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Youth as Civic Actors: High School Reform in Three Philadelphia Neighborhoods

Philadelphia unfolds out from its downtown skyline into a diverse swath of neighborhoods, each with its own story of richness and struggle-and each with its own public high school. In 2002, and still today, many of Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools were sorely in need of reform, a topic that had been discussed and debated at education tables for decades. Yet missing from those tables were those whom the reforms would impact most.Beginning in 2003, two youth organizing groups, the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) and Youth United for Change (YUC), embarked on campaigns to improve their large neighborhood high schools by dividing them into small schools. Their multi-year efforts extended over several School District of Philadelphia (District) administrations, and at this moment, when local and national attention is focused on persistently low-performing schools, their story has much to teach. In this article, we look at the legacy of the small schools campaigns of these two groups, including the effect they had on their neighborhood high schools, on their communities, and on adult perceptions of youth.