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Engaging students in an age of austere budgets

4 neighborhood high school principals share their dropout prevention strategies.

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

Comprehensive neighborhood high schools across the nation struggle with dropout prevention, and Philadelphia’s are no different.

“What you see in that research is that these schools tend to have a higher concentration of really at-risk kids,” said Kate Shaw, executive director of Research for Action.

“In part because of that, the percentage of kids who graduate is much lower.”

And although principals at a handful of neighborhood high schools – Roxborough, George Washington, Germantown and Ben Franklin – said that helpful strategies aren’t hard to identify, most also acknowledged that implementing changes in an age of budget cuts, staff turnover, and districtwide strategic shifts is a constant challenge.

Comprehensive high schools are distinguished by their open doors. They must welcome all students – special education, homeless, pregnant and parenting teens, students asked to leave charters and magnet schools, and students with language barriers.

And while many of the city’s special admission schools boast four-year graduation rates of over 90 percent, their neighborhood counterparts often lose half of their students between freshman and senior years.

According to District data, the best four-year graduation rate in Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools can be found at George Washington High – 80 percent. Lamberton and Northeast High Schools come in close behind.

But the rates in the rest of the city’s neighborhood high schools are significantly lower. Until a few years ago, most were below 50 percent, and while their overall performance has improved, their on-time graduation rates still range from 44 to 62 percent.

The most obvious difference between the top three schools and the rest is poverty. At Washington and Northeast, less than two-thirds of the student body qualifies as low-income. In most of the city’s comprehensive high schools, that figure rises to 80 or 90 percent.

A 2006 Johns Hopkins study found a “near-perfect” correlation between high schools’ poverty levels and their dropout patterns. Although income is a well-established predictor for those at risk of dropping out, Shaw said there’s no definitive research showing why graduation rates vary among comprehensive high schools with comparable poverty rates.

“There’s no simple answer why one school does better than another – even if you hold student demographics constant,” Shaw said.

“We know that teachers are the most important part of the equation, but there’s also the leadership, safety, and amount of money the school is receiving. It’s a combination of who the students are and what their needs are, and the school’s capacity to meet the students’ needs.”

Principals cite the same factors, plus the need for appealing classes and activities, resources, and school culture, to prevent dropouts. Success, they said, requires a clearly and consistently structured school environment, stable relationships between staff and students, and classes and services that match student’s interests and needs. But implementation is often easier said than done.

Making sacrifices

At Roxborough High in northwest Philadelphia, where the four-year graduation rate is 62 percent, principal Stephen Brandt calls the dropout issue “an epidemic problem across the nation.”

Part of his strategy to fight it has been to maximize the number of available counselors.

“We have three counselors for the 480 kids. That was a building-level choice we made,” Brandt said.

Establishing that ratio – one counselor for every 160 students – required reducing his administrative staff to three: himself, an assistant principal, and a secretary.

“We’ve sacrificed,” Brandt said.

“We’ve empowered teacher leaders to pick up different roles … serving as instructional coaches, providing support to fellow teachers, leading professional development, handling discipline, attendance and truancy.”

Brandt also emphasizes a “college-going” culture in which every senior applies to college, a task that depends heavily on a college access center paid for by an outside partner, the Philadelphia Education Fund.

He tries to maximize his number of AP classes (currently at 10) and continually improve his special academic programs such as cinematography and web design.

“My ultimate goal would be to find a corporate partner and a collegiate partner for every program we have.”

He’s convinced that part of the solution is to attract ambitious students.

“We need to do a better job at branding our schools and programs, and marketing to our families and communities,” Brandt said.

He meets regularly with principals at local feeder schools and is boosting the number of events in order to bring in visitors and show them that it’s not “the wild, wild West.”

But Brandt worries about the sustainability of his initiatives and about his budget.

“To say that there’s not concerns moving forward, with more cuts potentially looming, would be dishonest.”

Using low-cost interventions

At George Washington High, principal Kathy Murphy says that keeping students engaged requires tight internal management and whatever low-cost interventions a school leader can muster.

Murphy attributes the school’s graduation rate in part to the fact that the student population is only 58 percent low-income, and the school is located far from the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, near the Bucks County border. But Washington also has a sizeable special education population (17 percent), more English language learners than many neighborhood high schools, and a large student body (almost 2,000 students) that creates challenges of its own.

On top of that, there is no evening school or credit recovery. There are limited interventions for behavioral health issues, and the school no longer has social workers or truancy officers.

Still, Murphy, who’s retiring in June after 30 years in the District, including seven at Washington, manages to keep most students on track because “everybody knows the rules. Everything has a system.”

Murphy’s “homemade” systems include strict rules for class attendance such as detention for tardiness and two “informal” classroom observations each year for all teachers. Roster adjustments help keep struggling students in classes they can pass. Bus attendants walk special education students to their classrooms to ensure no one gets sidetracked. Working students can arrange for early dismissal and earn academic credits for working. Seniors mentor incoming freshmen and work as tutors.

All these initiatives share a common attribute: They’re cheap.

“When we had our stimulus money, we had more teachers and lower class sizes, especially in the 9th grade,” she said.

“That was the thing that made the biggest difference academically and behaviorally. It’s proven, and yet we’re doing all these other things.”

Setting goals, expanding options

At Ben Franklin High, where the four-year graduation rate hovers just above 50 percent, the challenges are significant. Its student population is 90 percent low income, and 22 percent are in special education. A steady stream of homeless students comes from a nearby shelter.

Now in his first year at the school, principal Greg Hailey inherited some support from outside partners such as the Philadelphia Education Fund. He’s trying to continue his predecessor’s policy of setting goals with all incoming students and targeting those at risk of dropping out. If he can, he’ll steer students into special support programs, like one he has for pregnant or parenting teens.

But he also identifies the best school options for students, and sometimes that’s not a comprehensive high school.

“If they’re over-age and under-credited, [sometimes] we send them to the re-engagement center where maybe there’s an accelerated program they can get into – so they’re not running in place, getting frustrated,” Hailey said.

To improve Ben Franklin’s engagement rates for those who remain, Hailey said that a key is to continue expanding academic options. He’s planning to revive a culinary arts program. He also has high hopes for an “advanced manufacturing” program to be done in partnership with the Community College of Philadelphia.

“Next year is going to be introductory,” he said. “But when we fully roll it out, I think you will see more kids wanting to come.”

Recognizing impact of change

At Germantown High, now slated for closure, principal Margaret Mullen-Bavwidinsi had programs and support systems meant to keep students on track, some supported by a multi-million-dollar Department of Labor grant. But she said those advantages were undermined by constant change.

In each of the last four years, Mullen-Bavwidinsi said a lot of Germantown’s staff was “removed, laid off, or left.” One year, over half the staff departed due to the school’s transition to a Promise Academy. During that span, Germantown’s four-year graduation rate was only 47 percent.

“That [turnover] makes a difference,” Mullen-Bavwidinsi said.

“Students and staff don’t know who their leaders are, what the programs are, or what the systems are. You can’t expect students to do their best when they don’t know who’s in charge of the house.”

And no matter how well a high school is prepared for its students, not all students are prepared for high school. For instance, weak reading skills are a perennial issue.

“But things happen in high school that you have to handle, so those high schools have to meet those kids where they are,” researcher Shaw said.

“Even if we were to fully fund high-quality early childhood education, it would take 15 years to see the results. And we can’t afford to wait.”

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