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Threats to progress

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

The School District’s graduation rate continues to inch upward, although it’s nothing to brag about; the six-year rate is now 67 percent.

This gain has been coupled with increased college-going among Philadelphia graduates, but so far no increase in the percentage of college-goers who earn degrees.

This is not a moment for self-congratulation. Without evidence of increased postsecondary success, we don’t know if students are getting better preparation or are earning their diplomas via seat time. Increased accountability can translate into pressure to simply push kids through. Many students then get stuck in remedial tracks in college.

Moreover, new state standards pose a serious threat to the increased graduation rate. Pennsylvania now requires that high school students pass Keystone Exams in Algebra 1, literature, and biology, beginning with this year’s 9th graders. In the first round of Keystones last year, many Philadelphia high schools had pass rates below 20 percent, with proficiency rates on the biology exam commonly in the single digits.

But the greatest threat is the impact of this year’s drastic cuts triggered by the District’s financial crisis.

Counseling is hard to get when students need it. Course offerings have been pared back, so students may not get the classes they require. Books and even desks are lacking. Safety problems have escalated.

Schools need staff to track down students who have stopped coming, but the resources to prevent truancy have been gutted. For students who are off track and need help figuring out how to earn a diploma, the District’s Re-engagement Center exists only as a shadow of its former self, without the array of supports it once offered. Even the services for the students in greatest need have been hit hard.

The bottom line: Far fewer adults are available to give students the attention they need. Again and again, students say relationships are key in overcoming hurdles they encounter on the path to graduation.

While the District is hamstrung by its funding crisis, some measures under discussion can make a difference. At a December SRC meeting, where students spoke out about issues of disengagement and boredom, Superintendent William Hite proposed creating channels at every school so students can talk to adults about their concerns. Some schools have that already.

The District’s plans to expand career and technical education in neighborhood high schools are also welcome. Well-executed CTE programs can be a powerful force – training students to do something they are excited about while helping them see how their academic classes have practical relevance. But this will require new investments.

Given the desperate funding situation, it is hard to fathom the lack of urgency from those in charge. From District headquarters to City Hall to Harrisburg, few acknowledge the reality that they are subjecting an entire crop of students to a substandard education. It seems the mindset of local officials is to limp through this school year. An opportunity is being missed: To build upon the anger and frustration among students, parents, and educators as a force for change.

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