The Main Line and western suburbs are home to a bevy of natiionally ranked private, parochial and boarding schools offering every academic and extracurricular option under the sun. With such a wealth of choices, it would be easy for a newcomer to assume that the area’s high schools aren’t up to snuff. Nothing could be further from the truth. At a time when public education has suffered countless crippling blows across the country, our area—and much of the state—has proven to be a glowing exception.
“About 10 years ago, we realized the need to be increasingly clear with educators about what we expect students to know before graduation,” says Thomas Gluck, acting secretary of education for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. “High school isn’t just about time spent in the classroom; it has to be about what students know and do before they get their diplomas. If you know what’s expected, you can set about the process of getting there.”
During that time, local public high schools underwent a rigorous transformation, with the help of enhanced technology, standardized testing and a consolidation of state benchmarks for academic achievement. The fruits of the PDE’s efforts can be witnessed in all their glory in this area, which boasts some of the most successful students in the state.
So what makes our public high schools so great? Well …
Apparently, it’s not just locals who think our high schools rule. U.S. News & World Report’s 2010 “Best High Schools” report seems to indicate that also. As a whole, Pennsylvania is ranked a seemingly ho-hum 25th in the nation for overall school performance for its charter, vocational/technical and public high schools. But 69 schools were awarded a bronze medal or better—meaning that, at a bare minimum, all 11th-graders outperformed state standards for math and reading.
Four local high schools—Conestoga, Unionville, Radnor and Lower Merion—earned silver medals. In addition to outperforming state standards across the board, the schools scored at least a 20 on the “college readiness index,” a statistic generated by U.S. News based upon the school’s International Baccalaureate or, in this case, Advanced Placement participation rate and the students’ performance on those tests. Participation in these programs is typically based on student option rather than direction or requirement from teachers or the school, indicating a self-appointed measure of success and emphasis on in-depth learning at the collegiate level.
And when it comes to SAT and ACT scores, local public high school students are at or near the top, most finishing well above state averages. Last year’s ACT numbers far exceeded the minimum scores needed on subject-area tests, indicating a 50-percent chance of obtaining a B or higher—or about a 75-percent chance of obtaining a C or higher—in corresponding credit-bearing college courses. (Results of 2009’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and the SAT can be found here.)
You might think that rigid, systematic preparation for standardized testing is to thank for the impressive results. But Radnor High School principal Mark Schellenger contends that the focus is on building a well-rounded foundation for academic success. “We place no special emphasis on PSSAs, SATs or ACTs,” says Schellenger. “We do create and run programs for those who may need some remedial work, but our academic program explores each discipline in depth—and we certainly don’t teach to the standardized tests.”
Still, he admits, “It’s a given in this community that most students will take the SATs or the ACTs. And it’s a high priority for most of our students to do well on them.”
In the case of our local public high schools, money seems to be the root of much success. State funding for K-12 education has increased $250 million for 2010, totaling almost $5.8 billion—the largest expenditure of general fund revenues. “There’s a very clear correlation between funding resources and academic success,” says Leah Harris, deputy communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Harris cites early-childhood education as a crucial factor contributing to academic accomplishments later on. “Every dollar we invest into early education reaps a savings reward of $17 in potential intervention costs. We know the correlation between students who have had a quality education versus those who are dependent on social welfare over a lifetime. At an early age, you catch problems much earlier and you’re able to remedy those problems rather than paying intervention costs. Giving them a better chance at academic success leads to better success later in life.”
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In 2006, Gov. Ed Rendell implemented Classrooms for the Future, a $200 million initiative designed to provide teachers and students with the multimedia resources needed to increase efficiency, promote student interaction and stoke enthusiasm for learning.
“We had to make high school relevant, so we invested money, transforming our high schools to meet 21st-century standards,” says Gluck. “It wasn’t just about buying [thousands of] laptops. We focused our efforts on how to instruct teachers on using technology in a way that will transform the instruction going on in the classroom.”
Adds Gluck, “Our evidence showed that students were more engaged, less absent and asked for hall passes less in classrooms using technology like computers and smart boards.”
In conjunction with CDW Government, Inc., a technology solutions corporation for government agencies and educational institutions, Classrooms for the Future is enhancing the learning environment by prompting the shift to student-centered classrooms, encouraging project-based learning, and improving instructional pace and the overall quality of work. The hope is that CFF’s effects are felt outside school, too.
“We use technology as a tool in the classrooms, and we feel that kids have to be prepared to use it at all levels, whether it’s in school or the workplace,” says Daniel Waters, superintendent of the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, home to Conestoga High School. “Our instruction incorporates technology as a learning tool in a variety of ways.”
Pennsylvania responded to 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act with a dual-pronged system for measuring success in its schools: Adequate Yearly Progress and the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test. AYP monitors reading and math skills. School districts must show that they are meeting or exceeding AYP standards based on attendance or graduation rate, academic performance and test participation. The results are available on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website.
PSSA tests track the performance of students in grades three through eight, and also 11th (though tests for 11th-graders will be phased out; click here). “It’s a critical part of our system,” says Gluck. “We know what students are expected to know, so we hold everyone accountable. That’s why we test, and that’s why we have assessments.”
Students aren’t the only ones expected to stay sharp. Every five years, teachers in Pennsylvania’s public high schools must participate in continuing-development classes for re-certification.
In accordance with Act 48, educators need to maintain their certificates by earning 180 continuing-education hours, six college credits (each equal to 30 continuing education hours), six PDE-approved in-service credits, or a combination of the above every five calendar years.
All credits and hours must relate to an educator’s certificate type or area of assignment, unless they’re enrolled in an administrative program or the alternative is approved by the school board. Among the required courses: instruction in technology, so educators position themselves and their students for success based on the findings of the aforementioned CDW technology study.
“We now have a new program for principals and administrators,” says Gluck of what’s been dubbed the Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership Program. “For all levels of continuing development, we’re not looking at an ‘anything goes’ policy to meet the five-year requirements. Teachers need to prove that it matters.”
See page 4 for “20 Great Things About Our Public High Schools.”
1. In 2011, Downingtown East and West high schools will be linked to the district’s STEM Academy, a four-year college-preparatory school that integrates science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines into the overall curriculum.
2. During the past 16 years, Great Valley High School has maintained a working relationship with the Desmond Hotel and Conference Center—literally. Throughout the year, business students partake in various real-life experiences—like funding and hosting multiple corporate and charitable events—in which students hold positions comparable to actual jobs.
3. Kennett High School offers online Arabic and Chinese language classes for 11th- and 12th-graders. Those who complete one of the courses will receive three college credits from Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
4. Calling all jocks: Owen J. Roberts High School’s athletic teams have earned 25 PAC-10 championships in 13 different sports during the past four years. Many other teams have competed at the state and district levels.
5. Between tests and homework, students need a little Zen in their lives. That in mind, the Manifest Campaign at Conestoga High School is a student-run organization geared toward alleviating stress and fostering decision-making skills. “Manifestivals” occur throughout the year and include massage therapy, concerts, aromatherapy and more.
6. Unionville High School’s clubs and activities roster encompasses more than 50 student organizations, from the usual suspects (math league, mock trials, drama club) to the unique (fly fishing, a gay-straight alliance and Students for the Ethical Conservation of All Things Narwhal).
7. Main Line schools are home to many less mainstream organized sports—like boys’ and girls’ ice hockey and girls’ rugby at Henderson High School, plus squash, crew and ultimate Frisbee at Radnor High School.
8. Students with a sweet tooth can rejoice in Henderson’s Chocolate Competition, which is 10 years strong. The contest is open to all students, faculty and staff willing to forego the box and make a chocolate cake from scratch—icing and all.
9. The Green Club at Phoenixville High School has made eco-friendliness a school-wide priority, with cafeteria recycling, classroom modifications to decrease energy consumption, gardening and an annual “Green Night.”
10. Garnet Valley High School has a “Ninth Grade Academy” to prepare freshmen for navigating the social, academic and extracurricular landscape of the upper grade levels.
11. Math can be a frustrating subject for many, but Haverford High School’s Math Center is there to help. Students can receive one-on-one help with homework, missed class assignments, test review and SAT/ACT prep.
12. Further proof that student-run organizations on the Main Line are a pretty big deal: Springfield High School hosts a yearly dance marathon modeled after the iconic Penn State fundraiser. It has raised thousands of dollars.
13. Strath Haven High School is a “No Place for Hate” high school, as designated by the Philadelphia Regional Chapter of the Anti-Defamation League for the school’s efforts to eradicate intolerance and promote diversity.
14. Marple Newtown High School students participate in the German American Partnership, which includes a home-stay program for 12- to 16-year-olds in Ingelheim, Germany. The program gives students the opportunity to immerse themselves in a German-speaking environment under teacher supervision.
15. Some students looking to get a leg up need look no further than their own campus. The POWR program at Penncrest High School allows career-oriented students to actively explore their job interests through on-site experiences with local businesses.
16. Harriton High School is the only local public high school that has an International Baccalaureate program.
17. Lower Merion High School placed 23rd in the nation in the 2010 Collaborative Problem-Solving Contest. The school posted the highest score on three of the 15 problems, including one of the most difficult questions in the contest.
18. Band geeks, they aren’t—more like bandmasters. Perkiomen Valley High School’s marching band won the state, regional and national championships of the U.S. Scholastic Band Association’s Group 1 Open in 2009. It consistently competes at regional and national levels.
19. Upper Perkiomen High School’s science department was ranked 12th in the state for student performance on the PSSA science tests.
20. Upper Merion High School’s “One-to-One” program provides a laptop computer to each full-time student for home and school use. The goal is to boost academic and student engagement, and accessibility to technology.
NOTE: This story is based on information gathered from administrators and various school resources.
See page 5 for coming changes to core curriculum.
Regardless of how successful a system is, there’s always room for improvement. Getting graduates on the same page is as much a priority for high schools as it is for colleges. “They found that most students who went on to higher education needed some form of remediation,” says the PDE’s Leah Harris, citing a study conducted by Penn State University regarding, among other things, the courses needed and the time and money spent getting freshmen back up to speed on core curriculum. “We realize our responsibility is to make sure that, when students receive their diplomas, they know a certain amount of skills—and that wasn’t happening in Pennsylvania.”
What was happening was a pattern of stratified levels of competency among graduates when it came to core math, science, reading and writing skills, which then had to be remedied with additional coursework once the students reached secondary institutions. From that deficiency arose the Keystone Exams, a series of end-of-course tests designed to regulate proficiency in a variety of areas—namely math, science, reading, writing and social studies. They should be implemented in the 2014-15 school year, eventually phasing out PSSA tests for 11th-graders.
Many other factors contribute to the success of Pennsylvania’s high schools. To learn more, visit education.state.pa.us.
English: 74 67
Math: 52 42
Reading: 60 53
Science: 33 28
All Four: 29 23
* Numbers represent the percentage of students meeting or exceeding a specific subject’s benchmark scores (indications of college readiness) in 2009.