This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
To Philadelphia’s next mayor:
The city’s high school graduation rate is abysmal but has been getting better. College-going rates are inching upward.
As mayor, there is much you can do to ensure that this improvement continues and accelerates.
Seventy percent of District students now earn a diploma within six years of starting 9th grade. While there is no one simple explanation for the upward trend, the issue has been the focus of a citywide, cross-sector campaign, Project U-Turn. And we cannot overstate the importance of Mayor Nutter’s 2008 commitment to boost the graduation rate to 80 percent. It focused attention on the issue, although the numerical target was not achieved.
You can choose to maintain that focus. It’ll be tempting to refrain from setting an ambitious target – or to walk away. The mayor does lack direct control of the school system. But there is no issue more central to the city’s well-being than graduating students who are prepared for college and the workforce.
How can you make a difference? First, you must ensure that Philadelphia schools have adequate funding from both the city and state. Progress on the graduation rate was clearly slowed by budget cuts that wiped out many supportive services for students. If City Council tries again to pass the buck to the state, the mayor must insist that the city can and must do more. You and the schools superintendent will need to be effective coalition-builders, finding allies across Pennsylvania to support programs that help students graduate.
As mayor, you can work with the superintendent to ensure that children stay on track, starting early. Thanks to recent efforts, city officials are now discussing the severe shortage of affordable, high-quality early childhood slots. With mayoral support, Philadelphia could implement an emerging early childhood agenda, including universal pre-K.
Another key role is getting different branches of government to coordinate their services to children – particularly those working with youth in the juvenile justice system and Department of Human Services care. Without this emphasis, city agencies retreat to their own silos. All city departments should be part of developing a plan with the School District to further boost graduation rates. Key is finding a comprehensive approach for improving attendance. Equally important is attention to issues of deep poverty, homelessness, and other childhood trauma.
The mayor can boost educational outcomes by leveraging jobs for young people. Jobs can motivate and stabilize youth – both those connected to school and those who are not. A new study from Drexel University found that Philadelphia ranks low among big cities in employing teens. Nutter has upped the city’s investment in youth summer jobs. We’d like to see an even broader commitment to incentives and expectations for employers to provide paid work experience to youth.
The campaign had optimistic talk about Philadelphia as coming into its own as a global city. But it is still the poorest big city in the nation. We are counting on you to keep front and center the intertwined challenges of poverty and low graduation and college-going rates.