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New efforts to stem flow of dropouts from Philadelphia schools

While an accurate count is still not available, thousands each year are leaving school

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Young people in Philadelphia who have left school have most likely experienced one of the defining features of the city’s massive dropout problem – the invisibility of out-of-school youth.

Dozens of former students interviewed for this edition of the Notebook said that nobody from their school pursued them when they stopped attending. Some said they got letters or automatic voicemails, but few had any personal contact with the school after leaving.

So not surprisingly, with this lack of follow-up, there is much uncertainty about how many students drop out annually. (The latest official count of some 5,000 Philadelphia dropouts in 2003-04 is widely assumed to be missing hundreds, if not thousands of students.)

“They didn’t send me any letters. They didn’t call me,” said Sadata (last name withheld), who left Gratz High School in 11th grade and was interviewed this summer at a GED program at Youth Empowerment Services in North Philadelphia. She concluded that her school did not even know she had stopped attending.

For some young people, the sense of invisibility starts early in high school when they conclude they can cut class and nobody seems to care.

“For two weeks, I didn’t go to school, and when you’re absent for ten days they just drop you off the roll,” said Carlisha, 16, who used to attend Washington High. “So I was like, ‘Screw it, I ain’t going back, I’m dropped off the roll.”

An overlooked issue

Laura Shubilla, who heads up the Philadelphia Youth Network and is now coordinating a local partnership on this issue, noticed the low profile of out-of-school youth from her own vantage point in youth service and advocacy work.

In meetings, Shubilla noted that until recently, “out-of-school youth were always kind of tacked on at the end of an agenda. It was much easier to talk about in-school youth because there was a framework and there was a system and there were places to go to get information.”

But slowly the issue started garnering more attention locally, and then this year a major grant from three national funders – the Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation – served as a catalyst, activating a broad citywide partnership of local organizations and officials to tackle the dropout issue collaboratively.

The funders emphasized a dual focus on reforming high schools while reconnecting out-of-school youth with education opportunities.

This recent grant from the “Youth Transition Funders Group” calls for the new Philadelphia collaborative to improve data collection and data sharing among agencies, develop policy papers, increase the quantity and quality of educational options, and build public awareness and grassroots activism. Groups that came to the table ranged from the School District to the University of Pennsylvania to the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project.

A profile of the city’s out-of-school youth has begun to emerge from the data. It is a racially diverse population, but about 60 percent male. Most students who have withdrawn from the School District did not make it past ninth or 10th grade. Many repeated a grade. This profile could be broadened to include some 15,000 “part-time out-of-school youth” who are chronically truant.

But months into this effort to compile data, it is still difficult to get a handle on the size of the population of out-of-school youth or on what proportion of its students the School District loses every year. Some estimate a third of students don’t make it through high schools, while others say losses are as high as one half.

This problem is by no means unique to Philadelphia. A 2004 study by Robert Balfanz and Nettie Letgers of Johns Hopkins University found that at as many as 1,000 high schools in the country, “graduating is at best a 50/50 proposition.”

The researchers found these schools by looking for high schools with poor “promoting power” – schools where so few students make it to senior year that they have fewer than half as many seniors as freshmen.

“The nation’s dropout factories are overwhelmingly the province of minority students,” the researchers observed. They found that nearly half of the nation’s African American students and 40 percent of its Latino students attend schools in which most students fail to graduate. Whites and Asian Americans are least likely to attend such schools.

Good news, bad news

In Philadelphia, the School District’s graduation rate trends are clearly positive – the recently reported 2004 rate climbed to 69 percent, representing a gain of 10 points within three years. Over just a two-year period, the District has seen an 1,800-student increase in the size of its graduating class citywide.

Because most observers maintain that the dropout figures used to determine District graduation rates are understated, the rate probably presents too rosy a picture.

However, CEO Paul Vallas said he is optimistic that the rate will continue to improve due to Philadelphia students being better prepared entering high schools and due to the creation of more small schools in the system.

Flying in the face of this increasing graduation rate, a recent study points to an alarming rise in the number of “disconnected youth” in Philadelphia – defined as youth aged 16-24 who are neither in school nor employed. In 2004, there were 52,000 disconnected youth in Philadelphia, an increase of over 14,000 in just four years, according to Northeastern University researcher Paul Harrington.

Harrington maintained that “disconnection” is a key statistic to track. When a young person is disconnected from both school and work, “What do you put on a resume?” he noted.

Overall, nearly one out of every four Philadelphia youths in the 16-24 age group was neither working nor in school. Harrington found higher rates of disconnection among Hispanic and Black youth.

A difficult local labor market has exacerbated an already critical situation for youth, and increasingly 16- to 24-year-olds have not been able to find work, nor managed to continue their education, these data reveal.

Where do they go?

Assembling more complete data is one of the priorities that have been identified by the local Youth Transition Funders Group Collaborative.

For over a decade, the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s annual published dropout report has included the same note singling out Philadelphia for the inadequacy of its data collection about dropouts.

Each year the state report has noted that Philadelphia, the largest school district in the state, does not report a “reason” for each dropout – nor does it report the “post-dropout activity” of out-of-school youth.

Al Bichner, who oversees the District’s high schools, acknowledged the problem of data collection and said, “We’re going to have to do a better job of tracking that at the school level.” He pledged to work with the local collaborative to improve data systems.

“Every city in America has challenges in calculating a dropout rate,” explained University of Pennsylvania education professor Ruth Curran Neild, “in part because many dropouts simply stop coming to school without formally withdrawing.”

She added, “Some of those who no longer come to school are under 17 (the legal school-leaving age) and because they do not have the right to drop out of school, are listed in the data as ‘whereabouts unknown’ rather than as dropouts. These ‘whereabouts unknown’ students are not counted as dropouts in the District’s accounting to the state.”

Neild followed an entire age cohort in the Philadelphia schools and has been probing all available data about that group – Philadelphia’s class of 2000 – to get a realistic view of the dropout rate. Looking at the students who did not depart the District for another school, she found that barely half of the students who started high school together had graduated by 18 months after their expected June 2000 graduation date.

Finding solutions

District officials cite an array of programs besides the small schools initiative as their programmatic effort to keep students in school. Middle grades are an increasing focus: Vallas cited a planned program under which sixth graders who show the risk factors for dropping out (taking preventative action) would have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) developed to keep them on track through high school.

Vallas connected gains in Philadelphia’s graduation rate so far to a few key initiatives:

  • Through the introduction of a ninth-grade credit recovery program, he said, “more kids are passing their ninth-grade year and getting into their tenth-grade year.” Over 6,000 course credits were earned in 2004-05 by students who were able to raise their grades through the program.
  • The expansion of alternative schools and an accelerated schools program for overage students have provided options to students who might have left school or been expelled from the system for disciplinary offenses, Vallas maintained.
  • A transitional program called RETI-WRAP has succeeded in re-enrolling more students coming out of juvenile delinquency placements, some of whom may be close to earning their diplomas, he said.

But the District’s continued lack of success in improving academic achievement across the high schools – as reflected by flat or declining 11th-grade test scores (test score results) – is clearly a major challenge facing the system.

Even with the expansion of small school options in the District, the majority of District high school students – and the vast majority of those who leave school before graduation – are students in the District’s large neighborhood high schools.

As the local collaborative looks for answers, Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, cautioned, “We can’t do this on the cheap. This is a significant population of kids that we are losing, and it costs a lot more in unemployment and jail time than it would if we really invested in these kids early on.”