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Liss, Pawlak, and Strange


Ethnography: Northeast High School

Andrew Liss, Kali Pawlak, and Annemarie Strange
Disclaimer: All names have been changed so as to protect to identity of the interviewed persons.


  1. History

“It’s not bad.”

Such is the most common phrase uttered when a resident of the neighborhood around Northeast High School (NEHS) is asked about their impression of the school. Another is that it is a “fairly decent” school, or “okay.” This attitude is a fairly interesting phenomenon, but it of course also depends on who you ask. While the purveyor of a local laundry mat has no complaints about the student body, a police officer who routinely catches students with illegal drugs has a completely different viewpoint (Raw Notes, 8/9/12). Or perhaps it is the manifold nature of the school itself which defies simple explanation. Part neighborhood school and part advanced magnet school, the SLC’s, or Small Learning Communities, create schools within schools, student bodies both parallel and intersected, as well as divergent and isolated. Or maybe it is the monstrous size of the school, with enrollment consistently over three-thousand students (The School District of Philadelphia, 2012) with an astounding amount of diversity. Though all of these different factors affect one location, it is possible to academically deconstruct NEHS into constituent parts, to the point where it is even difficult to continue to think of it as one single school.

NEHS was founded as early as 1890; it was then named Northeast Manual Training School. A new building was constructed in 1905, and this became a proper full-fledged high school in 1912. The current co-ed NEHS, which resides on Cottman and Algon, was built in 1957. The older NEHS then became Thomas Edison High (Smart, 2011). Northeast’s split-personality began as early as the 1960’s. It was in this decade of the space race when NEHS began its most prestigious magnet program, SPARC, or the Space Research Capsule, a program designed for advanced students to study astrophysics and medicine (Kadaba, 1986). At the same time, NEHS also began its long-time football rivalry with Central High, one of the few schools in the city comparable in size, and it was the site of a film documentary entitled High School, an attempt to showcase the inequalities and successes of the American High School (Internet Movie Data Base, 2012). Two decades later, SPARC was setting new standards of success while crime rates reflected a different side of the neighborhood. Night football games were eventually cancelled altogether in the late 1980’s as a result of numerous robberies (Sabatini, 1986).

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is when the dual image of NEHS becomes starker. According to Mark, a current Social Studies Teacher at NEHS, many saw the period before the 1990s as a ‘Golden Age’ for NEHS, and that image was cracking as a result of incoming racial diversity in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Interview, 8/10/12). It is difficult to see whether there are any real changes, in terms of crime rates and poverty rates, between the ‘60s and ‘90s, but the attitudes of the majority white population became more negative as the racial makeup of the community shifted (Interview, 8/10/12). In fact, by 1999, when demographic change was accelerating, new plans to make admission to the SPARC program created controversy. In particular, a plan to institute a lottery of qualified students to be admitted into the program led many white residents to claim that further efforts at desegregation, aside from the bussing that was already underway, would further push white families, which at this point were still 60% of the population, out of Northeast Philadelphia and into the suburbs (Snyder, 1999, April). This lottery plan was eventually adopted, with some considerations towards ranking better qualified students higher in the lottery, that same year (Snyder, 1999, May).



Ironically, while many in the neighborhood, along with those leaving the area, observed a slackening of prestige around the school, NEHS remained just as popular in the early 2000s. Students from around the city preferred NEHS to other options for several reasons, including access to more Advanced Placement Courses, its attractive magnet programs, as well as the fact that many minority students from around Philadelphia preferred NEHS’s growing diversity (Rhodes, 2003). In fact, a number of positive trends began in 2003, from a new $1.5 billion investment in the renovation of the school (2003) to widespread support from the Northeast community for school finance equity with the rest of the City (Rhodes, 2004).

Yet, to go along with this split personality, for every example of liberalism and success there is an example of misbehavior. While there is evidence of minor criminal activity throughout this period, perhaps the most illustrative example was a prank covered in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2008. Early one morning, several teachers started to arrive at work, only to find several large chickens in the halls and classrooms. School was cancelled for the day while cleanup crews and animal control captured the animals1. The process was made more complicated by the fact that, though 85 chickens were ultimately counted, graffiti inside the school building claimed that there were in fact 167 of them, leading to an extended search for non-existent poultry (Wood & Woodall, 2008).

Other than pranks and demographic change, the two most important problems for NEHS in recent times are the creation of new school uniform policies, and perennial overcrowding. Both problems were given more publicity than is usual for such issues because both became the subject of a series filmed at NEHS, starring Tony Danza (Pincus, 2011).

The School District of Philadelphia instituted a school uniform policy in 2000, though High Schools were given more leeway than K-8 schools in terms of what uniforms to use as well as how to enforce these new rules (Goldman, 2010). Northeast began its own school uniform program in 2009, though parents were upset not by the policy itself but because the uniforms were not easy to acquire nor inexpensive as called for by the District (Owens, 2009). However, complaints about uniforms pale in comparison to the greatest problem in Northeast Philadelphia, overcrowding.

NEHS is easily one of the most overcrowded schools in Philadelphia today; enrollment is annually above 3,200, which means the school is technically operating at roughly 143% capacity (Herold, 2011, May). Meetings have been held to address this topic as recently as December of 2011 (Owens, 2011, December). In fact, twenty of forty-five schools in Northeast Philadelphia operate over 100% capacity (Herold, 2011, June). Despite more liberal viewpoints toward financial equity within Philadelphia less than a decade ago, many are using these overcrowded figures as an argument for more investment in what is considered a successful school. After all, NEHS is currently the most popular neighborhood school in the city (Mezzacappa, 2011). Finally, the fact that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has recently closed a number of schools in the Northeast has further exacerbated overcrowding in the region’s schools (Kerkstra, 2012).

While overcrowding is a problem, many have argued that the school has been succeeding despite this problem. The real problem, they argue, is that the school deserves more funds in order to update its facilities. Tony Danza recently organized and hosted a talent show to raise funds for the school outside of district allotments (Owens, 2012). Some have argued that the fact that NEHS has seen “remarkable racial and ethnic change”, in other words its diversity, is a reason that it should receive more funds, or instead that the schools in the rest of the city need be improved to ease overcrowding (Herold, 2011, June). At a meeting earlier this year, Social Studies teacher Mark wondered why more district money wasn’t spent on NEHS, “We haven’t seen much investment in the physical plant here. It looks much the same as it has since 1954. We are doing a great job and our students are succeeding, and we don’t see the level of investment from the school district that reflects that” (Kerkstra, 2012). Unfortunately, NEHS can no longer count on the wealth of the area, as now about 60.7% of the attendant students are economically disadvantaged; also, about 14.9% of the student body have been given English language learner (ELL) status (School District of Philadelphia, 2012).

However, despite the positive signs of success highlighted above, an argument can still be made that NEHS has its own share of stumbling blocks. The State of Pennsylvania still has NEHS listed as being a school that is ‘persistently dangerous,’ (Owens, 2011, October) an idea supported by the fact that as recently as 2011 several NEHS busses were vandalized by being set on fire (Harris, 2011). Also, NEHS missed most of its Annual Yearly Progress goals for the last school year, (Pennsylvania Department of Education Academic Achievement Report: 2010-2011, 2011) which is the main reason why the District has allocated money away from NEHS and towards building new schools in the area (Kerkstra, 2012). Aside from this, the School District of Philadelphia (2012) has a mountain of evidence supporting their policies, especially the fact that attendance hovers around 85%, and the school suspends nearly 600 students a year over the last several years; of those suspensions, nearly 30 are serious offenses, mostly assault.







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