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On the record with Lori Shorr, the mayor’s chief education officer

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

Lori Shorr is Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer and fills the newly created city post of director of the Office of the Public School Family and Child Advocate. She is a member of Nutter’s cabinet, charged with shepherding the mayor’s ambitious effort to halve the school dropout rate over the next five to seven years, double the number of adults with college degrees within the next decade, and improve adult literacy.

Prior to this appointment, Shorr tackled some of the same issues at the Philadelphia Youth Network, where she was vice president of policy and planning, and as a special assistant to state Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak, where she analyzed state policies designed to increase high school graduation rates and college attendance. Prior to that, she directed the Office of School and Community Partnerships at Temple and did research on educational issues including literacy and the alignment of curricula among schools and grade levels.

Shorr spoke to the Notebook‘s contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa.

How are you and the Nutter administration going to tackle the dropout crisis?

There’s not a system right now for dropouts to come back into the school district. They’re starting to put one together; in fact, I’m going to call [interim CEO] Tom Brady as soon as I can to thank him. He’s dedicated space on the first floor of 440 [N. Broad St.] for a "re-engagement center."

Right now, kids [who want to come back] make a phone call, and somebody at 440 tells them to go back to the school he or she dropped out of because only their home school has the ability to look at their credit accrual. Without credit accrual you can’t place kids in a roster. But credit accrual isn’t going to tell you whether the kid reads at a third-grade level or tenth-grade level. Knowing that is the difference between failure and success in an educational placement.

At the re-engagement center, we’re going to do an academic evaluation of the kid. We’re working on the staffing now and with [the School District’s Office of] Curriculum and Instruction to come up with the best assessments.

Will the re-engagement center coordinate other information on students?

Data is one of my top priorities, not just better data on each child within the School District but across our agencies: how can we share data about kids, if not on a student level, in an aggregate form so that we can start serving kids better. So as geeky and as wonky as data alignment is, it’s a huge part of what we’re going to have to do – because dropouts are kids who go in and out of all sorts of systems.

So the re-engagement center will also have people from social service agencies. A third of the kids who drop out are in our agency systems, so we need to have the ability to know what systems they’re in and what supports they have.

So to build a system for kids to get back to school, the re-engagement center is a big piece, the data is a big piece, and then the other big piece is creating additional slots in various types of educational options for kids. These are the accelerated schools and the Educational Options (EOPS) program. What happens at the re-engagement center will help find the right option for that kid.

These are tangible goals around alternative programs. What about prevention?

We now know because of work Johns Hopkins [University] did with both the Philadelphia Education Fund and the University of Pennsylvania that we can identify … dropouts in middle grades. We can now tell you that this child has an 80 percent chance of dropping out based on four factors [failing reading, failing math, low attendance and low marks in behavior]. We’ve got to think about what that means for how we serve kids — how can we have data that’s nimble enough, and time for teachers to look at that data, so that the extra resources are there for kids who we know are taking an off-ramp pretty soon.

So I think prevention is huge…. At the end of the day, whole-school reform is what’s going to help the dropout crisis: making classrooms engaging, doing early detection of reading problems so that kids don’t fall far behind, being able to have smaller schools so that kids know that there is a caring adult.

Talk more about small schools.

Small schools aren’t just about numbers. They need principals who understand what an atmosphere has to be inside a school for a kid to want to come there every day. I think that the national research tells us that "real" small schools do better with retention and graduation.

I think [Philadelphia] is just starting down the road to small schools. I think people focus just on the numbers and not the culture. Buildings have been created, and now schools have to be created. And I know people are working on that.

Many students wind up in discipline schools run by private providers. Do you have evidence that they are reducing dropout rates?

We need to look at real data of who is sent to discipline schools and what the outcomes are for them. These are public dollars that go into this work. They’re serving public school students. No matter who you are, you have to be accountable for your outcomes. I just don’t even understand how that can not be the case. Part of that rests on the School District to make sure that the contracts put into place with providers are very clear about what the accountability is, and they have to monitor it.

Talk about the connection between the goal of cutting the dropout rate and increasing post-secondary attainment.

There are a couple of strategies for increasing post-secondary attainment. One is Graduate! Philadelphia, which is taking folks who are already in the labor force, who have some credit accrual toward a degree, and encouraging them to come back. It opened in the Gallery [at 9th and Market Sts.] and is coming out of the Workforce Investment Board with our Commerce Department.

Another strategy is to make sure that students just coming out of high school are prepared to do college-level work and know about the importance of going to college. And that’s the sort of work that I’ve been doing for a decade.

The other strategy is to get people who come to college here to stay here. People have been talking about that for a while.

When we can do a better job keeping kids in high school and getting them to the academic levels they need to be at, then the college-going rate can increase as well … as long as we can do the work at the front end to make sure that kids understand the importance of going to college.

Are you meeting with community members regularly?

There’s a lot of discussion about what community means. There are large nonprofits – people talk about them as being the community. People talk about business and higher ed as the community. But then there’s also a more grassroots community, so we’re going to make sure that we have connections in all of those places and are hearing what people want and need. I have tons of people on my calendar already who have reached out…. You can look at national research, and you can look at what’s worked before, but you also have to look at the folks you’re trying to serve, and ask what’s going to work for them.

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