Four Philadelphia Schools That Work

Ways Parents Can Fix Schools

Photo By Clint Blowers

Science Leadership Academy

A partnership between the school district and the Franklin Institute, Center City’s SLA is proof that a strong outside collaborator can help produce strong results. The diverse students (45 percent black, 34 percent white, seven percent Asian, seven percent Hispanic) have to apply to get in, and once there, they follow a college-prep curriculum focused heavily on science, technology, ­math and entrep­­ren­eur­sh­ip—­with a special emphasis on p­roject-based learning (plus some cool outside speakers, like Michael Dell). Eighty-eight percent go on to college, and SLA has been named an Apple Distinguished School from 2009 to 2013.


J.S. Jenks

K-8 Jenks shows the potential of a well-run traditional neighborhood school—particularly when it’s supported by parents. (Jenks actually has two active parent organizations that raise money and contribute time.) This Chestnut Hill school, where one-third of the students qualify for reduced-price lunches, is a major feeder for Girls High and Central, and altogether, 90 percent of kids go on to special-admit high schools.


Freire Charter

One of the oldest charter schools in the state—and one with a strong track record. Though a high percentage of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, nearly all go on to college (94 percent of 2013 graduates, according to the school). Named after Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the school emphasizes nonviolence and has a robust mediation program. After operating only as a high school, Center City-based Freire opened a middle-school campus in 2012.


Samuel Powel Elementary

A district-run K-4 school with an active parent association and impressive results, Powel was named by advocacy group PennCan as one of the top 10 elementary schools in the state for black student achievement. (Eight out of 10 students are at grade level or above in math, and seven out of 10 are at grade level or above in reading.) Powel, which received a $215,000 grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership in 2012, is now teaming up with its West Philly neighbor, Drexel University, and Science Leadership Academy to create a new middle school in the neighborhood.


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  • Skeptic

    Here’s the thing. We have no idea whether these are “good schools.” What we know is that they have better than average students. If you look at the demographics, everyone of these schools has lower numbers of students who are traditionally more difficult to serve – students who are poor, students who do not speak English, and students with disabilities.

    Everyone needs to come to terms with the fact that our metrics for measuring a “good school” are really just proxies for measuring the kinds of students they serve.

    For example:

    School District Free / Reduced Lunch – 80%
    Freire charter Free / Reduced Lunch – 55%

    School District – English language learner – 8%
    Freire – English language learners – 0.8%

    District – Special Education – 14%
    Freire – Special Education – 12.2%

    More importantly, when you compare the kiinds of special ed numbers you find that Freire serves students with primarily mild (low cost) disabilities (such as a specific learning disability) while the district is left with higher concentrations of students with autism, intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbance, etc.

    District – Specific Learning Disability – 48.8%
    Freire – Specific Learning Disability – 77.6%

    District – Intellectual Disability (Mental Retardation) – 14.1%
    Freire – Intellectual Disability (Mental Retardation) – less than 1% (if any)


    People need to stop making unsubstantiated claims about “schools” when the only evidence is about the students they serve. And no, don’t twist this into “you don’t believe poor kids can learn.” Of course they can, but purely statistically it’s a much harder job, requires dramatically greater resources (way more than most are willing to admit), and is always harder when concentrations of deep poverty are at such a high threshold. We need to be honest with ourselves that the impact of “the school” is a less than the impact of what students bring with them to the school, both positive and negative. And we need to be honest that when we are scared to send our kids to city schools, its generally the other students we are scared of, not the teachers.

    And we need to be honest that when schools want to improve, the easiest way to do that is to get better students. So when we look to measure schools we need to be much more careful. There are good examples of schools doing well, but we need to always question how they got there.

    This here is just sloppy.

    • Phillymom

      You make some valid points here, but I can say from experience that Jenks is a good school. The school excels despite a deplorable lack of funding due to the strong partnership between parents, administrators and teachers. The parents have stepped in to support basic necessities and innovative programs. I hope with political changes, the school will receive the funding it deserves so it has the opportunity to update the building and launch more creative programs for the children.

      • AdequateSchoolFunding

        Hey Phillymom,

        I have no doubt this is true and I totally share your desire for adequate funding. I didn’t mean to imply that Jenks or any of these other schools are not excellent. Just that there are probably other schools that have great teachers / administrators as well, but – because they might not have the greatest parental support and enroll higher concentrations of children that (in relative comparison to these schools) have greater educational deficiencies – don’t get singled out as “great” schools. When we attempt to single out “great schools” we need to stop and ask, is it the school itself that so great, or is it the community they serve. I would certainly want (and have) my children in one of these schools with strong community support. In fact I find it to be much more important even than having the greatest individual teachers. I think teachers are very important, especially as a collective, but the kind of community involvement and support that you describe is probably even more important. Of course community / parental support can be really beyond a school’s control, especially when they are underfunded to the point of just barely scrapping by enough to provide the bare minimum of what is legally required and have nothing left to invest in community building.

        I hope your Jenks experience continues to be great and I hope we can convince our state and city government to properly invest in public education for all kids.

    • kj

      agreed 100%

  • honestX

    Jenks gets high test scores and there are many parents there working very hard to raise money for the school. But, Jenks teaches to the standardized test at all times and has antiquated teaching, curriculum and child rearing philosophies.

  • RealityCheck

    Freire doesn’t belong on this list. The article is more focused on the high school than the middle school, but the middle school is part of the school. A good foundation is as important as what the students learn day to day. The middle school should provide that, but it doesn’t. It was poorly executed and poorly managed. The education isn’t consistent and teachers don’t stay. The middle school does not follow the Paulo Freire method. They don’t even adhere to their own rules.That school is a madhouse filled with problems. There are many public schools that have more order than this charter school does. If your thinking about enrolling your child, run the other way.