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Coalition reaches out to target dropout rate

Research report says barely half of Philadelphia students graduate on time

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

Several waves of school reform in Philadelphia have yet to make a real dent in the city’s staggering dropout rate. But an ambitious partnership between the School District, city agencies, local education advocates and service providers is promising a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to the problem.

The release of a study confirming that barely half of Philadelphia students graduate on-time in four years – coupled with the launch of a public campaign, “Project U-Turn,” to lower the dropout rate – captured headlines in the local newspapers in October.

According to its organizers, the goal of Project U-Turn is not only to raise the visibility of this dropout crisis, but to create more high-quality learning options that will re-engage the thousands of youth who have left school or are close to doing so.

“This report is a call to action,” said District CEO Paul Vallas, acknowledging the severity of the city’s dropout problem. “We can’t be in denial about the problems that we face,” he added.

Vallas said the District needs to “take programs to scale” (see chart at the end of this article) but said the problem requires local, state, and federal interventions as well.

The Youth Transitions Collaborative, backed by several major foundations, is leading a local effort to tackle the problem of out-of-school youth. This Philadelphia work is part of a national initiative focused in five cities.

Coordinated by a local youth agency, the Philadelphia Youth Network, representatives from the School District and city government have been meeting for two years with youth advocacy and support organizations to develop a local agenda for action. This led to the recent launch of the Project U-Turn campaign.

In spite of the tens of thousands of youth who are out of school or seemingly at risk, organizers say that Philadelphia is well positioned to fight the dropout crisis. They say there is a broad leadership coalition that can also draw upon exceptional research and can tap the massive KIDS database on Philadelphia youth that is housed at the University of Pennsylvania.

Project U-Turn’s kickoff event included a daylong “expo” at Temple University on October 19. Over 200 young people had an opportunity to meet with representatives of two dozen service providers to explore options for re-enrolling in educational programs.

“This is not an event,” Laura Shubilla, president of the Philadelphia Youth Network, told the crowd at the kickoff. “This is the beginning of a citywide movement that will grow and gain momentum.”

Parent activist Dolores Shaw of the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project (EPOP) reminded participants that “our youth must be part of this repair process.”

Initial response has been strong. A toll-free, Project U-Turn hotline received over 200 calls in its first two weeks from youth, parents and youth workers looking to reconnect youth to high school diploma programs, according to campaign organizers.

Next steps include replicating the expo in neighborhoods and creating an on-line “advising” process that can generate referrals for youth to specific programs.

Beyond this, the campaign has a number of specific goals, including two targets to be achieved by 2008-09: an increase in the number of slots in “high-quality alternative education programs” from the current 2,800 to over 5,000, and a 10 percent reduction in the dropout rates for three high-risk groups – youth returning from delinquent placement, in foster care, or pregnant and parenting teens.

Perhaps the most significant result of the local partnership so far is the release of what many are calling the definitive study of the problem of Philadelphia dropouts, written by researchers at Johns Hopkins University (see “Dimensions of the dropout crisis”).

The report’s authors, Ruth Curran Neild and Robert Balfanz, examined the outcomes for five cohorts of entering freshmen in Philadelphia high schools. The report provides both current counts and historical trends, identifies which groups are at high risk, and analyzes the grades and ages when problems emerge.

The researchers note that the vast scope of the dropout problem demands a broad community response in coalition with the School District. They observe that social service agencies have a critical role to play, because the risk of dropping out is great among pregnant teenagers, children who have been abused and neglected, and those in the juvenile justice system.

They also point out that school system reforms cannot simply focus on high schools.

“There is abundant evidence that early adolescence is the time when substantial numbers of students begin to seriously disengage from school, stop attending school regularly, and start failing their courses,” Neild and Balfanz write.

The authors note that because not all dropouts can be prevented, there is also a need for “an effective system of credit recovery, second-chance schools, and alternative means of securing a high school diploma.”

For more information about Project U-Turn and the Philadelphia Youth Transitions Collaborative, or to request free copies of the reports, please visit the Project U-Turn website at or call the toll free number: 1-877-TURN-180.

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