Can being ranked as one of the best schools be a bad thing? Depends on which educator and which study you believe.
Newsweek Magazine recently listed its top 1,000 schools in the nation, with Central High School shining alone as Philadelphia’s sole entry on the list — coming in at number 375. And from the School District of Philadelphia’s perspective, this ranking highlights the hard work the staff, faculty and students have put in over the years in raising Central’s academic profile.
“We are extremely proud of Central,” said School District of Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard. “Central has always ranked as one of the highest performing schools in the nation, and we are very proud of what they’ve accomplished.
“It’s a real close [school] community that works together, and what they do is very inspiring, especially given its size and complexity.”
The formula and criteria used by Newsweek appears to be straightforward on the surface. It based its ranking on six criteria: graduation rate (25 percent), college matriculation rate (25 percent), AP/IB/AICE (standardized tests taken per student — 25 percent), average SAT/ACT scores (10 percent), average AP/IB/AICE score (10 percent) and AP courses offered per student (5 percent).
Central High School Principal Dr. Sheldon Pavel is delighted that his school made the list, but was bittersweet about Central as the city’s lone representation. Pavel also had misgivings about the methodology of the criteria.
“I have mixed emotions to be honest; the students, staff, alumni and faculty are infinitely better than 375th,” Pavel said, noting school administrators are always gratified when Central is recognized in a positive manner. “But I believe there are other schools in the city that absolutely belong on the list. The [criteria] is significantly biased against urban schools and large schools.
“I’m having difficulty with the criteria they used, which [essentially was] a single criteria,” Pavel continued. “They took the number of advanced placement exams the schools [administer] and divide that by the number of students in the graduating class, and rank school solely based on that number.”
Pavel said other factors must be included when properly grading a school – factors lacking in the Newsweek formula; and if graded on that scale, Central – and other schools in the district – might have fared even better in the rankings.
And other socioeconomic realities must be considered as well, Pavel said, for any such list to have much merit.
“When they are trying to sell newspapers and magazines, they have these rankings, because everyone looks at them,” Pavel said. “But if you take a look at the top 50 schools in any of these rankings, and see what sizes the schools are, and the community in which they reside, and then try to assess income levels, you’ll be sure to come up with different numbers.”
Indeed, most of the schools listed in the Newsweek ranking educate only a fraction of the number of students Central does, and appears to be bereft of many of the issues that confront the Philadelphia school district — such as budgetary woes, obsolete buildings and antiquated teaching materials.
For example, the top-ranked school — The Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky — sits within the University of Kentucky campus and has 126 total students. The STEM-based school is a free tuition based institution.
The second-ranked school — Basis Scottsdale School in Scottsdale, Arizona — has 700 students. According to its 2011 annual report, Central currently enrolls 2,373 students.
A deeper look at Newsweek’s ranking shows that only six of the top 25 schools have open enrollment, 12 have selective enrollment only and five are charters.
But for Pavel and Central High School, those rankings mean little; it’s the scope of programs Central offers and the quality of productive individuals it teaches then graduates that far outweigh any list.
“Diversity, scope of activities, extracurricular activities and level of community service is much more inclusive of who we are and what we do,” said Pavel, noting that Central was recently honored with a “Blue Ribbon” for academic success from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. “You can’t include all we do in one measure.”