This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Reducing the city’s high dropout rate has been a concerted focus of Philadelphia’s education community for nearly a decade – and the topic of an annual edition of the Notebook since 2005.
During those years, the city has gained an understanding of the gravity and the complexity of the problem. Young people who leave school without graduating are not a homogeneous group. Many don’t fit the negative stereotypes of dropouts. There are many commonly cited causes: academic struggles, boredom, lack of adult attention, safety issues, and other life circumstances.
Philadelphia’s efforts to boost graduation rates, including the Project U-Turn collaborative launched in 2006, have aimed to be community-wide, research-based, and targeted at diverse ages and specific risk factors. Citywide, graduation rates have indeed improved. But for Black and Latino males and students at most neighborhood high schools, the odds still are only about 50-50.
It’s often been stated that we can’t make headway on this complex problem unless we listen to young people.
The School Reform Commission took time to do that on Dec. 7. A group of high school students led more than 150 of their peers in roundtable discussions, gathering thoughts on what the District can do to keep its students in school, challenged, and motivated.
Students spoke about their struggles inside and outside the classroom, the stress from budget cuts, and their desire for more positive relationships with educators.
After the session, Superintendent William Hite said that he had heard three demands throughout the evening: Respect the students. Provide them with rigorous experiences. Make learning relevant.
Hite, who has a student advisory board, says he is planning to hold another SRC meeting like this. He would also like to see a committee or other vehicle at every school through which students can communicate with adults.
“Good principals are doing a lot of it already. It’s really important,” he said. “You heard the kinds of things kids communicated. If we never talk to them, how do we get that information?”
The Notebook brought together a group of students and educators; both groups said schools could do more to make students feel welcome.