Op/Ed: A tale of two high schools

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Growing gap between urban, suburban schools is unconscionable

By Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman, State Senator, 19th District


Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

It’s almost like Charles Dickens was describing public education in Pennsylvania.

Today, the disparity between the academic services, technology and basic resources available to students in inner city school districts versus those in their affluent suburban counterparts is shameful. In fact, it’s downright outrageous.

To add insult to injury, Pennsylvania is now imposing the Keystone Graduation Exams, a series of three high-stakes exams students will have to pass to graduate. Beginning with the Class of 2017 (current sophomores) students must pass exams in Algebra I, Biology and Language Arts in order to receive a diploma.

A legacy of budget cuts, shortsighted policies and economic hard times have resulted in two systems of public education in Pennsylvania: separate and unequal. And the best predictor of a student’s likelihood of future success isn’t an SAT score or grade point average, it is their zip code.

Let’s take a closer look at the tools and resources offered to students in two Philadelphia area high schools.

I want every high school in Pennsylvania to be like West Chester B. Reed Henderson High School in my legislative district. In 2014, Newsweek ranked it 295th in the nation (up from 925th two years earlier).

This year every freshman at Henderson will receive a laptop for school and home use.

But the West Chester Area School District is not just investing in technology; the district has also hired biology specialists to teach at each of its three high schools. These specialists will prepare students for the Keystone Exam in Biology and provide remediation for those who do not pass it the first time.

Keep in mind, this comes on top of the regular science and biology curriculum taught by instructors who are certified in their fields and with the latest textbooks that are aligned with the Keystones. Henderson students participate in labs weekly and can always use their laptops to access online resources or take practice tests.

Meanwhile, about 20 miles down the road in Philadelphia, students at Overbrook High School are literally worlds away in terms of educational curriculum, materials and resources.

Overbrook, once a top-tier high school, is now one of the lowest performing schools in the Commonwealth. In fact, Overbrook has Title 1 status – meaning it is supposedly a top priority for improvement and increased funding by Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Based on my recent conversations with Overbrook teachers, the school is still using a Biology textbook from 11 years ago – one that does not cover the Keystones. Nor do students have hands-on labs, which are considered an essential component of Biology education.

Unlike Henderson, Overbrook students do not have access to computers in the classroom and those that are available are either outdated or broken. Even basic supplies like projector bulbs, graph paper, pencils, hand soap and paper towels are lacking.

Furthermore, this year Overbrook has no Biology teacher. Students are not even taking the standard Pennsylvania Biology curriculum. Instead, they take a course called Environmental Science and even that is often taught by other teachers or substitutes who are not necessarily certified in it.

Is it any wonder why students at Overbrook High School are scoring significantly lower on standardized tests than those at Henderson High School?

For 2013-14, Overbrook had a School Performance Profile Academic Score of 39.3. Henderson had a score of 98.8. During that same time, the graduation rate at Overbook was 53.4 compared to Henderson’s 97.25. And remember, this was before graduation was tied to three standardized tests.Analysis_of_ResourcesThere is no question that the Keystone Graduate Exams only exacerbate the already dire situations in our most struggling high schools in Pennsylvania. How many students at Overbrook and similar high schools will graduate when diplomas are determined by exams that they are not remotely prepared for? More importantly, how can we in good conscience stamp “failure” on the backs of kids who lack the teachers, resources and classes to pass such tests?

Overbrook High School is not in my district. But as a state Senator and minority chair of the Senate Education Committee I, along with my colleagues in the legislature, share both a moral responsibility and a Constitutional duty “to provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”

We are not meeting that responsibility. We are setting students up for failure. And until the legislature and the administration step up to the plate, I can only hope that the Public Interest Law Center’s fair funding lawsuit prevails in court.

For the sake of our students, this unconscionable situation at Overbrook and similar high schools cannot be allowed to continue.

State Senator Andrew E. Dinniman is the Minority Chair of the Senate Education Committee and a member of the Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission.

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  1. Barbara says:

    We have so many resources in Chester County that we can easily forget that many other areas are not as fortunate as ours. Education that is relevant and current is the key to success for all our children.

  2. kkk says:

    Thank you Senator Dinniman for realizing that we are ALL citizens of this Commonwealth and this nation. Helping those deprived of resources (at home and/or at school) will help us all. Keep fighting for urban as well as suburan schools.

  3. Rebekah Ray says:

    Thank you Sen. Dinniman for recognizing that all Pennsylvania children are our children. Thank you for caring enough to point out these terrible disparities.

  4. Anne Tenaglia says:

    Thank you, Senator DInniman. The teaching conditions in urban districts are much different from that of our suburban colleagues’ conditions. Much of this is dependent on the economy of the catchment areas. Although I live in Chester County, I spent almost 40 years teaching in high-poverty neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Since the 1990s I have watched our budget for books and supplies almost disappear. There is no money for refurbishing computers, stocking libraries (or hiring librarians), new books, or field trips for kids. Every teacher I know in Philly has had to buy almost all the supplies they’ve used in their classrooms for the past 2 years. Many students coming from households that are food insecure, or without heat or electricity, come to school unprepared because of their chaotic home lives. School is the one place where at least some of their basic needs can be met such as food and warmth, but we are failing them in basic education. Class sizes are too large for the number of ELL and Special Ed kids we have. Teachers lack the basic tools to do their job. Every child in PA deserves a chance to succeed. FAIR funding will make a start on that.

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