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Study: One-third of Philly students switch high schools, increasing their risk of dropping out

The authors say city schools should boost efforts to improve high school matches and support 8th and 9th graders.

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

A new study highlights the risks of student mobility, finding that one-third of Philadelphia students attend more than one high school and that changing schools just once can more than double students’ chances of dropping out.

“Dislocation has real academic consequences for students as measured by graduation rates,” said the study’s lead author, Matthew Steinberg.

The study, conducted by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC), used four years of Philadelphia School District student data. It presents a troubling portrait of a highly mobile district in which thousands of low-income, minority students churn through poor-performing, racially isolated schools.

The study arrives as two city high schools, Ben Franklin High and Science Leadership Academy, begin their second month of the new school year without a permanent home. The students can’t use their shared building because of asbestos fears amid ongoing construction.

Few students and parents have talked about transferring to other schools instead of waiting out the construction in alternate locations. But this week’s town hall meetings revealed that even displaced students who don’t formally change schools will face many of the same issues as students who do, such as unfamiliar new commutes, confusion over new schedules and requirements, and potential social conflicts with new building-mates. These were subjects raised frequently by Franklin and SLA students.

The situation underlines the instability inherent in urban school districts that must cope with old buildings in disrepair, among other issues, and the challenges faced by students seeking the best option among many imperfect choices. Among the third of all Philadelphia students who change high schools at some point, 9th graders move the most by far.

Mobility did not tend to increase students’ chances of finding better-performing or more racially balanced schools, but it significantly boosted their risk of dropping out. In one year’s cohort, for example, about 5 percent of students who stayed in a single school dropped out, compared to about 11 percent of those who changed schools just once – and 13 percent of those who changed schools twice.

School type wasn’t a factor, Steinberg said. “In charter vs. District schools, the mobility rates are nearly identical.”

Instead, he said, the study shows that income matters most.

“We see the concentrations of poverty being the centers of high mobility,” Steinberg said, with poorly funded “revolving-door” schools struggling to maintain climate and standards while steady streams of students and staff head for the exits.

“The same schools we see with high teacher and principal mobility have high student mobility,” Steinberg said. “What we’re seeing are the symptoms of urban economic and racial segregation.”

PERC’s study lacked the address-level data needed to tease out all the specific reasons why students move, Steinberg said. Students can change schools due to issues with the school, issues at home, or both.

But observers say that even without that level of analysis, the study still shows a need for Philadelphia to focus less on adding new high school choices and more on improving existing options, while helping students better manage the transition to high school.

“If you’re not giving students and families options that lead to better academic outcomes, it’s not really a choice,” said Tomea Sippio-Smith, education director for the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children & Youth (PCCY).

“It’s like you have the fork in the road, and you look down one path and it’s a bunch of wolves, and you look down the other and there’s bears,” she said. “If you’re going to give choices, you should offer better ones.”

Steinberg and his fellow authors say that their findings suggest that the District should step up its efforts to support 8th and 9th graders, improving high school matches and helping them navigate the challenging transition.

Jessica Way, a classroom teacher at Franklin Learning Center and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators, said that this suggestion “makes total sense.”

The study’s findings match her experience, in which incoming 9th graders can be easily knocked off track by high school’s demands. Navigating those challenges in a new school community is hard for anyone, Way said, but low-income students are particularly likely to get discouraged and drop out.

“It’s the same thing you see in the transition from high school to college,” Way said. “The exact same thing.”

More movement than improvement

The mobility study, undertaken on behalf of the anti-dropout initiative Project U-Turn, looked at four years of data from 108,000 students at 102 Philadelphia high schools, including 57 District-run and 45 charter high schools.

The study’s findings include:

  • One-third of all District students were “mobile” during the study’s four years. Some changed schools, some changed districts, and some dropped out. Of the 2013 freshmen, only half stayed at the same school for four years. One-quarter went to two schools.
  • Ninth graders accounted for about half of all mobile students.
  • African American students were disproportionately mobile, representing 57 percent of students, but 70 percent of mobile students.
  • Mobility didn’t correlate with finding improved schools. Mobile students tend to “enroll in schools with substantively similar school and peer characteristics,” including race and academics, researchers wrote. Students who change from year to year tend to “enter schools with fewer academically proficient students, on average,” than the schools they left.
  • Mobility did correlate with dropping out, approximately doubling students’ chances of leaving school. Among mobile students in the 2013-14 cohort, about 11 percent dropped out, compared to about 5 percent of non-mobile peers. As mobility increases, so does the dropout risk: 13 and 16 percent of students attending two or three schools drop out, respectively.
  • Charter and District-run schools experience the same mobility issues, with student movement correlating closely with income: “Mobility … is not disproportionately concentrated in the charter or traditional public school sectors,” the study found. “Instead, mobility is concentrated in schools serving the lowest-achieving, highest-poverty students, independent of a school’s sector.”
  • Schools with the lowest-income students saw much more mobility than those with the highest-income students (27% vs. 15%, respectively). Likewise, schools with the weakest academics – low test scores and poor District ratings – saw more mobility than those with the strongest (32% vs. 10%, respectively).
  • Mobility was lowest in selective high schools like Masterman, Central and Carver, where just a few percent of students move. At neighborhood high schools such as Bartram, King, and Overbrook, figures are between 35% and 45%. Charter high schools run the gamut, with MAST Community Charter students among the least mobile at 5 percent, and World Communications Charter students among the most mobile at 41 percent. (For a list, see below.)
  • Cyber charters see the most mobility. Of the cybers, the District’s own online school, which was set up to reduce the number of students attending the expensive and low-performing state-authorized ones, is the most stable with 50 percent mobility. ASPIRA and Esperanza’s cyber-charter mobility rates are 66 and 81 percent, respectively. Cyber schools are often used by students who have had issues in brick-and-mortar schools, including bullying.

To Steinberg, the lesson at the heart of the findings is that the District needs to focus on supporting both students and their families before and during the transition and developing a “citywide strategy” for reducing mobility.

“What can the School District learn about the decision points families face?” he asked. “What drives them to stay in their neighborhood, or go outside it?”

PCCY’s Sippio-Smith said that regardless of what’s driving student mobility, the high level of churn among 9th graders points to a need to provide better screening for 8th graders and more support for incoming high school freshmen.

The cost of inaction is clear, she said: With every move students make, they fall farther behind academically, boosting their statistical chances of dropping out.

“The problems are compounded,” Sippio-Smith said, “because they have to catch up.”

And in a final twist, Steinberg said, the costs of mobility don’t just accrue to the students who move. The more new students arrive at a given school, the more its existing students can be destabilized. Steinberg said that when he studied Philadelphia’s 2013 wave of school closures, he found that when small numbers of displaced students ended up in schools that were more effective, “on average, kids did better,” he said.

But as the numbers of incoming students rose, the performance of their new classmates fell, he said. “When many kids went from a closed school to a new school, the more displaced kids came, the worse their peers did,” said Steinberg.

Two kinds of mobile students

Steinberg’s report notes that mobility has many benefits, too. And choice is built into the District’s system, with three out of four students opting out of their neighborhood high schools. In 2015, the study found, “almost three-quarters of 9th graders in Philadelphia’s public schools attended a school that required them to apply for admission.”

Council member Helen Gym, a longtime advocate for public education, said the study suggests that Philadelphia is home to two kinds of mobile students.

“The PERC study … forces us to recognize the difference between mobility as a result of privilege, and mobility as a result of destabilization,” Gym said in a statement. “There is a huge difference.”

For the latter group in particular, Gym said, the study shows that “students, especially at-risk students, need stability and investment,” including academic counselors and social workers.

Ninth-grade academies

The District recognized the need to smooth the transition to 9th grade, instituting 9th-grade academies at all 21 neighborhood schools in 2016-17 (the final year of this study). Ninth graders were given their own wing or corridor of their high school to limit contact with older students during the school day. An assistant principal for the 9th-grade academy is in place at every high school, and a team of core-subject teachers, a career/college counselor, and a climate manager coordinate efforts to boost students’ achievement, attendance, and behavior.

Preliminary data for the first cohort of students in the 9th-grade academies show positive trends both in attendance (students attending 95 percent or more) and in the number of students with zero suspensions in their 9th-, 10th-, and 11th-grade years. It remains to be seen whether these academies also decreased student mobility in the neighborhood schools.

Steinberg said the District’s focus should include staff as well as students, stabilizing administrations and teaching rosters at low-performing schools.

“Adults moving, leadership churn – that also generates instability,” he said.

District’s new planning process

But the findings should also be considered in the District’s newly launched school planning process, he said, which will reconsider catchment boundaries and building capacity needs, based on demographic research. Similar reorganizations in other cities’ school districts have been used to address racial imbalances and improve minority students’ access to better-performing, more diverse schools.

“Maybe some catchment boundaries need to be redrawn so that [more students] have access to high-performing schools,” said PCCY’s Sippio-Smith.

However, she added, it was important for the planning process to examine all schools, and not sidestep charters and cyber-charters, as is currently planned.

“The students that were the most mobile were in cyber charters – and they’re not being studied in the District’s strategic planning process,” Sippio-Smith said.

Steinberg noted that although students in racially balanced schools do tend to do better, Philadelphia’s minority-heavy school population means there’s only so much that can be changed by reorganizing catchments and feeder patterns.

“Short of busing, there are limited opportunities to improve the racial mix of schools in Philadelphia,” he said.

But a fine-grained examination of mobility could help the District’s planning process reverse the negative effects of student movement, he said. Demographers should investigate not just who lives where, but how long they stay once their children start school.

“What does residential mobility look like historically for families with school-age children?” Steinberg asked. “To the extent that’s available [for specific neighborhoods], it could really help inform the District’s [planning] process.”

The District did not respond to a request for comment on the new study.

Likewise, the city’s leading school-choice advocate, the Philadelphia School Partnership, declined to comment on the study’s implications for charter schools.

Steinberg noted that the research suggests that at least some fears about charter mobility are unfounded. The mobility parallels between charter and District students suggests that charters aren’t encouraging problem students to leave, or “counseling out” students in outsized numbers, he said, “which may run contrary to conventional wisdom.”

On the other hand, the comparable numbers suggest that charters, as a sector, aren’t offering dramatic improvements either.

Council member Gym said the mobility study’s findings show the need to focus on improving the neighborhood schools that still serve thousands, rather than on adding new seats elsewhere.

“The education reform movement often sold the idea that mobility and choice had to be the answers. … What resulted is that we have ignored chaotic school environments for far too long [and] failed to invest in young people in key transitional moments,” Gym said.

The study recommends that charters and the District collaborate to create “a citywide approach to reducing student mobility. … City and state education leaders should work to identify students who have experienced a mobility event and dedicate additional supports and resources toward these mobile students.”

Teacher Jessica Way said that adding resources to target vulnerable students is the obvious solution.

“My knee-jerk reaction to this kind of research is, of course, we need more supports in schools!” she said.

But she cautions that the waters are deep. Beyond the practical concerns that can drive students out of school – long commutes, demanding new schedules – lie the emotional and social issues that come with being raised in a city that struggles with poverty and violence.

“We have an enormous issue with trauma and mental health, and every year it’s getting worse,” she said. Students experience not only violence and abuse, but also isolation. “I know students that are deeply lonely.”

The good news, she said, is when staff and academic programs are stable and well-planned, students stick around. In her Career and Technical Education classes at FLC, she sees first-hand how clear goals and supportive social networks can quickly engage students. Once they start building these networks and chasing personal goals, a once-daunting high school can start to feel like home.

And if there’s a silver lining in the findings, Way said, it’s that mobility drops significantly among sophomores, juniors, and seniors. They may have most of the same social and community issues as freshmen, but having successfully shot those 9th-grade rapids, they tend to stay the course.

“Maybe that’s saying that there’s something right going on in these schools,” said Way. “If you stick it out, you can make it.”

The Notebook’s coverage of Project U-Turn is supported by a grant from Philadelphia Youth Network.

Average Student Mobility Rates at Philadelphia Public Schools


Schools that closed in any academic year during the study period or otherwise did not have data available through the 2016-17 school year are excluded from this list. Calculations include within-year or across-year mobility from the 2013-14 through the 2015-16 school years. Student mobility rates in traditional public schools (TPS) cannot be directly compared to student mobility rates in charter schools because we are unable to observe student mobility that occurs within the traditional public school system in a given school year. As a result, student mobility rates in TPS are likely underestimated. Steinberg, M.P., Pileggi, M. & Neild, R. (2019). Student Mobility and Dropout in Philadelphia High Schools, 2013-14 through 2016-17. Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Education Research Consortium.

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