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District’s Imagine 2014 plan includes focus on dropout prevention

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

In North Philadelphia, over-age middle graders now have the opportunity to get back on track academically in a new District school called the Crossroads Accelerated Academy.

Across the city this summer, 8th graders will be enrolled in a comprehensive transitional program designed to better prepare them for high school success.

These are two new initiatives highlighted by District academic leaders, who are optimistic that these and other programs that are part of the District’s Imagine 2014 strategic plan can slow the steady flow of dropouts from Philadelphia high schools. In a typical school year, an estimated 6,000 or more students stop attending District schools.

For over-age middle schoolers like the ones targeted for the Crossroads program, the odds of graduating are poor.

“We took a floor [at Elverson School] and created a school-within-a-school,” explained School District Chief Operating Officer John Frangipani. About 80 students are now enrolled at Crossroads, with a student-teacher ratio of 20:1.

Frangipani stresses that those enrolling at Crossroads from throughout the District are not discipline problems.

“We want to put them in an environment where they can see success,” he said. “So we give them a lot more special attention to get them back to where they need to be.”

Crossroads Principal Sherry Lewis said that part of that special attention includes tutoring sessions an hour before school starts for students who need extra help.

“Because [Crossroads] is so small, the teachers know all the students, and the students know all the teachers.…We try to nurture them like a small learning community.”

If this pilot program is successful, Frangipani said that the District would like to expand it.

The District’s expanded summer bridge program for 8th graders is geared toward dropout prevention by making the often-challenging transition from the middle grades to high school smoother.

While the program ran for only a few days this past summer, the 2010 version will include 22 days of programming, said Interim Chief Academic Officer Pamela Brown.

“We’re calling it the Transition Program, and it will be two hours a day starting June 28 and going through July 28,” Brown said. She added that the program will encompass the Cornell method of note-taking and other study skills students need to succeed in high school. This summer the District is also offering 8th graders the opportunity to take a pre-algebra course and a communications course for credit.

For current high school students, the District is offering a menu of programs designed to make summer school more appealing, including not just remedial work, but opportunities to take electives and to work as part of the day.

“Right now we’re hoping to have at least 8,000 summer jobs for kids,” Frangipani said. “We’re targeting our 10th and 11th graders but there’s opportunities for ages 14-21.”

The District’s focus on the 9th grade transition and lowering the dropout rate is also reflected in the adoption of a computerized early warning indicator system to track students with excessive absences, behavior issues, and course failures in math and English.

The system, now in all high schools, is focused strictly on 9th graders. “Those are the students we must target,” said Wilfredo Ortiz, chief of counseling services. “Those are the kinds of students we’ll be getting into summer school to do credit recovery.”

After the students are identified on the early warning indicator system, counselors will focus on what strategies can be put in place to help them, “whether it’s tutorial, whether it’s after school, whether it’s coming to a Saturday program,” said Ortiz.

Another tool counselors and students will be able to access is “Student Net,” an online system where students can see their entire school record.

“[Counselors] go in with the students and identify areas where they need skills development,” said Ortiz. “We target the failures. What classes did you fail? What are you going to do to make up those classes?”

“We’re putting a lot of our energies on the 9th graders. We’re putting energies on the 8th graders,” Ortiz added.

These new initiatives depend heavily on the fact that the District hired about 150 new counselors, a major focus in Superintendent Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 plan. A District midyear report said the addition of these counselors lowered the ratio of high school students to counselors to 254:1.

Another key component of Imagine 2014 that the District believes will help reduce the dropout rate is offering more enrichment programs. These include intramural sports for middle school students, new regional talent centers providing opportunities to engage in the arts, and the hiring of 100 art and music teachers in Fall 2009 (in addition to 100 hired in Fall 2008).

“When students have something they can make a connection with in school, they have a tendency to have better attendance, and they’re more focused on doing well in school,” Brown said.

Other Imagine 2014 dropout prevention initiatives highlighted by District staff include:

  • New parent involvement initiatives: Programs such as the parent ombudsman program and Parent University are designed to help parents become engaged in the educational process. More than 5,000 parents have attended Parent University, which offers a variety of academic and enrichment courses and workshops in 13 schools and a number of other sites throughout the city.
  • Coordinated efforts between truancy court, parole officers, police, and the city’s Department of Human Services to improve safety and lower truancy rates.
  • An expansion of Student Success Centers, which function as a “one-stop shop” for students seeking academic and career counseling. Eleven neighborhood high schools now have these centers, but the District does not yet have the funds to make it districtwide. Frangipani said that whether the District expands the centers to other high schools depends in large part on whether Pennsylvania wins a federal Race to the Top grant.