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Becoming the Bottom Rung

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Germantown High.jpg

Germantown High School, circa 1915

There is a clear loser in this age of competition in education in Philadelphia.The city's 26 neighborhood high schools are becoming the last choice among parents -- the default they choose only if they cannot get their children into charter, Catholic or specialized public high schools.

The list includes some of the most storied institutions in the city's history, schools that had educated generations of students over the last 100 years:  Germantown High. South Philadelphia High. Roxborough. Strawberry Mansion. Benjamin Franklin. West Philadelphia High.

Only five of the neighborhood high schools are at or above capacity, which the school district defines as 85 percent of the seats filled. Thirteen schools are at less than 50 percent capacity.  Some are nearly empty: Strawberry Mansion, built to hold 1,800 students enrolled 366 in the last school year. Benjamin Franklin, built to hold 1,800 had 609 students,

The numbers are not out for this school year yet, but odds are there are even fewer students enrolled. For most of the neighborhood high schools, enrollment has trended down -- sometimes steeply down -- over the last five years.  These schools had 33,000 students enrolled five years ago in grades nine through 12.  Last year, they enrolled 26,000.  [Click here for a complete list of schools and their capacity.]

The numbers will continue to decline, as the district opens more charter schools or converts existing district schools into charters, as it did recently with Audenreid, Gratz and Olney High Schools. [While enrollment at neighborhood high schools declined by 7,300 since 2007, enrollment at the city's charter high schools went up by 6,900.]

Another fact could be flight to the city's Catholic high schools, made possible by the state beefing up its voucher-like program called EITC.

It stands for Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which forgives up to 90 percent of the state taxes owed by businesses if they contribute to an EITC scholarship program. In turn, the EITC money is given to parents to help defray the cost of private or Catholic school.

The pool of EITC money was raised from $75 million to $150 million by the legislature this year. The program is expected to take full effect next year. The scholarships would cover most of the $7,000 cost of tuition and fees at the city's nine archdiocesan high schools, which also have empty seats to fill.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood highs face continued competition from the district's 15 special admission schools such as Central, Masterman, the Science Leadership Academy, and Creative and Performing Arts, plus its 11 career and technical schools, such as Bok, Bartram and the Communications Technology High School.

As Connie Langland's Cover Story this week about a teacher at University City High School shows there are still dedicated teachers teaching and students who want to learn at these neighborhood schools.

But, the image of the schools as too big, too dangerous and hard to control -- seems fixed in the minds of parents. Also, as a rule, academic performance is dismal -- with 55 percent of the students performing below basic in math and 47 percent below basic in English, according to the latest state test on basic skills.

When they had little choice, parents sent their children there. Now that there is competition, they are opting out.

The practical question now facing the district is: how to deal with so many schools that are half-empty?

The Boston Study Group, a consultant brought in by the district to conduct a review of all of its operations, recommended closing or consolidating 15 to 19 of the system's high schools, a list that includes not just the neighborhood schools, but also citywides and special admits.

The district  is doing a facilities study with the aim of coming up with a list of schools [it currently is in the field doing public forums] but so far the issue of the neighborhood high schools remains the elephant in the room: something everyone sees, but no one particularly wants to talk about.

Clearly, there is a need for consolidation -- shutting down the emptiest schools and sending the students elsewhere or turning grade 9-through 12 high schools into grade

7-through-12 schools, etc.

For instance, you could transfer all the students at Roxborough and Germantown High School to Martin Luther King High and King still would not be filled. It would be at about 85 percent of capacity, the district's desired norm.

To give another example, Masterman High School, a special admission school in a building built in 1933, is at 136 percent of capacity. Six blocks away, Benjamin Franklin High School, a much larger building built in 1958, sits two-thirds empty. Why not transfer the Franklin students to the Masterman building and the Masterman students to the Franklin building?

The short answer is: that is easier said than done.

Anyone who moves to close and consolidate will have to face a tangle of political, racial, class and neighborhood issues -- not to mention the thousands of alumni who went to these schools.

But the district has little choice but to confront the issue. Enrollment in the neighborhood schools declined by 22 percent from 2007 through 2011. What happens if it declines another 22 percent between now and 2016?

Fewer students means less money for the school, which means fewer teachers, a smaller range of course offerings, fewer sports and extra-curricular activities. How do you field a football team when you only have 102 boys in your school? How do you offer AP History or Calculus for a class of seven or eight?

Demographic shifts could help some of the schools. For instance, one reason Northeast High School [at 132% capacity] and Lincoln High [at 116% of capacity] are filled is because of the arrival of so many Asian and Latinos into the neighborhoods served by those schools. South Philadelphia High [now at 31% capacity] is likely to see an influx of Mexican students beginning in a few years.

But, the overall prognosis is one of increasing competition for students and increased choices for parents. The neighborhood schools -- remnants of the days when school choice was limited -- were not built to compete. More choice is going to mean more stratification -- with the neighborhood schools playing the role of bottom rung on the ladder.

Below is a chart outlining enrollment trends over the last five years.

-- Tom Ferrick

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