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Reconnecting to the classroom

With new leadership and fresh focus, the District’s Opportunity Network helps students find a way to graduate.

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

By Derrick Gambrell’s own account, he didn’t so much drop out of Kensington Urban Education Academy as just fade away – cutting a few classes, slipping away from others when he wanted to, finally not showing up at all. But the hard fact of the matter was that a year ago, he was out of school, with virtually no credits, and not happy about it.

“I get a little shaken up even talking about it, because my mom and grandmom, they suffered for it,” Gambrell said.

Aniyah Thompson’s personal history is different, but with a similar result: Overwhelming personal issues spurred her to leave Girls’ High School last year.

“I couldn’t focus,” she recalled. “It wasn’t working.”

Both students now are back in school on fast tracks to get that high school diploma.

Gambrell, 18, has completed classwork equivalent to a 9th- and 10th-grade course load at One Bright Ray Academy Simpson Campus on Erie Avenue.

“I feel like I’m getting a high school education as well as extra things, like discipline, structure, coaching,” Gambrell said.

Thompson, 18, was admitted to the Gateway to College program at Community College of Philadelphia, where she is on track to receive her high school diploma late this year, while also accumulating college credits.

“I’m patient here, and I like everything about it – the courses, class size, how everything moves,” she said.

These hopeful voices are among several thousand students – all former dropouts – getting help to complete graduation requirements in accelerated schools and programs run by the Opportunity Network office, linchpin of the District’s efforts to re-engage dropouts and boost them toward graduation.

The Opportunity Network is a rebranding of what had been called alternative and accelerated schools. It’s also got new leadership. Christina Grant, with a background in school performance and improvement, was hired as an assistant superintendent to head the network last summer. And both Grant and the Project U-Turn initiative, which is Philadelphia’s collaborative approach to dropout prevention and re-engagement, have put fresh focus on reconnecting youth to school by revitalizing the District’s Re-Engagement Center.

“You need that centralized place where young people can come back into the school system and assess all their credits and their options,” said Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, co-chair of Project U-Turn and executive director of the Philadelphia Youth Network.

Grant concurred, saying that there are numerous options for students “to get it done in very different ways.”

At the same time, she lauded students for their initiative in returning to school.

“Again and again, it’s not the students giving up on themselves. In many instances, it’s not even a problem with the system,” said Grant. “It’s really this intersection between life happening to a child at the same time they’re being school-aged and not having something out of the box to pursue their education.”

Getting reconnected

The District runs 11 accelerated programs through private providers, with seats available for about 1,740 students at any given time. There’s something of a revolving door, however. Students leave the program as they complete their credits, making room for others to take a seat. So the program serves about 2,500 students annually, according to Grant’s office. The District also operates afternoon programs at four sites.

The Re-Engagement Center at District headquarters, 440 N. Broad St., has a director, three full-time staff members, plus college interns, with two of the staffers brought on board this year through a partnership with the city’s Department of Human Services. By comparison, the staff six years ago exceeded 20. About 3,500 young people checked in with the center last year, according to the District.

Kaitlyn Rivera Sanchez, 16, applied at One Bright Ray after conflicts at two different public high schools. Sanchez started in September with just 5 credits toward the 23.5 needed for graduation. She’s zipped through 9th- and 10th-grade courses and is now on track to graduate within a year.

“It was difficult for me at first because in the other schools I could do whatever I wanted,” she said. “I had that freedom. There are rules here, but I’ve gotten used to them. Now I’ve basically changed my ways from how I used to be.”

Before, she said, “I was just a person who loved to fight.”

But now, “I get straight As. I came from all Fs to As.”

In March, both Sanchez and Gambrell moved up to the academy’s 11th- and 12th-grade Fairhill campus on North Fourth Street.

Derik Hrubosky, dean of students at One Bright Ray Simpson Campus, said that moving young people through coursework at a fast clip is the goal.

“If you step in here on your 16th birthday, never attended high school, never did any work – zero credits – we can graduate you in two years,” said Hrubrosky.

A student entering with no credits would take six courses each eight-week term – the school calls them modules – so students can earn 3.25 credits in about two months’ time. There are four modules per year. The school uses project-based learning, meaning “more hands-on stuff that helps the kids in real life,” Hrubrosky said.

For example, in math class, students put together the components of a store, including pricing and sales tax. So when a student enters a store, Hrubosky explained, he’ll know what the tax is supposed to be and is “not going to be ripped off.”

Another feature of One Bright Ray: No homework.

“Everything I learn here, I get done here. I don’t do anything at home,” said Sanchez.

“We know these kids have other lives outside of here,” said Hrubrosky. “They have children, court, programs they have to attend. Their binder full of homework is the last thing they’re worried about,” he said.

The school has a strict code of conduct, yet students receive a lot of attention.

“We have structure, we have an emotional support team. We do home visits if a student doesn’t come to school for three consecutive days,” Hrubrosky said.

Looking ahead to college

Harvey Finkle

The Gateway to College program at the Community College of Philadelphia offers dual credits to students seeking diplomas. It’s part of a national network of colleges offering support to disengaged youth seeking to complete high school.

“When you think about the reasons students drop out, often it’s not because they can’t do the work – many of them can,” said Timeka Ford-Smith, the program’s director. “Some get bored. Sometimes life gets in the way – they have babies, they need to work, they don’t have supportive families. They just need an option.”

The program enrolls 100 students a year in a contract with the District, she said. The goal of the program is to support students as they work to graduate high school and earn their college degrees. Except for remedial courses, students get a head start in accumulating college credits and sit side by side with students enrolled at CCP. The District approves courses that would count toward history, or English, or other needed high school credits.

“Technically this is a high school, but we don’t think of it that way,” Ford-Smith said. “I tell my students, ‘My goal is for you to leave here with your high school diploma and your associate’s degree.”

The students’ life stories are varied and invariably complex.

Peter Pillar, 19, attended a private school in the city, then a public high school, but his antics, not his grades, got him in trouble in both schools, and he ended up out of school for a year. Keeping his attention deficit disorder in check, Pillar is now taking two courses and will finish up high school with two more at CCP over the summer, with plans for college. His career goal is to be an investment banker.

For Pillar, one plus in this program is that there’s no fooling around. Students at CCP are serious about their studies. “People are here for a reason,” he said.

Siobhan Corkery, 19, dropped out of a chaotic public high school in 10th grade. She explored options on her own and found Gateway, she said. Getting to classes on time, keeping up with the work – “it’s all on us,” Corkery said. “But it’s such a good opportunity. Why would you want to ruin that?” Her career goal is to be a pediatric nurse.

Omar Cannon, 18, left high school after verbal conflicts with staffers and tried going for his GED. Then he learned about Gateway and enrolled in January, and now needs 7.5 credits to graduate high school.

“I really like this program. It’s on me to get here every morning and do what I need to do,” Cannon said.

At the same time, he’s offered a lot of support by Gateway, he said. Each student has an academic coordinator who tracks progress and offers career and college advice. Cannon plans to pursue an associate’s degree at CCP, then a bachelor’s degree. He wants to be a music teacher.

Keyandra Martin, 17, got in trouble for fighting, dropped out at age 15, tried waitressing, then the Job Corps, before starting at Gateway at age 16.

“It’s really up to you to succeed. It’s harder, more challenging.” Grades reflect effort, she said.

“Are you doing the work? Are you showing up? Are you studying? … It’s been a big transition. I mean, I’m 16, sitting around people a lot older than me. But when I graduate, I’ll have 29 college credits.”

Martin plans to stay at CCP for an associate’s degree, go for a bachelor’s and a master’s in social work. “I would never leave this program,” she said. “I love it here.”

This article will appear in the Notebook’s forthcoming edition on dropouts, due out next week.