This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For Chanel Butler, the lightbulb went on while she was sitting in a jail cell.
For Mario Torres, it happened when he was in his state representative’s office and someone there heard him talking about going for his GED.
For Nyshai Benson, it came when her options narrowed sharply. Her mother, tired of her hanging out and doing nothing, threw her out.
The three are now enthusiastic about being in District alternative programs, but all are examples of the substantial but flawed system that is Philadelphia’s effort to get dropouts re-engaged in school.
There are many success stories of students getting re-engaged. The Notebook interviewed more than 20 present and former dropouts to learn what their experiences of re-engagement had been and why they dropped out in the first place. Of the students interviewed, almost all said they had started looking to return to school after seeing the grim prospects that dropouts face.
“Every time I applied for a job, they just looked past me,” said Matthew Hough, 20, recalling his life three years after he dropped out of Martin Luther King High School and before enrolling in the YouthBuild Charter School in North Philadelphia.
The establishment of a network of alternative, second-chance programs may be a contributor to the improved graduation rate in the District, with about 20 percent of the 2010 freshmen having enrolled in an alternative setting within four years of starting high school.
But there is still an overall lack of coordination and resources that keeps many from finding their way back. Of the students the Notebook interviewed, only two said they had been referred to a program by someone in the educational, social, or behavioral health systems. One said he was referred by the courts.
And a new study about graduation rates in Philadelphia found that while the percentage of dropouts returning to school had climbed over a seven-year period, the high school completion rate of students who re-engaged remained steady at around 35 percent.
Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said that the District hopes to make major investments in the re-engagement process next year, both in personnel and strategy – funding permitting.
Marcus Delgado, CEO of One Bright Ray, said that applicants usually find their way through word of mouth to the two alternative high schools that his organization operates in North Philadelphia.
A few years ago, Delgado said, the programs got frequent referrals from the District’s Re-engagement Center, located at District headquarters. But since the center was reduced from 12 District staffers and a team of interns in 2011 to just its director, Justin Green, and two interns, Delgado said he now gets “maybe one in eight” applicants from the center.
“Justin knows his stuff, but he’s one guy,” Delgado said.
Delgado also cited the District’s closing of a second Re-engagement Center office in nearby Hunting Park in 2012 as a reason for a decrease in referrals.
Green says that of about 2,500 students who came through the center in the last academic year, 82 percent were placed. And a representative of the city Department of Human Services (DHS) was assigned to the center after a period without DHS staffing.
The District hopes to rebuild the center’s staff as part of an overall effort to provide greater resources and improved coordination for the alternative schools and re-engagement efforts.
District schools are grouped into eight learning networks; the re-engagement programs would be organized into a new “Opportunity Network” under an assistant superintendent, a position that Kihn said should be filled by July 1.
“We want a real focus on expertise,” said Kihn, and closer monitoring of alternative schools, an area in which he described to District’s performance to date as ”indifferent.”
“We want to be really good at oversight of the contract providers,” he said.
He said he was particularly concerned about the transition between 8th and 9th grade, which is the “point of transition that we lose a lot of students.”
“Ideally, you’d have a case manager with each kid and their family, but we can’t afford that.”
Kihn said that of the $320 million budget increase the District is seeking for the 2015-16 school year, $8.75 million would go for alternative programs and re-engagement, an increase of almost 29 percent.
He said he also hoped the additional funds could help the District actively seek out former students who had dropped out.
Majeedah Scott, director of the District’s Multiple Pathways Program, who oversees the alternative programs, said that with the increased funding, she could add alternative school seats, increase education and training for alternative school staff, and add a staff person to support graduates in their first year in college or on a job.
In addition, the District could add an outreach corps to bring disconnected youth back into school and also catch students on the verge of dropping out.
Scott expressed concern at math and reading levels in accelerated schools, which she said were generally in the 5th- or 6th-grade range.
Getting back on track
Torres, 19, is attending the Fairhill campus of One Bright Ray, an alternative school provider. He said he had gone to the office of State Rep. Angel Cruz to ask about ways to get his GED when a staffer who overheard him said, “If you’re applying for a job and you have a GED and the guy next to you has a diploma, he’ll get the job.” That was all he needed to hear to motivate him to go back to school.
Torres said he initially dropped out of Kensington Urban Education Academy because he simply lacked motivation in a District high school. But after spending about six months out of work and having no job prospects before him, he decided to get back to classes.
Benson, 18, dropped out of two charter schools before she ended up at the YESPhilly accelerated program in North Philadelphia. She and Torres said that the individual attention in a smaller school was a welcome change from the schools they had previously attended.
“I love the support system here,” Benson said. Even in District elementary schools, she said, “I couldn’t focus. There was just too much going on in the classroom.”
Butler, 21, who now attends the YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School, said she had failed 9th grade in the Young Women’s Leadership School at Rhodes and dropped out because she was embarrassed at the prospect of repeating the year after her friends had moved on.
She started taking drugs and selling drugs and wound up incarcerated.
“I sat in that cell and said, ‘I got to do better. I got to find another way to make money,’” she said in a soft, but assured voice.
Butler was out of school for more than four years, including serving four months in prison.
Sabrina Velez, 18, who had been in and out of foster homes since elementary school, said she started looking for an accelerated school placement after “I realized I couldn’t even fill out a job application properly.” She was referred to YouthBuild by a DHS caseworker.
Velez was among about 50 dropouts who recently attended an information session at the school. She said she had dropped out of Frankford High School after being bullied and being discouraged by a teacher who predicted she never would succeed academically.
Another dropout at the session, Briana Cruz, 18, said she quit high school to work at a Chipotle fast food restaurant to help raise funds to pay a lawyer defending her brother on a murder charge.
The brother is now in jail and, Cruz said, “Now it’s time for me to get my life together.”
Who’s at risk of dropping out?
For female students, pregnancy can be the path out of school or the key to going back.
Lydia Lopez, 18, a Fairhill student, said she had been having problems at Fels High School when she decided to call it quits.
“There was lots of fighting, and the teachers didn’t care,” she said.
Then Lopez discovered that she was pregnant, so she decided to drop out immediately.
Her mother, who had dropped out of school and never gone back, said that “I didn’t need to follow in her footsteps,” Lopez recounted. She filled out her Fairhill application when she was eight months pregnant and enrolled shortly after her daughter was born. She now attends classes while Jailiany, 10 months old, is in the school’s day care center.
Brushes with the legal system, or the prospect of them, can also bring dropouts back to the classroom.
Quincy Hill, 18, said he spent three years in 9th grade in Benjamin Franklin High School. “I was out of control. Always in the hallways, always late,” he said.
Then he dropped out for three years and returned only after a tough love talk with a truancy judge.
“I guess he was trying to scare me,” Hill said. “He scared me good.” The judge referred him to YESPhilly, from which he expects to graduate in 2016.
Scott said that models of intensive counseling and training have been developed that would help the District get dropouts back into the system and increase their chances of success, but that these are beyond Philadelphia’s current budget.
“Philadelphia emerged as a leader seven or eight years ago, and folks have taken what we built and built on that while we’ve had to constrict a bit,” she said.
“We look at Boston and Portland, and they’ve built these really comprehensive systems based on our model. We were the first re-engagement center in the country, and now we’re down to almost nothing.”
Editors’ note: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that Nyshai Benson was homeless after she was kicked out by her mother. Benson actually moved in with an aunt. The Notebook regrets the error.