This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Calling the dropout rate of African American and Latino males in Philadelphia “an alarming crisis,” a School Reform Commission task force on the issue is recommending amending the zero-tolerance discipline policy and overhauling classroom approaches that leave most of these students disaffected and disengaged.
The report concluded – based on interviews and focus groups with young people both in and out of school – that many Black and Latino boys feel “pushed out” and disrespected. The task formally presented its findings and recommendations to Mayor Nutter and Superintendent Ackerman Thursday at a public event at School District headquarters.
“I don’t think the District is succeeding in engaging these young people,” said Johnny Irizarry, the SRC member who convened the task force with SRC chairman Robert Archie, at an August 31 press briefing. “Let me put it this way, engaging education looks different than what we have today.”
He called the task force report “a template for activism and transformation.”
Both the mayor and superintendent welcomed the report. Ackerman said it would help the District "accelerate our efforts" to eliminate "an inequitable allocation of resources and opportunities for young people." Neither spoke to the report’s specific recommendations for change in areas such as zero-tolerance discipline policies or problematic curriculum .
Irizarry discussed the substance of the report for an hour at a press briefing on Tuesday with Bill McKinney, who is president of the task force. McKinney is the director of the Howard Samuels Center at the City University of New York, a research center that specializes in looking at issues affecting traditionally marginalized groups and studies the effects of community organizing. Archie had a last-minute obligation and did not appear.
“Violence, housing, employment, all these things are affected by the dropout crisis,” said McKinney, who lives in Philadelphia.
The report noted that the four-year graduation rate for African American males is 45 percent, and for Latino males is 43 percent. That “is staggering,” Irizarry said. It drew heavily on data compiled by Project U-Turn, the city’s major anti-dropout initiative, and worked with the Philadelphia Youth Network to organize groups of students and disengaged youth for focus groups.
The task force recommended establishing an oversight group to implement a range of reform strategies, including some single-sex classrooms, more evening school, and more paid, credit-bearing internships that connect students with real job possibilities. The oversight committee would also try to promote “a comprehensive approach, collaboration, partnerships.”
“As we consider the many strategies that can be employed to re-engage students, attention must be paid to how these strategies embrace youth development principles and address the different ethnic and cultural values held by African American and Latino men,” the report said. “Programs should account for the cultural context, historical backgrounds, family differences, language barriers, immigrant/migrant experiences and other issues,” it said.
It said that most teachers are not specifically trained to work with African American and Latino males and understand them. They need more training to be culturally sensitive, the report said.
“Strategies must take asset-based approaches, and focus on students’ skills and abilities instead of perceived deficits or shortcomings,” the report said. And it said the adults need to pay more attention to the students themselves.
“This approach also requires that student voices be incorporated into the design of district policy and school programs that aim to curb the dropout problem.”
The report said that in the focus groups, students said it was important for adults in schools to “earn” their respect.
“Students claim that they are much more likely to engage in class if they felt as though they are part of the conversation and not simply being ‘talked at’….several of the formerly out-of-school youth interviewed said the schools that they left failed to keep them engaged or prepare them for college or careers,” the task force wrote. It recommended more access to Advanced Placement courses, career and technical education options, and an array of enrichment activities.
“Hiring practices that reflect the need for adults who are able to relate to the various life circumstances of young people are of the utmost importance,” the report said.
In addition, it called for increased peer mentoring and changing the approach to discipline to one that focuses more on restorative practices and less on punishment. African American and Latino male students are suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates.
In feedback sessions, students said that zero-tolerance policies were “ineffective, and in many cases even counterproductive to their learning. In fact, some students felt that zero tolerance kept students from learning from their mistakes…Males in urban school environments often find that teachers focus more on their behavior than academic achievement, or even potential.”
The District is expanding an in-school suspension policy this year as an alternative to the primary mode of punishment for breaking the code of conduct, which is suspension from school for one or two weeks.
At the press briefing, Irizarry said that “we need to look at subgroups and how education reform is leaving them behind.” For instance, he said there is more need for flexibility, including programs that allow students to work and earn money while earning credits toward graduation. The report calls for a single-sex annual dropout prevent conference that focuses on the middle years.
“In designing interventions, it is necessary for the School District and its many partners to address differences between groups that are being served,” the report said. “Curriculum and teaching, for instance, must be tailored to young urban males. Male students in urban environments respond most to classroom activities that are energetic, hands-on, and varied rather than routine whole-class instruction.”
The students interviewed said that the main reason they stayed in school was the presence of “caring adults” who have high expectations for them and help them develop high expectations for themselves.
The report’s authors broke the recommendations into categories that are aligned with Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 blueprint, those that are directly connected, and those that are not “but we think are important.”
The list of recommendations not directly addressed by Ackerman’s blueprint include:
- a need to use innovative approaches in classroom instruction;
- a differentiation between dropout prevention and addressing the needs of students who have dropped out;
- better communication with various communities;
- peer mentoring opportunities; and
- building curricula “that consider all aspects of a young person’s life.
“Social will is probably the most critical point,” Irizarry said. “We need to create a social urgency in the city.”