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Grad Nation Philadelphia brainstorms ideas for keeping students in school

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

For Rayna Harvey, a member of the organization Youth United for Change, there is no mystery about what it would take to produce more high school graduates in Philadelphia.

Offer classes that are relevant to their lives. Teach them skills that they will need in the real world.

And most important, listen to them and strive to understand their wants and needs and the problems many of them face in their daily lives.

Harvey was one of the students who attended the June 12 Philadelphia community summit for Grad Nation, a national initiative to improve the high school graduation rate and prepare young people for college and careers.

The summit, run here by the citywide collaborative called Project U-Turn, is one of 100 being held around the country by the America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of organizations and individuals focused on increasing the country’s graduaton rate to 90 percent by 2020.

The summits are designed to promote local partnerships and collaboration in solving the dropout crisis. Each summit brings together people from business, nonprofits, K-12 and higher education, faith-based groups, and civic organizations to strategize about improving graduation rates in their areas.

More than 100 people who attended the session held at the Chemical Heritage Foundation headquarters in Old City heard from Gov. Wolf and Mayor Nutter, as well as federal officials from the Department of Education and Department of Labor. The day focused on strategies for enriching student preparation, re-engaging students who have left school, and helping students make the transition to postsecondary institutions.

Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network, the anchor organization for Project U-Turn, said that the purpose was to hear about best practices around the country for keeping youth in school and to secure local commitments from a variety of individuals and organizations.

"Tomorrow has to be just as exciting as today," she said at the conclusion of the day-long event. "We are in it for the long game."

Lisa Nutter, executive director of Philadelphia Academies Inc., described the day as "part pep rally, part reflection, part action."

Since Project U-Turn started its work in 2006, the on-time graduation rate in Philadelphia has increased from 52 percent to 65 percent. Still, a higher percentage of students drop out in Philadelphia than in Pennsylvania as a whole.

“The dangers posed by … high dropout rates have potentially catastrophic effects," Fulmore-Townsend told participants. "You are the solution to that.”

Wolf said that the state, not just the city, is responsible for improving what happens in Philadelphia.

"We can do a better job, all of us," he said. "If a child in Philadelphia doesn’t get a good education, doesn’t graduate high school, that’s a problem for me."

He repeated his call for more revenue devoted to education and a fairer funding formula for sending state money to districts. He called education "an area of deferred maintenance" and reiterated that he is trying to reverse that.

Nutter highlighted the progress in graduation rates made under his administration, but, like Wolf, reiterated that schools needed more resources.

"Together we have, in fact, created a collaborative approach," he said, noting that 2,000 students had found alternative paths to graduation after leaving traditional high schools. "It’s progress," he said.

Attendees were asked to make further action commitments, and they ranged from redoubling mentoring efforts, to connecting family and friends with the cause, to training more youth.

Harvey had lots to say in a breakout session about how best to re-engage disaffected students. She said she never went to high school but is nevertheless on her way to Harcum College. She was able to pass the GED exams after spending a year and a half doing cyber education from home and then attending a program for over-age students, called an E3 center, for four months.

"I left school in 8th grade; they kicked me out," she said, explaining that she decided to confront a group of girls who had been badgering her. When the school decided to discipline her, she never went back.

Mostly, she urged others in the room to listen to the voices of young people.

"Our generation is not against school," she said. "Everybody I know wants to go to college."

But most teachers and other staffers in schools don’t talk to students regularly about what is bothering them, she said. If students leave, the experience of herself and many of her friends is that nobody tries to track them down.

Harvey’s points were reinforced in different ways by several of the speakers, including Michelle Feist, director of the Department of School and Community Sevices at FHI 360, a national nonprofit human development center.

Feist, co-author of a resource guide on reengaging dropouts for the U.S. Department of Education, said that "proactive outreach" is the key.

"That means going out and knocking on doors … committing to knocking on every single door of every single young person that has dropped out," she said. "How do you do that? Data is a big piece of it, and we’re not talking about big data, we’re talking about little data.”

And Simran Sidhu, executive director of YouthBuild Charter School, an alternative school for students who have dropped out, said that schools must help students understand the relevance of what they are learning by connecting it to real-world activities. YouthBuild places students in internships, through which students can get certifications in various trades, including construction.

"For many of our students who have been shown report cards quarter after quarter, which have very deeply stamped in their brains that they are not good at math and English, it seems like lunacy to continue in the same way," she said. "And yet we can all agree that math and English are, in fact, very important things. So for us, we arrived at connecting math and English with the why of it, because there is something about building a wall, or having to administer the right dose of medicine, that makes you think about those numbers, and how they might just have been worth it in math class."

Fulmore-Townsend said that although the progress in the graduation rate is heartening, it is not enough.

"Anything less than 100 percent is insufficient," she said.

Notebook editor Paul Socolar and intern Greg Windle contributed reporting.

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