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On dropouts, Nutter promises results

Ambitious goals set, the mayor now seeks to engage city agencies, schools, and the public

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

For newly installed Mayor Michael Nutter, the equation is simple: better public schools and more educational opportunity for the city’s young people equals lower crime rates and an improved business climate.

That is why he has promised to cut in half the city’s dropout rate, estimated at 45 percent, within five to seven years. He said he expects to see progress each year.

“Education is key to the future of this city,” Nutter said in an interview.

“I understand why many of us are focused on day-to-day crime statistics, and of course the city has to be safe. But the reason there is so much crime is that so many young people have a lack of hope, they can’t get a job, they have poor educational attainment, or they don’t see the value of education.”

He said too many young people “have not only dropped out of school, but have dropped out of sight.”

Making the connection

The link between high crime rates and a poorly educated populace may seem self-evident, but the connection is not always made by a public that clamors for increased investment in police and prisons rather than schools. Nutter said that he hopes to change that by spearheading a new level of cooperation between the city and School District.

“These kinds of efforts take time…and focus,” Nutter said. “The public will see a greater level of coordination and commitment, and a new cooperative spirit, to make sure that all eyes are focused on the right things.”

His main strategy for cutting the dropout rate, he said, will be raising awareness, enhancing focus, and working more closely with Gov. Rendell, the School District, and city agencies.

“Sometimes things come together at a unique point in time. For us the time is now,” he said.

His new partner at the District will be incoming schools CEO Arlene Ackerman, who is known to approach the dropout problem as one that begins when students are young.

“It’s unfair to expect high schools to rectify academic issues that started long before students got to ninth grade,” she told a press conference on the day she was interviewed by the CEO search advisory committee. “I believe you’ve got to work backwards while reforming some of the things you’ve got in high school.” She referred to improving pre-K and assuring that all students can read proficiently by third grade as key dropout prevention strategies.

Nutter said that his administration will continue to support Project U-Turn, the coordinated effort to stem the tide that he said “has done very good work in a relatively short period of time.” Since October 2006, Project U-Turn has worked to mobilize disparate elements of the community to develop a new policy agenda and create more options for students who want to resume their education. Led by the Philadelphia Youth Network, the effort includes the School District, the city’s Department of Human Services, numerous community groups, unions, and nonprofits.

Since the launch of Project U-Turn, the District has established a total of 1,400 new slots for young people seeking to return to school, including three new accelerated high schools for struggling students and those who have already dropped out. The mayor recently toured Fairhill Community High School, one of these accelerated schools.

Project U-Turn reported that in its first year, foundations and government entities invested more than $10 million in various alternative programs. A hotline fielded over 1,500 calls from out-of-school youth looking for opportunities to return to school.

To date, however, Project U-Turn has not claimed any real reduction in the dropout rate. Its comprehensive 2006 report, which relied on a sophisticated analysis of cohorts of students starting school in different years, tracked graduation and dropout rates only until 2005. There is not yet an adequate data system to calculate the dropout rate since then.

For Nutter, the dropout fight is close to home. His wife Lisa runs the Philadelphia Academies Inc., a key school-to-work program in local high schools, and her sister-in-law Laura Shubilla is the head of the Philadelphia Youth Network.

In the short term, Nutter said that he will ask business leaders to provide 2000 internships this summer for high school students, doubling the number available in 2007.

“I’m calling on business, political, and civic leaders to demonstrate to young people that they care about them,” Nutter said.

Photo: Harvey Finkle
Mayor Nutter,here participating in a Black history celebration at True Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Logan, says he wants to see Philadelphia become "an educational mecca."

Prevention strategies

In addition to the programs for those seeking to re-connect, schools need to increase and diversify programs in such areas as career and technical education and provide “more offerings and options for young people to stay in school in the first place,” Nutter said. It is crucial, he said, to “continue to evaluate what the curriculum is and its relevance in the global environment in terms of the world of work. There are a dozen different things we have to stay focused on.”

One of them is “an insistence that music, art, and cultural activities be more a standard part of the curriculum, not just an extra you get if you’re lucky enough to go to a certain school,” he said.

Nutter said that he frequently speaks in suburban counties, building relationships with corporate and philanthropic leaders and telling them that reducing Philadelphia’s dropout rate is important to them as well. “People do realize that the city and region are inextricably tied and a better functioning city is in the region’s best interest,” Nutter said. “I think more and more people get that.”

He expects the Office of Education, staffed by Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr and her deputy, Sharon Tucker, to be at the center of this effort. Shorr is a member of his cabinet. On education, he said, “I want people to know that she speaks on my behalf.”

Nutter also wants to increase the proportion of Philadelphia citizens who have college degrees. Now, it ranks near the bottom among major American cities, with just 18 percent of residents possessing a bachelor’s degree or better.

In his budget, he proposed a $4 million increase in the city’s contribution to Community College and wants to expand dual enrollment in which high schools students take some college courses as a way to keep them engaged.

“I’ve taken the position that we should be an education mecca, because there are 92 colleges and universities here,” Nutter said. “But if [our students] are not taking advantage of them, we can’t sell the city or the region as home to a knowledge-based workforce,” he said.

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