This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
At Parkway Center City Middle College High School, it’s sometimes a little hard to tell the faculty without a scorecard.
Most of the teachers at the school in the Callowhill neighborhood are from the School District of Philadelphia, but others are from the Community College of Philadelphia.
The first freshman class entered in 2017, and when they graduate, they will have both high school diplomas and associate’s degrees from CCP.
The magnet high school program is cited as a promising element in the development of the city’s employment picture in a recent city workforce strategy report, titled “Fueling Philadelphia’s Talent Engine.”
At the center of the report is a shift in focus from short-term job training and placement to long-term career planning and advancement. It also marks a shift, officials hope, toward getting the components of the city’s employment engine — schools, industry and government — working better together.
The report states: “A career pathway system pairs progressive levels of education and training with career coaching and social service supports to help individuals with diverse skills and needs advance to increasingly higher levels of employment.”
A single program cannot provide the full benefits of a career pathway system, the report says. Instead, “multiple linked and aligned programs” are needed, “including industry; the public
workforce system; and K-12, adult, and higher education.”
Three broad goals
During the February launch ceremony for the workforce strategy, which was at CCP, Mayor Kenney called for a fight not just against unemployment, but also against underemployment.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said, “for any Philadelphian to be working a full-
time job and still living in poverty. It’s embarrassing. It’s disgraceful.”
All told, the plan set out three broad goals:
- Prepare Philadelphians with the skills that employers need for a world-class workforce.
- Address the underlying barriers that prevent Philadelphians from accessing meaningful opportunities.
- Build a workforce system that is more coordinated, innovative, and effective.
The plan also laid out 18 specific goals to be reached by 2020, each with a lead stakeholder to accomplish it.
In three cases, the School District of Philadelphia is to take the lead:
- Increase the graduation rate from 67 percent to 71 percent by the 2018-19 school year.
- Along with CCP and other institutions, provide opportunities for 6,000 students a year to attain post-secondary credit.
- Along with CCP, give every Career and Technical Education student the chance to earn a minimum of three college credits.
Staying in the workforce
Much of the strategy is directed at adults who may be out of the workforce or on the edges of it, but the School District and CCP are charged with seeing that they get into the workforce and stay there.
One key, says David E. Thomas, an associate vice president at CCP, is creating an almost seamless transition between high school and college.
“No longer are we in the day when it’s a dry cutoff,” he says. “It behooves us to work backwards, down the chain.”
In many cases, the cutoff has been CCP’s college placement tests. High school graduates who can’t pass them must enroll in noncredit developmental reading, developmental writing and/or developmental math courses before they can take courses that award college credit.
That can slow down their progress at the college or even discourage them from enrolling.
Last fall, almost a third of entering CCP freshmen from District and charter schools had to take developmental reading and/or developmental writing. Sixty-three percent of District students and 55 percent of charter students had to take developmental math. For alternative school graduates, the figures were considerably higher.
CCP spokeswoman Linda Wallace says that students who fail the test in the spring can now get tutoring in a summer program and retest in the fall. But Thomas says that a longer-range solution might be to have CCP faculty working throughout the school system, helping to spot students who are likely to have trouble moving directly into college work.
“There’s work to be done at both the District’s end and the college’s end,” he says. “We’re trying to look at multiple measures of success, not just one test.”
The goal of giving some 6,000 high school students a chance at post-secondary credit represents a 20 percent increase from the current baseline of 5,000, says city Commerce Department spokeswoman Lauren Cox.
Enrollment of high school students in CCP’s Advance at College dual enrollment program — which allows students to take high school and college courses at the same time — increased from 487 in the spring of 2017 to 705 this spring, although Thomas said this was due partly to a one-time state grant.
Giving every CTE student the chance to earn a minimum of three college credits would not represent a major increase, says Michelle Armstrong, executive director of CTE programs for the School District. She estimates the current figure at 85 percent.
In some cases, said Armstrong, who was on the workforce report’s 40-member steering committee, it is a question of aligning the District’s offerings with the curricula of institutes such as CCP, Peirce College, the Art Institute of Philadelphia, and Thomas Jefferson University.
“The post-secondary partners are being very cooperative,” she says.
But the District also faces challenges in attracting students to CTE programs such as manufacturing and building trades despite its confidence that jobs will be there.
“It’s an ongoing stigma,” says Nicholas Gasis, CTE director for the School District.
On the other hand, health-care programs are expected to grow, and the District plans to open a rehabilitation aide program next year with Temple University and St. Christopher’s Hospital, Armstrong says.
Carol DeFries, vice president for workforce and innovation at CCP, says, “We still need to get more CTE students into the college. But a lot of them go out and get employed right away,” perhaps due to the need for immediate income — and perhaps at a lower level than they could achieve with additional college-level courses.
Christina Grant, assistant superintendent for the District’s Opportunity Network — which works with dropouts, students at risk of dropping out, and students subject to expulsion — adds that academic improvements alone won’t be enough.
“We’re thinking beyond the number of credits” to help the students understand the job market, says Grant, who was also on the steering committee. “They need a significant bench of soft skills” to make the switch from classroom to job. “Collaboration, teaming. Bridging the gap between the two worlds.”