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Informing High School Choices: The Progress & Challenges of Small High Schools in Philadelphia

In the School District of Philadelphia in 2007-08, almost one third of high school students attend one of the district’s 32 small high schools. Of these, 26 have been newly created or significantly changed since 2002. These small schools have a range of admissions criteria with two thirds being selective admission and one third neighborhood high schools. Along with this increase in high school options has been a growing interest in high school choice, with 73% of eighth graders applying to high schools outside their neighborhood in 2006. However, within the School District of Philadelphia, there is only one ‘choice’-the neighborhood high school-for the 51% of rising ninth graders who try to exercise choice but are not accepted to any of their preferred choices. For those students who do attend small high schools, our research suggests that this more personalized environment is demonstrating promising outcomes with regard to improved school climate, improved interpersonal relationships between adults and students and student-to-student, and students’ perceptions of their school experience. The small high school model is particularly promising for neighborhood high schools where positive relationships may help stem high dropout rates. Among our five case study high schools, the one small neighborhood high school reported great improvements in climate compared to its previous large configuration, although some lingering climate challenges remained. While positive relationships and improved climate create the conditions for learning, principals and teachers at all five case study schools reported that more was needed to develop and maintain a rigorous academic program for all students. They described the need for common faculty planning time to strengthen their academic program and more flexibility and resources to meet the unique staffing and rostering challenges of small high schools.