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As a Kensington high school shifts course, graduation rate jumps

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

Photo: Google Street View In 2014, Kensington Health Sciences Academy had a milestone year. In a district where graduation rates have been slowly climbing, the school managed a surprising leap.

The small high school, which has had a dropout rate among the highest in the District, had the largest year-to-year increase in on-time graduation rate among all high schools in 2014, according to a District report released earlier this year – more than 21 percentage points.

The school’s graduation rate for the class of 2014 is now just two points below the District average.

The School District’s overall four-year cohort graduation rate rose in 2014, inching up one point to 65 percent, according to District data.

The Mayor’s Office attributed the continuing districtwide rise to the effort attacking the city’s dropout crisis. Since Mayor Nutter’s inaugural address, when he made increasing the graduation rate to 80 percent one of his top priorities, the rate has climbed 12 percentage points.

“Since then, stakeholders have come together to implement new strategies targeted towards dropout prevention and recovery for our city’s most vulnerable populations,” said Sithi Pardeshi, a policy adviser for the Mayor’s Office of Education.

At Kensington Health Sciences Academy, a change in identity, a new culture emphasizing collaboration and post-secondary success, and an infusion of resources have made a big difference, according to school principal James Williams.

With new career and technical education programs and growing student support services, Williams said, community partners have helped bolster the neighborhood school, where the entire student body is considered economically disadvantaged.

Though scores have risen slightly, the school has performed well below the District average in math and reading for the last few years. District data show that for 2013-14, just 14 percent of students there were proficient in math, 24 percent in reading, and 5 percent in biology.

Williams acknowledged that scores are low. But he says students often come to school dealing with emotional trauma associated with living in an impoverished and crime-filled neighborhood, where drug dealing is rampant.

“If you can’t create a caring, nurturing environment, then you can’t serve students,” said Williams. “We want to create something where people can be successful.”

In 2009, Williams and dean of students Ed Green arrived at the school when it was Kensington Culinary Arts School. Interest in higher education was low, and few students found jobs in their field of study, said Williams.

“We realized that people look at our kids as throwaway kids,” said Green. “We beg to differ.”

Recognizing a growing career field in health sciences and a need for a school culture that encouraged student success for graduation and beyond, Williams sought to change the school’s name and identity. The school pivoted from culinary arts to preparation for health careers.

With the District’s approval, in 2012, two new certificate programs were launched, one in health-related technologies and the other in dental assistance. Kensington Health Sciences Academy was born.

As at most District schools, the ongoing financial crisis made it hard for the school to meet its needs. Williams and Green sought partners to fill the holes, securing grants to build facilities and creating programs geared toward graduation and career readiness. As the school’s focus shifted and solidified, the medical community took interest.

An initial grant of $20,000 from the McLean Contributionship helped to start the dental program. Other funding helped to construct the school’s $450,000 dental lab, Williams said. The program will graduate its first class this spring.

A new pharmacy-tech program will launch next school year. A $30,000 grant, also from McLean, helped with that, he said.

The school also partners with 35 different nonprofits from across the greater Philadelphia region, ranging from universities to health and wellness organizations, he said.

“If you gave kids real opportunities, if you put real expectation in front of them and hold them accountable as you hold yourselves accountable, then you can make a real difference,” Williams said. “We have proved ourselves right.”

With added resources, Williams said school staff has been able to focus on building relationships with students and creating a cohesive school climate, which the District has found to correlate highly with graduation rates.

Walk through the halls of Kensington Health Sciences Academy and you’ll be welcomed by smiling faculty, bustling students in scrubs, and pictures of graduates hanging on walls. On a recent morning, Green and Williams were found greeting each student who entered by name.

“Our kids do become successful, despite that they come from the same demographics as our neighboring schools that are not doing what our kids are doing,” said Green.

Recent findings by the District show that students in career and technical education (CTE) programs are more likely to graduate than non-CTE students with similar test scores upon entering high school.

Christine Bowser, a senior who will be in the school’s first graduating dental class, hopes to attend Temple University in the fall. She said graduating with a dental technician certificate gives her an option to work while she figures out her career plans.

“I might want to be a doctor one day – or work with children,” Bowser said. “I could be a dental technician, too. You never know what you want to do until you try everything.”

Shannon Nolan is an intern at the Notebook.

This spring, coverage of efforts to improve graduation rates in Philadelphia will be a focus of the Notebook. The coverage is supported by Project U-Turn.

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