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City officials and educators weigh in on the issue of dropouts

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

One-third of Philadelphia students are still failing to graduate from high school. Of those who do graduate, only 20 percent are successfully earning a post-secondary degree. As part of our focus in our edition, “Dreams denied: What leads to academic success?” which explores how to help students persist and succeed through high school and college, the Notebook asked several key education players to answer three questions. Below are excerpts from their answers.

How does the existence of this large population of youth in the city who are still floundering affect your work and your mission?

William Hite, Philadelphia superintendent of schools:

“We have created the Opportunity Network to ensure a District alignment of services and offerings for all disconnected youth who are seeking to re-engage with their education. Our mission is to reduce the dropout rate across the city and to provide high-quality options for students once they choose to complete school.”

Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania secretary of education:

“The administration [of Gov. Wolf] has put a lot of energy into exploring and supporting ways to open up additional pathways for student success – from investing in prekindergarten, to ensuring students start school with a strong foundation, to expanding postsecondary programs, …

“Pennsylvania’s graduation rate leads the nation, which reached a record high in 2013-14. However the commonwealth trails the U.S. average for Black and Hispanic students. We know that access and equity are two major factors that can negatively impact a child’s educational experience, and we’re actively engaging stakeholders around the state to address those issues.

"Pennsylvania needs to make sure it has a public education system that serves every student; [we] can’t afford for the achievement gap to continue to grow."

Joint statement from Mayor Kenney, city Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney, and Jack Drummond, director of the Office of Black Male Engagement:

According to a recent report, 43 percent of Philadelphians live in economically distressed neighborhoods, overwhelmed by high unemployment and poverty. That single fact alone demonstrates why many students are chronically tardy, truant, and eventually drop out – they face challenges outside the classroom like inadequate access to health care, food, shelter, and emotional supports. Our mission is to dramatically improve the way the city supports students by creating 25 community schools [that] will support students’ vast needs so they can focus on learning and be better positioned to graduate.

Jessica Shapiro, head of the Department of Human Services:

According to a recent PolicyLab report, at least 17 percent of Philadelphia students have had child welfare or juvenile justice involvement. These young people face numerous challenges. Many have experienced significant trauma, which can interfere with their ability to learn. Moreover, they often lack consistent adult support and tend to move around more frequently than their peers, often changing schools, which can negatively affect their academic progress. In fact, one study found that with each move, students on average lose four to six months of academic growth and that 75 percent of foster children are behind at least one grade level. DHS strives to nurture youth in our system and provide the supports they need to overcome educational barriers and succeed in school.

Donald Generals, president of Community College of Philadelphia:

The existence of these youth encourages the College to double its efforts at providing opportunities and clear pathways for [those] uncertain or unprepared for the rigors of college life. We are working closer with the public school system to capture their interests at an earlier age and to assist them with any academic deficiencies. … We want to expose them to career opportunities with the belief that earlier exposure to the benefits of a higher education will inspire them into fields they may otherwise not be familiar with. With our 50th anniversary scholarship program, we are assisting the city’s youth with the cost of tuition. We think earlier intervention is the key.

What is your vision for dealing with this issue of dropouts and disconnected youth?

Superintendent Hite:

We have an array of schools and programs designed to serve dropouts and disconnected youth. Students have access to blended learning models to provide aggressive credit recovery and the ability to earn a high school diploma in an accelerated time. Our vision is to expand and improve educational quality while making investments in early childhood education and turning around several traditional schools. We want to ensure that more students remain in school and never experience the terms “drop out” or “disconnected youth.”

Secretary Rivera:

Communities need to work together to promote the value of graduating from high school. … Schools need to be inviting places where students want to participate. We can predict the students who are most likely to drop out as early as middle school. Pennsylvania needs to ensure it is moving beyond identification to providing the needed supports to every student who requires them, regardless of district. … Students have to see paths open to them to succeed, and they have to see value in that success. … PDE has been working with other state agencies, like the Department of Labor and Industry, to ensure the skills our students are learning are aligned to the skills needed in today’s global economy, so students can see value in what they are learning.

Mayor Kenney, Hackney and Drummond:

We envision community schools becoming neighborhood anchors that foster increased parental and community involvement. Community schools will offer expanded learning opportunities, like afterschool programs and career and technical education, which is proven to help keep students engaged in school.

Another way we plan to support students is to increase access to quality early childhood education citywide. When children arrive to kindergarten with the foundational skills that high-quality pre-K provides, they are better equipped to succeed in the early grades and stay on track throughout their academic careers. In some studies, high-quality pre-K was shown to contribute to increased high school graduation rates.

The City’s Office of Black Male Engagement is also a critical effort in combating the dropout crisis because a large proportion of disconnected youth are black males. BME is currently collecting and assessing data about the black male dropout population and weighing this data against the effectiveness of our current programming. Secondly, we assess how effective our interventions, such as afterschool programs and mentorship, are with school-aged black male populations. Third, our focused analysis about the protective factors that decrease the likelihood of future dropouts (i.e. parental support, peer competence, positive relationships with teachers, promotion of prosocial behaviors, etc.) helps guide our recommendations to community partners and educational institutions.

Shapiro of DHS:

For youth in foster care, a positive school experience can counteract the negative effects of abuse, neglect, separation, and lack of permanency. Research suggests that several factors contribute to educational success among child-welfare involved youth. Based on this research, DHS collaborates with the School District and cross-system service providers to:

· help stabilize school placements;

· provide positive adult connections;

· improve access to access to early childhood education;

· offer supports to prevent absenteeism and behavioral problems;

· meet special education needs; and

· assist with college transition.

Generals of CCP:

Earlier contact and earlier intervention. We must find a way to help students understand the career opportunities that come with a higher education. Also, we will expand our current dual enrollment program to provide greater opportunities for students to achieve high school and college credit at the same time.

What resources do you have for dealing with this issue?

Superintendent Hite:

We have over time developed strong partnerships throughout Philadelphia with organizations dedicated to support dropout and disconnected youth. The Philadelphia Youth Network (Project U-Turn), DHS and School District are working in alignment to make progress in serving these students. Strong collaboration between the School District, City of Philadelphia and community partners is critical to easing the barriers that prevent students from graduating.

Secretary Rivera:

Under the Wolf administration, there has been a renewed effort to bring equity to Pennsylvania’s education system, including not just equitable funding, but also providing the services and supports needed to help students graduate college- and career-ready.

[But] dollars alone will not engage students. Community collaboration to expand opportunity for students is critical, and in Pennsylvania we’re fortunate that community partners are actively engaged in helping students. Over the past year, representatives from the Department of Education have traveled to every corner of the state soliciting ideas and feedback from more than 1,200 administrators, teachers, parents, lawmakers, industry leaders, higher ed institutions’ representatives, and other advocates. These important stakeholders have provided their support and unique perspectives on education to PDE’s team, helping the department achieve its mission of ensuring that Pennsylvania meets its constitutional obligation to maintain and support a thorough and efficient system of public education.

Mayor Kenney, Hackney and Drummond:

The fiscal year 2017 budget proposes investing $39.5 million over five years to expand community schools. We are also proposing an investment of $256 million over five years to expand quality pre-K to 3- and 4-year-olds who currently lack access.

Additionally, the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy has a program called myPLACE which helps out-of-school youth and adults improve the math and literacy skills required to obtain the Commonwealth Secondary School Diploma, start a job-training program, get into college, or pass an employer test. myPLACE is located at more than 30 adult education providers. Disconnected youth and adults are encouraged to call the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy at 215-686-5250 to learn more.

Shapiro of DHS:

Our new service delivery model, Improving Outcomes for Children, was designed to better ensure the stability of youth in care by utilizing trusted community-based agencies to provide services, including foster care, in their own neighborhoods. As a result, children are far more likely to remain in their school of origin when they enter care thus preventing academic disruption.

The Department has established the Education Support Center (ESC) to improve the educational stability, continuity and well-being of children and youth involved with DHS. ESC liaisons located both at DHS and in schools coordinate communication and planning among children’s service providers and school staff to remove barriers and foster academic attainment. These liaisons address issues related to school stability and transportation planning to help youth in our care remain in their school of origin. They also advocate for academic enrichment, remedial services, post-high school transition planning and other supports students need.

Another program that addresses the educational needs of youth we serve is the Achieving Independence Center, a one-stop shop for older youth in care. The AIC offers academic assistance to help youth obtain their high school degree or GED, plan for post secondary school, complete college applications and apply for financial aid. It also supplies youth in care with school supplies and other school-related essentials.

DHS also works to increase enrollment and retention in high quality early childhood education programs…the Department recently developed a campaign to raise awareness among child-welfare involved families about the importance of early childhood education and provided training to help early childhood staff better address the challenges of children served by our system.

Generals of CCP:

We receive an appropriation from the city and state and we raise private dollars. We are prepared to provide scholarships to any qualified student graduating from a Philadelphia high school who is able to write a college-level essay. We are prepared to help those high school students prepare for the scholarship exam through summer workshops and earlier intervention strategies. We will continue to raise private dollars for this effort.

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