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A U-turn for dropouts

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

Finally, there are signs of movement in addressing Philadelphia’s dropout crisis.

This long-standing catastrophe has had a crippling effect on the region. Every year, an estimated 8,200 students in Philadelphia leave school without a diploma. The impact on their individual futures and on the overall health of their communities is profound.

Epidemics thrive on a state of denial. For too long, many ignored the everyday signs of the problem’s scale: schools with overcrowded ninth grades and empty 12th grades or midday street corners busy with aimless teens. But now Philadelphia has a unique and comprehensive study detailing the scope of its dropout epidemic and exactly whom it affects. The October 2006 report Unfulfilled Promise, by researchers Ruth Curran Neild and Robert Balfanz, showing that half the city’s students fail to finish high school in four years, has served as a much-needed wake-up call to the region. (Read it at www.projectuturn.net.)

The city now has a broad collaborative known as Project U-Turn, committed to spreading awareness that we face a collective crisis and plotting a new course to stem the flow of dropouts. Advocates, community organizers, researchers, and service providers have been working with School District and city officials to deepen our grasp of the problem, track what happens to students, and develop an array of strategies that will both improve the city’s graduation rate and provide new pathways for dropouts to get a second chance.

Particularly gratifying has been the District’s response: officials “owned” the numbers and acknowledged that the system, not just parents and students, contributes to the problem. The issue has moved to a central spot on CEO Paul Vallas’s agenda – especially the need to create more genuine alternatives for students both before and after they give up on traditional school. The emergence of new models for small high schools is a hopeful sign, though the numbers served are still modest.

It is also commendable that the District is evaluating its accelerated high schools, which put older students on a fast track to a diploma. We would urge a similar, independent study of the tens of millions of dollars spent on disciplinary schools. The District cannot afford to continue to embrace expensive, for-profit alternative programs – especially for students with behavior issues – while demanding little data on what they are accomplishing.

There’s been forward motion alongside the School District as well:

  • The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce has stepped up to support youth workforce development, encouraging more employer-paid summer internships through WorkReady Philadelphia and other investments in high school students.
  • Community College of Philadelphia and the District have launched a Gateway to College program that allows students to simultaneously work on their high school diploma and associate’s degree.
  • The Center for Literacy has developed a toolkit to help educators address the needs of high school youths with low literacy skills.
  • The Philadelphia Education Fund is working with the District to craft interventions for struggling middle school students and to conduct a serious self-assessment of the city’s neighborhood high schools.

These are all promising beginning steps, but all could be jeopardized if the School District is forced into a “no-frills” mode by its spiraling financial problems. This is why it is crucial that city and state officials step up to the plate to establish stable, new funding streams. While the School District’s financial management certainly needs to be more transparent and efficient, we know that the system cannot continue to operate at a per pupil expenditure rate that falls far short of what is spent on well-off students in surrounding suburban districts. Inadequate funding means class sizes that are too big and support services that are too limited to keep children on track academically.

The School District needs more – not fewer – counselors to re-engage students who are on a path toward leaving school. There needs to be more help for those at highest risk of dropping out – pregnant and parenting teens, youth returning from delinquent placement, and foster care youth.

The District also needs to be ramping up – not scaling back – its investments in small and alternative high schools. The inability to provide a sense of purpose, identity, and community has been at the heart of the massive disconnect that many young people experience at school, making it so difficult to reverse the dropout tide. The District would do well to be more open to exploring some of the promising programs that look little like regular school and give students and teachers more freedom.

Amidst this budget crisis, other sectors need to come forward to build the political will for providing young people the educational opportunities they deserve. One key piece of this work is constructing a strong citywide web of effective and compassionate community-based supports for our youth.

Most importantly, young people themselves need to be meaningfully engaged in crafting solutions. In massive numbers, youth have been fleeing a system that has not been meeting their needs. We will remain helpless to systematically re-engage large numbers of youth until we learn how to genuinely listen to them.

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