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Many alternative-school options, but where’s the map to find them?

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

With all the attention on the District’s lack of resources, the elusive teachers’ contract, and pressure to create more charters, it is easy to forget that there are, today, hundreds of teachers and more than two dozen schools offering alternatives to students who have struggled in traditional schools.

This issue of the Notebook takes a deeper look into those District schools and programs – and others run by nonprofit organizations. Project U-Turn, the collaborative managed by the Philadelphia Youth Network, includes members from the Community College of Philadelphia, Congreso, Department of Human Services, JEVS Human Services, Mayor’s Office of Education, Public Citizens for Children & Youth, School District of Philadelphia, William Penn Foundation, youth/young adult representatives, and other organizations.

Project U-Turn started 10 years ago, and during that time, the high school graduation rate in the city rose 25 percent. Now, Project U-Turn will be studying what it needs to do next in order to move the needle even more on high school graduation and post-graduation success.

Through the reporting of this issue, several challenges and opportunities for the nonprofits and the school system became clear. One of the most vexing is: How does a student who has dropped out of school figure out how to get back in?

Many programs are available to meet lots of different needs — from stricter discipline to an atmosphere of freedom and responsibility, from an emphasis on collaboration to one-on-one instruction. However, reaching the disengaged students is tricky, and their enrollment in a suitable program seems to be more a matter of luck than the result of an effective placement system.

Several students and service providers all told us the same thing: Most students landed at their successful alternative school or program through word of mouth. Some bounced from District school to charter to cyber school to their successful alternative program. How did they get there? Usually because a friend told them about it.

There is no doubt that persisting to graduation after having dropped out takes strong personal motivation. However, if the city is serious about creating pathways to success for disengaged students, there must be better ways to identify them early and introduce them to the alternatives.

The pivot point in 9th grade

But the best way to avoid having to create an extensive re-engagement process is to prevent students from dropping out. The research is clear that most students give up on school because of an unsuccessful freshman year. The transition is too hard, and school becomes overwhelming. Said Northeast High’s co-assistant principal, Byron Ryan: “We have a saying: As goes 9th grade, so goes the school.”

The District has made 9th-grade academies a high priority, creating one in each neighborhood high school. Last fall, four of them received extra support in a pilot project to offer more individualized attention. In these schools, the 9th-grade teachers consult with 8th-grade teachers to learn about the incoming students. Many of the schools also run four-week summer programs to introduce students to high school life.

Three more schools are slated to get the additional support for their 9th-grade academies in the fall.

The chart on page 13 lists the graduation rates for all District and charter schools. It is no surprise that neighborhood high schools — which must take everyone who wants to attend — have lower graduation rates than either selective District schools or charters. These rates illustrate why giving extra support through 9th-grade academies in these schools is a good idea.

They are also not a new idea – they have been part of several previous school reform efforts. We hope that this time, the initiative has sufficient resources and commitment to show tangible gains that compel District leaders to keep them going and that they don’t fall victim to cutbacks or another change in philosophy.

It has always made sense to focus on the 9th grade. As Cheryl Logan, the District’s chief academic support officer, pointed out, remedial programs to help students catch up are far more costly. Investing the extra resources up front is money well-spent.

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