Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Restructuring Philadelphia's Neighborhood High Schools: A Conversation with Constance Clayton and Michelle Fine

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Restructuring Philadelphia's Neighborhood High Schools: A Conversation with Constance Clayton and Michelle Fine

Article excerpt

In 1988, the School District of Philadelphia established a separate, nonprofit organization whose purpose was to lead the rethinking and restructuring of the city's 22 neighborhood high schools. Launched with an $8.3 million grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts and led by Janis Somerville, a senior planner on the district superintendent's staff, and Michelle Fine, then a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative took as its principal mission the development of multiple, autonomous charters within the neighborhood high schools. Designed and led by interdisciplinary teacher teams, charters are small schools serving 200 to 400 heterogeneous students in grades 9 through 12, organized to meet the academic and social needs of students.

Because Philadelphia pioneered the development of career academies in high schools beginning in the late 1960s, the school-within-a-school concept was already well established when the Collaborative began its planning in 1988. Implementation of small schools has grown rapidly under the Collaborative's leadership, however, to the point where in 1993 over 20,000 students from than 50% of the city's comprehensive high school enrollment) are participating in charters.

The interview presented below took place on June 21, 1993, at the end of a difficult school year in Philadelphia. The district was confronted with a $60 million budget deficit, a recalcitrant teachers union, and a massive turnover in high school principals due to a state-funded early retirement program.

Constance Clayton, Philadelphia's superintendent of schools, has spent her entire career in Philadelphia. A product of the city's public schools, she began as a fourth grade teacher in 1955, worked her way up through the ranks, and assumed the superintendency in 1982. She is generally credited with having restored fiscal health, educational purpose, and public confidence to an ailing system during her tenure as superintendent.

Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the Graduate Center at City University of New York, has been the senior consultant to the Collaborative since 1988. She has written widely on race, gender, and the politics of school reform, and is the editor of a forthcoming volume of ethnographic essays drawn from the work of the Collaborative.

The interview begins with Mr. Schwartz asking Superintendent Clayton and Professor Fine to describe the origins of the Collaborative and the decision to focus on restructuring the city's neighborhood high schools:

CLAYTON: Several things gave rise to the development of the Collaborative. First, when I became superintendent in 1982 and looked at the entire system and especially at the grade organization, I recognized that one major strength of ours was in early childhood education. Because this had been my area of responsibility, I knew where we were and how much we had done. We really were in the vanguard nationally in terms of number of students served, diversity of program offerings, degree of parental participation, etc. In elementary education, we also felt we were making progress, especially with those students who had begun in our early childhood programs. But as I began to look at our secondary schools, especially the neighborhood high schools, I saw lots of problems, and I did not see evidence of progress. I did not see achievement. I saw lethargy and sameness and undue stability of faculty and administrators, people who had been in the same buildings 25 and 30 years. I saw good programs-career academies, special motivation programs for at-risk students--but I did not see them being replicated, despite their demonstrated success. I knew we couldn't work on all three levels of the system simultaneously. Since we had already made major progress in early childhood, I decided to focus on the other end of the grade continuum and to see if we couldn't make a difference in the high schools. I thought if there was an opportunity to zero in on any grade organization, it ought to be high schools because those are kids who are most visible publicly in the community. …

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