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Panel weighs obstacles to college success

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

by Katherine Saviskas

With 101 colleges and universities in the metropolitan area, Philadelphia is second only to Boston in the size of its higher education industry. Yet, just 21 percent of city residents have a college degree.

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, said at a forum on Oct. 12 that this number is up from 18 percent when Nutter took office in 2008 – but still far from his announced goal of 36 percent by 2018.

Only 10 percent of the students who entered 9th grade in the School District in 1999 had earned a two- or four-year degree within 10 years, according to recently released data.

"There is a big gap between the resources of colleges and the individuals who live here,” Shorr told the audience at the panel discussion on successful strategies for high school and college graduation, hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Education and Project Forward Leap. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Shorr, who discussed these issues with the Notebook early in Nutter’s term, called for efforts to "build public will" and "get the public on board" in believing that the city will receive a significant return for investments in K-12 and higher education.

Shorr said the mayor is collaborating with the School District to "make sure more students sit in good seats every day” by increasing the number of high-performing schools and alternative options for those who have already dropped out. She said the Mayor and District are creating such partnerships through bi-annual meetings with Philadelphia college and university presidents as well as two new city initiatives: PhillyGoes2College and Graduation Coach.

Nutter is also pushing to ensure that data is interpreted and collected properly. Getting the numbers straight is "crucial if we’re going to measure ourselves and push ourselves," Shorr said.

"We’ve got to start thinking about becoming a strong, brainy city," Shorr concluded.

Panelist Kate Shaw, executive director of Research for Action, said that too much burden is being placed on the city’s one community college.

"We’re concentrating our most disadvantaged students in those institutions least in a position to serve them," Shaw said. "I don’t think that’s a fair expectation to put on a single institution [CCP]. Everybody’s got to step up to the plate." While the destination for almost all city students who need remedial courses, Community College of Philadelphia does not get enough city or state aid to fulfill that mission, she said. *

Panelist Leroy Nunery, the School District’s deputy superintendent, agreed with Shorr that public engagement within the system is crucial to getting more students on a college track. He said a major barrier to this is lack of faith in the system among parents and other stakeholders.

Nunery said that money is often overemphasized as the cause of problems and instead highlighted a lack of coherence and coordination between and among the District and support organizations as impeding high school and college graduation. He said he would work to bring together the District with these organizations and improve communication.

Update: The exact quote from Shaw was: "We’re concentrating our most disadvantaged students in those institutions with the fewest resources to serve them—community colleges," Shaw said. "In Philadelphia, I don’t think that’s a fair expectation to put on a single institution [CCP]. Every college and university has to step up to the plate."

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