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Falling through the cracks

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

Listening to Danielle Harris and Toshana Sledge speak on Wednesday before the School Reform Commission was heartbreaking.

Danielle got into trouble at West Philadelphia High and wound up a dropout. She described her bad behavior as a costly mistake. With the help of Youth Empowerment Services, she was re-engaged in schooling and is on her way to a GED.

Sledge said that her son Jason was never in trouble and didn’t fail his courses, but he found school so boring that he left. The media program at YES, which includes video production and graphic design, drew him back in. Sledge said how thrilled she was that her son had found something that he enjoyed and an educational environment that seemed interested in developing his talents.

Same with Eileen Brown’s granddaughters — in YES, they finally found a program that piqued their interest in getting an education.

The problem facing YES is that it is paid for by the Department of Human Services, not the School District, and is a part-time program – considered an intervention for families, not an educational program. As a result, students who attend the program may or may not get a GED.

Still, Taylor Frome, the YES director, felt that she had hit on something in concentrating on media production as a way to lure students in. She applied for and received a contract from the School District this spring to operate an alternative, accelerated high school. The school would use the media focus to draw students, but also offer regular academic courses and provide the path to a diploma.

Now, however, the planned new YES school, due to open its doors November 1, has been shelved. It’s the victim of the state’s budget impasse and the decision to reduce overall education aid to districts, which will cost Philadelphia at least $160 million in funds officials thought they could count on.

As Chief Business Officer Michael Masch explained at the SRC meeting, painful choices lie ahead. Some categories of expenditures are seen as locked in stone — apparently, continuing to pay $4 million for 78 patronage workers at the Bureau of Revision of Taxes is among them — and can’t be touched. Unfortunately, much of what is not locked in stone is in items that are services to students.

Now, as the governor’s office and the General Assembly hammer out the actual budget, it is still far from clear how much Philadelphia might lose other than what it was expecting through the basic education formula. Masch, a former state budget director and political veteran, said it is quite possible that the governor and the four caucuses could fashion something that goes straight to conference and is adopted before people even understand what’s in it. In addition to the basic education formula, there is a bunch of other line items that send money to districts, and those line items could remain while the allocations are divvied up differently.

One line item that we know has been eliminated is for Alternative Education Demonstration Grants. This was a $14 million expenditure created by the Republicans back in the day of John Perzel so that outside for-profit companies like Community Education Partners could come into the city and run discipline schools.

Now that CEP’s contract has been significantly cut back and the people and organizations moving into alternative education are nonprofits like Youth Empowerment Services, there is little interest in Harrisburg in restoring this line item. (By the way, this was one revenue item that the Republicans restored when Rendell routinely eliminated it in his own budget — it was essentially a legislative WAM. He knew it was meant to be a conduit for the for-profit discipline schools favored by Republicans.)

As yet, we have little solid information about how the District plans to deal with the drastic change in its revenue projects for this fiscal year. So far, YES is the biggest casualty. This spreadsheet supplied by the District shows that the SRC decided to eliminate 385 accelerated high school slots from eight providers. YES is the only one whose entire allotment is eliminated; from 100 students, it goes to zero. It’s absorbing more than one-fourth of the cutback itself.

Masch said that the District is increasing the total number of slots and only targeted slots that weren’t needed in September. But Taylor Frome said she had signed a three-year lease, hired a staff, and begun enrolling students. SRC members seemed interested in preserving the program – including chair Robert Archie (who nevertheless seemed to have trouble understanding how the proposed YES school would not be a charter ).

We’ll see. In the meantime, more students will undoubtedly fall through the cracks.

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