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What Works For Urban High Schools


A conversation with Mr. Paul Vallas, Chief Executive Officer, The School District of Philadelphia, hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education

In January 2006, the Alliance for Excellent Education convened the first of a series of roundtable discussions with a number of civil rights organizations about the issues around high school reform that are particularly relevant to students of color and their communities.

As part of the civil rights roundtable activity, the Alliance, in conjunction with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Council of La Raza, and the National Urban League, hosted a breakfast conversation with Paul Vallas on July 13, entitled “What Works for Urban High Schools?” As Chief Executive Office for Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001, and Chief Executive Office for the Philadelphia School District since July 2002, Mr. Vallas is an expert on transforming under-performing urban districts into models of reform.

The breakfast also featured U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA) who spoke about the need for increased attention and funding for urban high school reform. He highlighted the GEAR UP program, grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and early college and small school initiatives as evidence that some positive steps have been taken to reform urban high schools, but stressed that much more needs to be done. Also in attendance at the event were U.S. Congressmen Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Donald M. Payne (D-NJ).

In his keynote, Paul Vallas said that his success was not necessarily due to being the first to have an idea, but having the courage and skill to take promising programs and bringing good ideas to scale in a large, urban district. He outlined the five major problems that he sought to address in formulating his high school policy: academic preparation; low expectation; college opportunity; school dynamics; and learning environment.

Vallas also spoke about the three core reforms that he instituted in Philadelphia. First, the district has an extensive K-12 managed instruction program and has worked on specific scope and sequence and alignment within and across grades. Secondly, he mentioned that Philadelphia has an enrichment curriculum that ranges from extended day offerings at the elementary level to AP/Honors/IB tracks in high school. Lastly, he talked about dual enrollment opportunities that provide more advanced students to move more quickly and tackle more advanced subjects. To this end, he said that the district has leveraged the presence of 85 colleges and universities in Philadelphia to offer a range of options to 12th grade students.

Mr. Vallas touched on two other reforms that have been successful in Philadelphia: multiple pathways to graduation and school choice. With multiple pathways to graduation, the district can tailor programs based on a student’s achievement level. It includes a standard 9-12 pathway and an early college pathway that allows students to finish high school in three years and either enroll in college for their senior year (the district offsets the cost) or remain in high school while taking some college courses. As part of this track, the district also offers 12th-grade students some corporate training and technical and vocational options. The third pathway is an “underachiever track.” For students in this category, Philadelphia has set up transitional high schools, primarily for overage students. These transitional schools are small and cater to the special needs of this at-risk population. These schools, however, still prepare students for graduation (rather than the GED).

In discussing school choice, Vallas said that 33% of Philadelphia students attend a school operated by an entity other than the central administration (charter, for-profit, university-controlled, alternative, etc). Mr. Vallas emphasized that these school may be unique, but they all follow district standards and accountability systems.

The event attracted almost 200 attendees, including Congressional staff, the media, and representatives of civil rights and education organizations working on issues related to policy and practice.

Event Agenda

Video Event Video (Streaming)

I. Welcome Audio Audio (MP3)*

Maya RockeymooreDr. Maya Rockeymoore, Outreach Consultant
Alliance for Excellent Education






II. Introduction of Congressman Chaka Fattah

Gabriela LemusDr. Gabriela Lemus, Director of Policy and Legislation
League of United Latin American Citizens






III. Remarks Audio Audio (MP3)*

Chaka FattahThe Honorable Congressman Chaka Fattah






IV. Introduction of Mr. Paul Vallas

Mr. Michael Wotorson, National Education Director
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

V. Presentation Audio Audio (MP3)*

Paul VallasMr. Paul Vallas, Chief Executive Officer
The School District of Philadelphia
Alliance for Excellent Education

Audience Q&A




VII. Closing Remarks

Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, Outreach Consultant
Alliance for Excellent Education

Categories: Uncategorized

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