Kristen A. Graham
January 13, 2021
Though most Philadelphia schools have made academic strides in recent years, 6 in 10 city children still attend a low-performing school, and the picture is much starker for Black and Latino children and kids living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The patterns are not new, but the persistent inequities are notable as the Philadelphia School District prepares to face significant budget challenges and a planning process that could result in school closings and other upheavals.
The data comes from a report, released Wednesday by the Philadelphia School Partnership, which analyzed three years of enrollment, student achievement, and growth information at schools serving children in kindergarten through eighth grade in the traditional public and city charters. (The report did not include high schools in its research, or compare district to charter school performance.)
The analysis comes while school buildings are still closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with leaders stating unequivocally that system-wide changes will be necessary going forward, for reasons financial and educational.
“Despite the steady progress Philadelphia public district and charter schools have made in improving school quality over the last few years, stubborn inequity remains in how students are enrolled in schools,” David Saenz, spokesperson for the Philadelphia School Partnership, a nonprofit that aims to expand the number of students in high-quality schools, said in a statement.
PSP has raised and donated $80 million to charter, private and district schools since 2011, but is viewed in some educational circles with skepticism as being anti-traditional public school, in part because it supports expanding certain charter school options.
The nonprofit’s analysis found that nearly 60% of city elementary school children attend a low-performing district or charter school, defined by PSP as those below the average achievement for Philadelphia schools. Black and Latino students are overrepresented in those schools, while white and Asian children are overrepresented in those deemed high-performing — meeting or outstripping Pennsylvania state averages.
By the report’s metric, no elementary school serving a school population that’s more than 85% economically disadvantaged is high achieving. Less than 10% of Black and Hispanic students are enrolled in high-achieving schools; 45% of white students attend schools in the high-achieving tier.
The city’s best schools are mostly located in the Northeast, in Center City and in South Philadelphia; its lowest performers are in North Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia and Northwest Philadelphia.
The neighborhood-to-neighborhood comparisons are stark.
In Southwest Philadelphia, for instance, where most residents are poor and Black, there are no high-achieving schools, one average-achieving school and 12 low-achieving schools. In Fox Chase, with its higher concentration of white and middle-class residents, there are seven high-achieving schools, 12 average-achieving schools, and 1 low-achieving school.
Schools of low or average achievement tend to be overcrowded or have no open seats available (some even hold lotteries for kindergarten seats) by contrast, many struggling schools have abundant open seats, the report found. By the report’s count, there are 29,000 open seats in schools it rates as low achieving.
While an alarming number of schools struggle, many have demonstrated growth over the past three years. Most schools, low and high achievers, outperform Pennsylvania averages for student growth. In North Philadelphia, two-thirds of all students attend “high growth” schools.
Still, the report concluded, “in most instances the growth is not translating into meaningful achievement gains.”
The goal of the analysis, PSP said, is to provide parents and decision makers with information “as they consider schools for their children, school admissions and enrollment policies, and expansions, renovations or closures of school buildings.”