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No more dropout factories

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

While nobody in Philadelphia is thrilled with the city’s on-time graduation rate – now 64 percent in District schools and 76 percent in charters – the progress made here over the past decade on the dropout problem is undeniable. The reasons for the slow but steady improvements are not entirely clear. But a major study now underway by the Project U-Turn collaborative (which helped fund this edition) should provide some answers.

What is clear is that the system still has a big problem in 9th grade – where students who had been getting by start to fail math and English and stop attending regularly. The problem is still concentrated in the city’s large neighborhood high schools.

A close look at the students who started with the class of 2012 shows that 22 District high schools lost 50 or more of their students from that cohort, accounting for nearly 2,200 dropouts in all.

The label “dropout factories” – better yet, “pushout factories” – still seems accurate.

We know that students need personalized attention and instruction. Yet too often what’s being delivered is still the factory model of education.

For more than two decades, the debate has gone on about how to transform neighborhood high schools into effective learning environments preparing largely low-income students for college and careers. We have seen new reform bandwagons come through town and then fizzle, interspersed with periods of neglect.

Put bluntly, efforts to tinker with the traditional neighborhood high school have failed. Those schools need to be reinvented.

The city’s Promise Academies, small accelerated high schools, and Renaissance charter high schools have been incubators for new approaches and can teach us something about how to do this right.

Here are some essential components:

  • Freedom for school leadership to implement an educational vision;
  • Engaging instruction that meets students where they are;
  • More time in the school day and year;
  • An effective remediation strategy for low-literacy students;
  • Staffing flexibility, so teachers have time to discuss students, and adults are available to provide support where needed;
  • Systems on-site for helping students deal with behavioral issues;
  • Connections with the community, tapping neighborhood assets.

Putting together all these pieces in a school will not happen overnight. It will require creative school leadership, resources that now are hard to come by, willingness by staff at all levels to rethink entrenched practices, and focused attention from the top.

But beyond that, transforming neighborhood high schools – in Philadelphia and other urban districts – requires dealing with the elephant in the room. It will be a losing battle so long as the neighborhood schools are essentially schools of last resort, filled with students with the greatest needs.

It’s time to rethink the student placement process, where many don’t get their choices and end up in the very schools they tried to escape. A revamped system would do away with automatic neighborhood assignment and support all students in making choices, matching as many as possible with one of their selections.

In sum, neighborhood schools need to be re-imagined as places that provide personalized interactions between adults and students, engage students in challenging work, and offer them support services. And the city needs a modernized high school selection process, so that every school is one that students actively opt into, not just the default for leftovers.

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