This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The bad news is that they left school in the first place, for whatever reason – trauma, childbirth, immaturity, boredom, bullying.
The good news is that, according to a survey of Philadelphia high school dropouts who have returned to the classroom, when they come back, they feel safe, respected, and engaged.
“Both parties are getting a second chance,” said Christina Grant, assistant superintendent of the Philadelphia School District’s Opportunity Network and Innovation Network. She oversees 35 schools and programs, including those that support students returning to school after they dropped out.
“The students are getting a second chance at an education,” she said, “and we’re getting – the system is getting – a second chance to give it to them.”
Last year, Grant received a grant – funding for Luis Rosario, a public policy researcher – from Philadelphia Youth Network via Project U-Turn, an alliance of partners aimed at increasing high school graduation rates, with considerable attention focused on those who have left school.
Rosario’s task was to look at the District’s Re-Engagement Center, a starting point for students who want to return to school.
“We asked for someone to spend a full year looking at re-engagement,” Grant said. The timing was right – the center was just a little over 10 years old, having opened in the 2007-08 school year.
The goal would be to help the District increase the percentage of re-engaged students to 70 percent from 54 percent and to make sure that at least half of those who re-engaged earned a degree or certificate, up from 35 percent.
The District’s re-engagement system has the capacity to serve 3,500 students, mostly with no waiting lists, Grant said. However, some specific programs or schools may have waiting lists at various times.
Rosario helped develop a survey, and it was distributed to students at accelerated schools in November. (Accelerated schools are aimed at moving quickly to give returning students the credits they need for a high school diploma. Typical program length is one to two years, compared to four for a high school. The District’s graduation rate is between 67 and 78 percent, depending on which students are counted.)
Of the 2,100 accelerated school students who received the survey, 718 responded.
Here are some of the early findings:
- 68 percent of accelerated school students find relevance in academic work, compared to 25 percent at their previous schools.
- 80 percent feel their current schools are safe, compared to 38 percent at their previous schools.
- 85 percent feel respected at their current schools, vs. 58 percent at their previous schools.
- 97.5 percent think that education or certification will lead to a better life.
- Half of the returning students find their schools through word-of-mouth; 29 percent find schools via the Re-engagement Center.
34 percent left school due to behavior issues.
Grant said her office is trying to learn more about the behavior issues finding. Is it the departing student who had the issue, or is the student referring to classmates or the atmosphere in the previous school?
Generally, Grant said, the results confirmed what she already knew.
“We know students want to be in a small, caring, and safe environment,” she said.
Also, many students, now more mature, have faced the kind of life challenges that make them better understand the value of an education.
“They are getting a fresh start, literally, at a fresh new school,” she said.
A key component is the ability of the Re-Engagement Center to match students with the right program. If the goal is college, then there are partnerships with Community College of Philadelphia and Harcum College, she said.
“If they want a path to college, we make sure that bridge to getting into college is as seamless as possible,” she said. For example, students don’t have to pay to take the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), which is part of the college entrance process.
“It becomes much more realistic to them,” she said.
If it’s connecting them to a more immediate career or job pathway, that can happen as well, Grant said.
“They are more mature,” she said. “They may be facing a host of things. The reality of these things [make it important to] ensure that when they graduate, they can immediately be connected to a career.
“Both these bridges exist and are viable.”
One of the biggest lessons the District learned from the survey, Grant said, is that the Re-engagement Center itself must stay engaged.
Typically, she said, the center would place the returning students and then move on. What they learned is that they need to stay in touch with the students for at least several months to keep everyone on track.
New computerized attendance systems help, Grant said. Her staff can now spot when students have missed several days of school. Was it the flu? Or some new obstacle to education?
Focus groups are being convened to dig deeper into survey findings and learn more about why students disengage from school and more about how they can best be re-engaged.
The District would like to organize a Council for Opportunity Youth.
“That’s in the visioning stage,” Grant said. “We’d like them to be the voice” for the people, young and old, who would like a second chance at education.
This article is part of the Notebook’s summer 2018 edition, “Building a pipeline for career and college success,” sponsored by the Philadelphia Youth Network and Project U-Turn. You can read the whole edition here.