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Monumental tasks ahead

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

Through a broad citywide collaborative called Project U-Turn, the city’s dismal high school graduation rate has begun to penetrate the consciousness of politicians, the media, and other local leaders. Mayor Nutter’s commitment to cut the dropout rate in half within seven years promises to keep the issue in the public eye.

Major new grant funds have been secured, and new pathways are being created to serve some of the thousands of young people who have left school but still hope to find a way to graduate. Different branches of government are talking to each other, raising hopes that services can be better coordinated.

This political momentum is important, but the hard work lies ahead – making our schools more effective and engaging places for students.

The system gets off-track early. We may have rising elementary test scores, but they haven’t yielded enough students who are ready for the rigors of high school. Thousands enter ninth grade each year lacking basic skills, and despite the best intentions of many hard-working staff, they encounter schools that are not remotely prepared to offer a safe, supportive, rich learning environment that feels connected to their real lives. To the multitude of students who stop attending these schools each year, that decision does not seem irrational.

The sheer scale of the problem should tell us that it won’t be solved by traditional experts; it will require a powerful grassroots movement committed to transforming schools and the system. This spring’s community summits on the dropout problem can be a first step at tapping popular energy to address this critical issue.

The cost of needed prevention measures will be huge: from more funding for pre-K, to shoring up the critical middle grades when the dropout warning signs clearly emerge, to better student preparation for the high school transition. The cost of not taking these steps will be even greater.

But preventing dropouts requires more than creating new interventions and alternative programs. The challenge is to envision and create learning communities within schools where students are taught well and feel respect and a sense of purpose. Scattered around the country are urban high schools that empower young people and their communities and prepare students for college who are not already high achievers. We need to study them, and ultimately we need to create more such schools in Philadelphia.

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