This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Last fall, the Notebook began profiling students at three South Philly high schools to see what keeps them connected to school.
We met Corey White, an earnest 9th grader who left his house at 5:45 each morning to get before-school tutoring at the selective Academy at Palumbo.
We met Will Green, whose quiet ambition to become a veterinarian seemed to be withering from lack of notice at massive South Philadelphia High School.
And we met Dominique Holloman, a vibrant 15-year-old looking for a fresh start at newly reopened Audenried High after an entire year out of school.
A year later, all three students are on the ropes.
Just after 11 p.m. on October 21, the Phillies won a return trip to the World Series. Will Green and his friends sought to join the citywide celebration.
Before they made it to Broad Street, however, they were stopped by police.
“The cops said they heard gunshots, so they started smelling our hands. Then they found some of those big cigarettes and said I was putting drugs in them and took me home for being out past curfew,” Will recounts.
His mother was terrified.
“I don’t want him getting into that life,” says Freena Green. “Look at his father, where he is now [incarcerated on drug charges].”
Will thinks his mother is overreacting. He swears that he doesn’t use or sell drugs, and he wishes his mother would stop discussing his troubles with her friends from church.
Less than a week later, however, Will got suspended from South Philadelphia High for fighting.
Will admits he and a friend got in a fight with a classmate who also lives in their neighborhood. But given that the incident occurred after school hours, several blocks away, he and his mother were surprised that it led not only to a ten-day suspension, but a recommendation by South Philadelphia High that he be transferred to an alternative school via what is known as an EH-21.
“Group assaults” are automatically classified as Level 2 offenses. As a result, what Will describes as a minor neighborhood misunderstanding may result in him having to pursue his diploma at a disciplinary school.
Such reliance on punitive approaches like suspensions and expulsions creates an alienating climate that disproportionately harms young African-American and Latino men, say three creators of a University of Pennsylvania class called “Psycho-educational Interactions with Black Males.”
Rather than preparing these young men to handle the challenges they confront daily, says Professor Howard Stevenson, too many schools foster “a sense of incompetence and vulnerability” in young men of color.
Structured opportunities to develop a healthy racial identity, adds Eric Grimes, help young men of color learn to safely navigate an often-hostile world.
But unfortunately, he contends, schools like South Philadelphia offer students like Will little more than “access to girls and the opportunity to fight other boys who are going through the same things.”
The results are disastrous, says Robert Carter.
Reviewing the Notebook’s reports on Will, Carter mourns the deterioration of his “desire to touch something and have it grow” into a willingness to merely “play the game of school.”
The real tragedy, say all three men, is that even if Will manages to graduate, he will be equipped to succeed only in environments that are as dysfunctional as the school itself.
Corey White, 16, steels himself for another day of high school at Academy at Palumbo.
At the highly competitive Academy at Palumbo, meanwhile, Corey White is struggling to find his way.
Last year, close relationships with teachers helped Corey start strong. But by the end of 9th grade, his grades had slipped.
Shortly into 10th grade, Corey received interim reports in English 2, Geometry, Chemistry, and Health/Physical Education.
Learning he was in danger of failing four classes rocked the usually confident 16-year-old.
“I was thinking about leaving Palumbo,” he says quietly.
Much of Corey’s problem began when he missed a week of class, homework, and notes with an ear infection. “I couldn’t understand the [new] work because I had to catch up on understanding the work I missed,” he explains.
Complicating his situation were factors common to low-income students of color who must adjust to competitive school climates, says Kristine Lewis, assistant professor of multicultural and urban education at Drexel University.
Students like Corey, she says, have not been groomed for that kind of environment and must “learn to decode” how it works.
In 9th grade, Corey was able to connect to help. He came to school early for math tutoring, and his English teacher automatically understood how he learned.
“But this year,” he laments, “it’s not the same. [Teachers] explain the work, give the work, then expect to get it back. They don’t show you everything.
“I need more examples. I need somebody to go over [the work] in more detail so I can mimic them.”
But even as he fell behind, Corey didn’t reach out. “I didn’t want to have to ask somebody for help,” he says. “There’s crazy competition. That’s when my pride kicks in.”
In addition, says Corey, “I worried that if I asked for help, the teachers would treat me like I wasn’t supposed to be in this school.”
Unsurprised, Lewis says that students like Corey often suffer from “imposter syndrome” and are afraid to speak up for fear of being exposed as not belonging.
She argues that schools like Palumbo must “build bridges” for students like Corey. Palumbo principal Dr. Adrienne Wallace-Chew agrees.
“We have to settle him down and get him connected to supports,” says Wallace-Chew. “We have to see where [his] weaknesses are, then get our teachers to do different things with [him].”
Professional development that helps teachers better reach diverse learners is crucial, says Lewis. But schools like Palumbo must also “give students language they need to articulate what they are feeling.”
Right now, Corey mostly feels lost.
“I know there is something [the school] could do for me,” he says, “but I just can’t grasp what it is.”
Dominique Holloman appears to have dropped out – from school and from the rest of the world.
She doesn’t predictably live at any one address. At her mother’s house, the television is audible down the block, but no one answers the door.
Her brother’s cell phone number no longer works. Messages left for her with the family of her daughter’s father aren’t returned.
Reached once by phone, Dominique vaguely mentions a “job program” before hurrying off the line.
Among the 6,000 students who drop out in Philadelphia each year, the most difficult to keep connected endure tremendous instability, with family members who may actually discourage school attendance.
Audenried High was better positioned than most schools to hang on to Dominique. In fall 2008, it was newly reopened with just 9th graders, so classes and caseloads were small.
A new class called “freshman seminar” helped promote strong teacher-student relationships and reinforce study skills. Audenried also has a social worker from the ELECT Program, which helps pregnant and parenting teens access outside services and develop academic and attendance plans.
The school has had some success; ELECT’s Janis Durald says 10 young mothers are active in the program and staying in school.
But last year, as Dominique’s pregnancy advanced, the relationships she had formed at Audenried were not strong enough to counteract her family’s pull. Before Dominique knew it, she had a newborn baby and two months of schoolwork to catch up on.
She didn’t make it back last spring, attended summer school for just three days, and never showed up in September.
Is there a school that could have kept Dominique connected?
David Bromley is the director of Big Picture – Philadelphia, a nonprofit that supports the development of highly personalized schools with real-world internships. The more than 60 Big Picture schools across the country boast 96 percent graduation rates and are zealously championed as an effective alternative to traditional high schools.
“Our whole approach is about engaging kids, making them want to come to school and connect to adults,” says Bromley. The schools feature internships, informal classrooms, and independent learning.
In September, Big Picture helped open El Centro de Estudiantes, a District alternative school in Norris Square.
Principal Laura Davis says that El Centro works to pinpoint each student’s barriers to attendance, then makes a plan to overcome those barriers.
Like Dominique, she says, many enrollees “are over-age, undereducated, at-risk, truant. We have a lot of female students who got pregnant and were pushed out of school.”
One major difference, however, is that those students and their families have chosen to reconnect.
“If the culture of a family is such that education is not a priority, it’s very difficult,” she acknowledges.
Indeed, the adults in charge seem at a loss when it comes to working with children like Dominique.
Rocky roads, we can often help students navigate. Dead-end roads, we can occasionally help students escape.
But roads that consistently provide all children – even those from the most destabilized parts of the city – with safe passage into adulthood?
Those roads, we have yet to build.