Philly residents worry over impact of 3 new district high schools

NEW SCHOOLS: Philadelphia is opening 3 innovative high schools, but how will that affect existing district schools?

By Maura Pennington | Watchdog.org

PHILADELPHIA — The School District of Philadelphia is planning to open three high schools in 2014, but the clustered location and $3.1 million price tag worries residents.

“Bring it on,” principal of nearby Kensington Health and Sciences Academy says of the competition.

District officials discussed the plan at a meeting Monday night. They say the new schools will use innovative and personalized learning models to generate improved opportunities and outcomes in a city with a 65 percent graduation rate.

The new schools — known as the U School, the LINC, and Building 21 — will offer a combined 380 seats by lottery to any eighth-grader who completed an online application by the April deadline. There are no academic or behavioral criteria for admission, and preference is given to students living near the schools, all three of which are in North Philadelphia.

“When we’re putting these three schools in our backyard, it’s hard not to feel that people think something is lacking. But we’re getting close to breaking incredible ground where we are, so we’ll see,” said James Williams, principal at the Kensington Health and Sciences Academy.

The most important issue, many believe, involves timing, and giving the schools the security to plan for coming years.

“Continuity is important,” said William Hite, district superintendent.

Families, students and teachers who commit to these new schools have to know they’ll be there for the long-term. And, lately, that has been a serious concern in the district where 23 schools closed in 2013.

The district is facing a budget deficit of at least $96 million for the 2014-15 academic year, but it could be as high as $216 million — and that’s just to maintain the status quo. To transform schools, it would need $320 million more.

But the district is committed to moving forward.

“My biggest concern is that we are focused on the current crisis rather than believing we have a future,” said Bill Green, chairman of the School Reform Commission.

The design leaders for the three new high schools presented their models and took part in roundtable discussions during public meeting of the SRC on Monday night.

“At Building 21, our learners will co-design their pathway to learning. They will exercise voice and choice,” said school leader Tara Ranzy.

“The school is serving as an extension of the community. That makes learning limitless,” she said, citing internship opportunities outside school walls.

The LINC stands for “Learning in New Contexts,” and its mission is to provide a globalized approach.

“What are the most significant challenges facing the world and how can we leverage skills and content to find solutions?” asked school leader Saliyah Cruz.

The U School comes from the idea of putting “Users at the Center.”

“Schools need to be based on the people that they serve,” said school leader Neil Geyette.

Some participants were skeptical, and others said the climate in the district needs to change for schools like these to thrive.

Students will be notified June 9 if they are admitted to one of the new high schools. Classes will start this fall.

Contact Maura Pennington at mpennington@watchdog.org and follow her on Twitter @whatsthefracas.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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