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On the front lines of Philadelphia’s dropout crisis

Relationships key to both causes and remedies, say those working with youth

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

"I couldn’t have dropped out without hearing it from my grandparents, my neighbors – even the older thugs in the neighborhood," says Jay Henry, director of the Office of Truancy and Delinquency Prevention for Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services. "The same message would have been reinforced 150 times a month: ‘What do you think you’re doing?’"

"Now, parents don’t have those intimate relationships to support them," Henry observes.

Many of those working on the front lines of the effort to reconnect out-of-school youth in Philadelphia speak about a need for relationships that support youth and families. The Notebook talked with Henry and five others working directly with youth to learn more about the causes of Philadelphia’s dropout crisis and effective strategies for reconnecting youth to educational opportunities.

Crack and the loss of connection

Rev. Donald E. King founded the Drug Task Force Ministry (DTFM)/Youth Reality Connection in 1998 in order to heighten awareness of problems that drug use causes for families and youth. He sees the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, which left many children to fend for themselves, as a major contributor to Philadelphia’s dropout crisis.

"As [the crack epidemic] began to take hold, it became difficult for adults to communicate with youth who had become used to being alone and taking care of themselves," says King. "These children didn’t trust adults anymore, and therefore they never fully engaged in education or programs that could benefit them."

During focus groups with students at Simon Gratz High School in 1999, King heard young people lament both their pain and their profound sense that no one was listening to them. Their words led him to target middle school youth with faith-based counseling, in-school support services and after-school supplemental activities. "Many of these youth just want to get through to adulthood and take care of themselves. They are carrying a lot of baggage that impacts their body, mind, and ability to reason," King says.

Eric Peters, of Resources for Human Development’s Community Reintegration Program, says that the exploding drug markets of the 80s and 90s helped make dropping out seem like a feasible path, especially for Black and Latino males. "The ability to make money in the drug game makes school a second option for many youth already struggling academically," Peters says.

Schools struggle to keep up

"The School District itself was unprepared and unable to handle this situation," adds King. On the heels of the crack epidemic, he argues, "we had a whole level of discipline problems that schools could not deal with."

Data from Henry’s office reinforces the continuing magnitude of the problem. Each month, Henry receives from the School District a list of "disconnected" 11th and 12th graders who are on the rolls, but have not been attending classes. In November of 2006, this list contained 4,853 names.

"Disconnection seems to begin as early as third grade," says Henry. "Frequently, it is tied to a child’s ability to read, where they begin falling further behind each year."

But, Henry argues, schools’ inability to form constructive relationships with students and their families only accelerates the process of youth becoming disconnected.

"Once that school professional-parent relationship becomes dysfunctional or combative, it allows kids to ‘work the shadows.’ Kids know that there is no one calling mom," Henry explains.

Relationships and reconnection

Others who work directly with dropouts emphasize the importance of strong relationships in helping dropouts to bridge the often-difficult transition back into an educational setting.

Della Lazarus is a social worker for Drexel University Midwives, where she assesses expectant mothers for pre-natal care and support services. At any given time, Lazarus has about 150 women in her caseload, about 75 percent of whom are between the ages of 18-26. She estimates that as many as half of these young women have dropped out of school.

"Becoming a mom can be an organizing, unifying force in a young woman’s life," says Lazarus. "Having another life to be responsible for can motivate you to become focused [on] getting that GED, [on] going back to school."

But in order to help fulfill that focus, young moms need strong relationships with someone sensitive to the needs of teens who can guide them through the bureaucratic requirements of reconnection. "The number one thing on my wish list," says Lazarus, "is an office with case managers who are easily accessible to young mothers" and whose specific charge is to "help them negotiate re-entry into the public system, to amass the credits they need to graduate, or to hook them up to an appropriate program."

Like Lazarus, Eric Peters sees the need for strong relationships to help dropouts "get over the hump" in their efforts to get reconnected. Peters works with youth who are "reintegrating" into family and community settings after extended periods in placement facilities.

"They need individual attention, which is often not available to them in the large schools they attended," he says. He suggests that each young person returning to a program have an individual education plan, similar to the kind drawn up for special education students.

Taylor Frome and Mike Sack of Youth Empowerment Services (YES) agree and add that youth must be involved in the development of their own educational plans.

Frome says it is critical to have strong relationships with adult advisers who can help reconnecting youth find early success and confidence when they are open to the possibility of them. She adds, "Black and Latino youth want the same educational experiences as other youth… to feel good, be treated well, have fun, and have fulfilling social and educational training experiences. They deserve nothing less."

It takes a village

Ultimately, many on the front lines of Philadelphia’s dropout crisis agree that there are limits to what schools and programs can provide. Henry argues that building stronger community-based support networks is essential to any comprehensive dropout prevention effort.

"Without informal support systems for parents and the influence of positive, caring adults outside of their families for children," he maintains that the same problems will persist.

Like Henry, Rev. King sees the fragmentation of the family structure and loss of connectedness as core issues that must be addressed. He contends, "If we can come back to re-establishing wholesome relationships in our families and communities, we can overcome this problem. Our youth need to see another level of caring."

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