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City’s new education chief spearheads re-engagement center

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

Despite years of efforts to provide alternatives for out-of-school youth, Philadelphia still has no organized system for reconnecting dropouts who decide they are ready to complete their high school education. One of Lori Shorr’s priorities as Mayor Nutter’s new chief education officer is to work with District leadership to make sure that one is created.

Shorr, whose most recent position was vice president for policy and planning at the Philadelphia Youth Network, said that the District has already begun plans to establish a “re-engagement center” on the first floor of the central office at 440 N. Broad St. The plan is for the center to be staffed with knowledgeable people from inside and outside the District who can evaluate young people’s needs, direct them to the right academic program, and organize the necessary support services.

Now, young people seeking to go back to school face a hit-or-miss bureaucracy. “[They] make a phone call, and somebody at 440 whose job is not necessarily to do this tells them to go back to the school [they] dropped out of,” said Shorr. “There’s something wrong with that as a protocol.”

Currently only the student’s last regular school knows how many credits a student has accumulated towards graduation. Nowhere does the District keep centralized records on each child that tracks their educational career and their connections, if any, to other city agencies like child welfare, family court, and behavioral health.

Shorr said that better data collection and better coordination between schools and the District central office – as well as social service agencies – will allow the District to better serve students seeking to re-engage.

“As geeky and as wonky as data alignment is, it’s a huge part of what we’re going to have to do,” said Shorr, who before PYN developed policies designed to increase graduation rates statewide as a special assistant to state education secretary Gerald Zahorchak. Prior to that she directed the Office of School and Community Partnerships at Temple.

“Dropouts are kids who go in and out of all sorts of systems, and if you’re going to serve them, you have to have some place where adults who come into contact with that kid can look at something on a computer screen and … be able to serve them where they are,” she said. Shorr said that one-third of dropouts are children who have had contact with city agencies.

Useful academic information on students is also scant, she said. The re-engagement center will not only track down the student’s credit accrual, but do an academic evaluation, including reading and math levels. “Credit accrual isn’t going to tell you whether the kid reads at a third-grade level or tenth-grade level,” she said. “Knowing that is the difference between failure and success in an educational placement.”

Shorr is working with the District’s Office of Curriculum and Instruction to find the best assessments to use. She is working with the District and city to appropriately staff the center with people who can not only provide academic evaluation, but determine other needs.

The re-engagement center is one of several initiatives emerging from the District’s Secondary Education Blueprint that will require funds for staff in next year’s budget. Funding will be a factor in determining whether, for instance, center staff will follow through with students who come through its doors to make sure the placements are working out.

Besides reconnection, Shorr said it is crucial to work on preventing dropouts. Research from Johns Hopkins University and others shows that it is possible to identify students likely to drop out as early as sixth grade. “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,” she said.

Shorr said that a key to prevention is creating genuine “small schools” that are small in culture as well as size. “I think Philadelphia is just starting down the road to small schools,” she said. “Buildings have been created; now schools have to be created.”

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