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How many students graduate? Why do students leave school?

Report offers detailed analysis of out-of-school youth

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

Unfulfilled Promise, the study by researchers Ruth Curran Neild and Robert Balfanz of dropout trends for Philadelphia students in public schools between 2000 and 2005, revealed the magnitude of the crisis in Philadelphia and delineated the major reasons why students drop out.

The study looked at how many Philadelphia students dropped out during a single school year, 2003-2004.

It also followed cohorts of students in the classes of 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 to determine how many persisted to graduation.

Highlights of the findings: “a disturbing picture”

  • Only half the students graduated in four years and less than 60 percent in six years in each of the six cohorts studied.
  • Males are more far more likely to drop out than females. That holds across all ethnic groups. The male-female graduation gap is highest among African Americans – while nearly two-thirds of Black girls finish high school in six years, just about half of Black boys do.
  • Latinos are more likely to drop out than Black, White or Asian students, but the numbers aren’t good for any group. More than half of Latino students didn’t finish high school in six years – 60 percent of Latino boys – nor did 40 percent of Black students, 40 percent of Whites, and 30 percent of Asians.
  • Most students drop out in ninth and 10th grades, but significant numbers also drop out in 11th and 12th grades. Some students drop out as early as sixth grade.
  • While the greatest risk of dropping out is in the ninth grade, followed closely by tenth, some students drop out just a few credits from graduation.
  • Students sent to the District’s discipline schools have almost a 100 percent chance of dropping out.
  • During a single school year, about 10 percent of all students in grades six through 12 either become official dropouts or attend school less than half the time. The annual dropout rate exceeds 15 percent in South, Southwest, North and some areas of West Philadelphia.
  • Only 1 percent of students in special admissions high schools drop out in a given year, compared to 20 times that number in neighborhood high schools.

Who is most likely to drop out?

  • 90 percent of those with a juvenile justice placement dropped out.
  • 75 percent of students in foster care placement dropped out.
  • 70 percent of students who had a substantiated case of abuse or neglect in high school dropped out.
  • 68 percent of females who gave birth within four years of starting high school dropped out.

However, these “high-risk” categories don’t account for the majority of dropouts. For instance, 23 percent of male dropouts had an out-of-home juvenile placement during high school – meaning that the vast majority, 77 percent of male dropouts, were not in the juvenile justice system. One-third of female dropouts gave birth within four years of starting high school, meaning that two-thirds of female dropouts did not.

Academic failure is a common cause of dropping out and can be predicted early

  • More than half of all eventual dropouts had serious issues in eighth grade. A detailed look at the class of 2000 found that 78 percent of those who attended school less than 80 percent of the time in eighth grade dropped out, as did 78 percent who failed either math or English that year. These struggling eighth-graders ended up accounting for more than half of all dropouts in the cohort.
  • Another 30 percent of dropouts passed eighth grade, but earned few credits in ninth grade and attended school less than 70 percent of the time.
  • Two-thirds of the students who dropped out were in 10th grade or lower.
  • Students who drop out in the 11th or 12th grade generally do so for reasons relating to pregnancy or to juvenile placement, although the probability is increased if their eighth grade reading levels had been measured at the second grade level or below.

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