This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Nearing the end of his second term, Mayor Nutter can chalk up among his achievements a 13-point increase in the percentage of Philadelphia high school students getting a diploma. Raising the high school graduation rate to 80 percent by 2015 was one of his main goals when he took office in 2008.
But the mayor said in an interview that the 70 percent six-year graduation rate the District achieved last year leaves him “pleased, but nowhere near satisfied. There is still a lot more to do. We’re proud of that and we can celebrate for five minutes, but it’s not where we want to be.”
From day one, Nutter said, he made the city’s schools the priority of his administration, working “to have anybody and everybody consistently talking about education.”
“Education is the number one issue in Philadelphia because it involves greater problems, like poverty, crime, unemployment, underemployment, and debilitating despair about finding the way out of generational poverty,” he said. “Education is at the heart, soul, and foundation of building a great city.”
The education mantra is constantly reflected in the city’s day-to-day actions, said Lori Shorr, who has headed up the Mayor’s Office of Education since Nutter created the position upon taking office.
“The gains have come because of paying attention to all the wonky stuff that lots of people wouldn’t care about,” Shorr said. “It’s everybody working in their own programs, making sure that kid gets across the finish line. … It’s about making sure that all our investments now have this as a priority.”
Perhaps the best example of that, Shorr said, was the creation of a data-sharing agreement between the School District, the city’s Department of Human Services, and the courts. This, plus the creation of an educational support center within DHS, led to more coordination of effort for the large proportion of city public schoolchildren who are involved with DHS or the juvenile justice system.
“I don’t think anyone else in the country has this arrangement,” Shorr said.
“That may only increase our [graduation] rates by a few percentage points, but an investment there really makes a difference” for the children involved.
DHS is also taking a new approach to truancy, Shorr said, working with neighborhood groups and nonprofits to intervene more quickly after students start missing school.
Project U-Turn, a coalition of educational, civic, academic, business, and government organizations committed to reducing the dropout rate, made a difference by raising public awareness and collecting and distributing education data, Shorr said. “Coming together, looking at outcomes, figuring out where we have gaps – where we are losing kids – that was very important.”
Still, large numbers of students continue to drop out.
Further change needed
In January 2008, Mayor Nutter announced his commitment to boost the graduation rate to 80 percent and named Lori Shorr (center) as his chief education officer. (Photo: Melissa Orner / Philadelphia Youth Network) Nutter said that schools must get better at engaging students. “Does that youngster feel that their educational experience is relevant?” he said.
“Can they see a pathway forward? Can they see a purpose, a reason, for continuing on with their education? If they don’t answer yes … they will drop out.”
Changes that would further cut the dropout rate include “better school climate and safety,” the mayor said. “The level of violence has decreased, but more needs to be done.”
His prescription? More opportunities for individualized instruction, smaller learning communities, more course offerings, better supplies and support, restoring art and music, and an emphasis on STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, he said. A school stuck in decades-old educational ruts and not using today’s technologies, the mayor said, “may be a school, but it is not [providing] an education.”
If not fun, school must “at least be interesting,” the mayor said. “It should be a positive place, a safe place, a nurturing place, a place where I am cared about, a place I can get things I wouldn’t get anyplace else, a place where I can express myself, and a place where I understand what this is all about.”
Shorr also had some prescriptions. The District’s increasing emphasis on career and technical education is a step in the right direction, she said. “We see such good outcomes when learning is connected to real-life doing and making. There are also possible job opportunities, though I don’t think that’s always the difference – I think it’s just active learning that engages kids.”
She also hailed District plans to grant more autonomy and flexibility to higher-performing schools. “Through that, there can be a renewal of trust between the staff in the school and the community, because they are not always waiting for the word from [District headquarters]. They can make decisions a little closer to where instruction is happening and where problems are.”
Schools must heed the individual needs of children and intervene with those most at risk, Shorr said. Small schools certainly help in that process, but larger ones also, she said, “need to be able to individuate instruction more than we have been able to do. … The idea of dumping kids on an education conveyor belt in kindergarten, then having them all come out the other end to graduate doesn’t work. … Every kid should be known by name” – and worked with appropriately.
Whatever the school’s approach, Shorr said, the difficult situations that students often face outside school make the job of reaching them a tough one.
“Real learning only happens when a child is vulnerable to learning – he or she says [to himself or herself] ‘I don’t know this; I should know this.’ … That moment of openness has to be developed, and sometimes they come into school with the inability to do that.”
By Harvey Finkle
Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr has focused on improved coordination among city agencies.(Photo: Harvey Finkle) Even with the increased graduation rates, there is concern that many students with diplomas from Philadelphia high schools still lack job- and college-ready skills. Efforts to deal with this have proven controversial.
Starting in 2017, students will have to pass state Keystone exams in English, algebra and biology to graduate, or they must go through an alternate assessment process. Pass rates for the Keystone biology exam in 2014 were in the single digits in many city schools.
Businesses often say that the current high school diploma is not a guarantee that prospective employees meet basic employment standards. About 70 percent of students who take placement exams for Community College of Philadelphia need at least some make-up work before taking college-level courses. Between 25 and 30 percent need remedial work in all areas.
A high school diploma “doesn’t necessarily prepare a student for what they will face in a post-secondary environment,” said Anthony Girifalco, executive vice president of DVIRC, a Philadelphia-based economic development organization that focuses on working with area manufacturing companies. “It will get you a job, but not necessarily a good job. … We need the skill set [of high school graduates] to catch up.”
Some Philadelphia manufacturers agree.
“There are people that come in with an alleged high school degree who struggle just filling out the application,” said Bill Stockwell, CEO of Stockwell Elastomerics, which makes rubber gasket and cushioning pads and employs about 75 people. “We need to see a high school diploma that is a measure of rigor and of time spent productively on learning, and that is not always what we see now.”
Bob Rosania, the CEO of Ehmke Manufacturing Co. Inc., which makes high-tech fabrics and employs about 135 people, said that some shop employees must be able to measure the material, and “a high school degree does not guarantee that level of rudimentary math, unfortunately.”
Shorr said that when coupled with the necessary resources for the city’s schools, the Keystones could “help us to know for sure that students graduate with the skills they need to be successful. … We not only need more kids to graduate from high school, we need them to graduate with a high level of academic preparedness. We’re asking the system to increase in both quantity and quality.”
Nutter said he feared the testing emphasis would make students and teachers feel “forced into the corral of teaching to the test, not learning what you have to learn for life.”
But “there has to be some measurement,” he added. “It should be part of an evaluation of how well a student can understand, process, reflect and have actually learned something.”
Dan Hardy is a freelance writer who covers education issues in the Philadelphia area.
This article will appear in the forthcoming print issue focusing on high school dropouts and graduation, due out May 22.