are in tougher situations with far needier student bodies, students in the city's comprehensive high schools did about as well as their counterparts in some more selective high schools on the SAT exam and state Keystone tests.
Those test results suggest that "teachers and students in Philadelphia's neighborhood schools have exhibited untapped potential for success," researchers found.
PCCY made several recommendations for beginning to fix the problems, including holding special-admit schools more accountable for student retention, developing a system of support and funding for schools that take on struggling students throughout the school year, recruiting more male and minority teachers, designating a district-level position to lead neighborhood high schools, and increasing counselors, social workers, and career and technical education opportunities.
Roxborough High School, one of the city's top-performing comprehensives, has managed to help students achieve at relatively high levels - 84 percent of its students graduate, principal Dana Jenkins said.
But that's in spite of the fact that the school is short on resources, and that it copes with a new student enrolling nearly every day, some arriving with third-grade reading levels.
"We need more teachers to triage the academic barriers," said Jenkins.
Devin Bannerman, Roxborough's student body president, transferred to the school in 10th grade after struggling at a top magnet school. He's been successful - started a photography business, gotten accepted to Hampton University - but his eyes are open about the things his school lacks.
"We're forced to work with minimal resources, but we're supposed to have high expectations of ourselves and everybody else," Bannerman, a senior, said at the PCCY news conference unveiling the report Monday.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he welcomed the report, which "offers no surprises."
While revenue is a major part of the problem, Hite, who kept a careful eye toward budget talks in Harrisburg, said it was not the only issue. Work has begun to fix neighborhood high schools, he said, and would continue.
"We think there are a lot of children in this city walking around who have significant potential that's going unchallenged," Hite said.