Pathways back to school don’t yet match need

Alternative programs do not always align with the skills and credits of dropouts looking to return.

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

Sophia Griggs wants to go back to school.

The 18-year-old left Benjamin Franklin High three years ago, sent off for bad behavior to one of the District’s disciplinary schools. She now says that she isn’t the same kid she was then and deserves another chance.

For Sophia and thousands of other high school dropouts in Philadelphia looking for a way to resume their education, there is both good and bad news. The good news is that the School District and the city, prodded by Philadelphia Youth Transitions Collaborative and its Project U-Turn, are working feverishly to create academic programs and social service supports that fit their needs.

The bad news is that there are simply not enough slots to go around – and that budget problems could sink many of the programs that now exist.

Over the past few years, the District has created accelerated high schools that allow overage students to get credits quickly, reconfigured its evening high schools, and started a dual enrollment program with Community College of Philadelphia that leads to both a diploma and an associate’s degree.

But so far, these programs are just making a dent in the problem, serving a total of about 3,000 when Project U-Turn’s landmark study of dropout trends showed that more than ten times that many young people had left school without a diploma over the past decade.

Plus, there is a mismatch between the programming and the need. The Collaborative is finding that there are not nearly enough slots for students with low literacy rates and few high school credits. Only the five accelerated high schools are geared toward this population, but combined they only have 950 slots and a waiting list of at least 800.

“Give me 2,000 more slots in accelerated schools, I’ll fill them in 30 days,” said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, who is working to develop “multiple pathways” to graduation in the District’s Office of Secondary Education.

At the same time, programs designed for students with more than eight credits, including the revamped evening high schools (called EOPs for Educational Opportunity Programs), barely fill their capacity. And only about one in 5 students who sought admission to the dual enrollment program, Gateway to College, met the eligibility requirement – an eighth-grade reading level.

“An overwhelming majority of high school dropouts are overage and under-credited. The need for more programs that serve this population is pressing,” said Harvey Chism, the education director for the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN).

New citywide effort

The coordinated, citywide campaign known as Project U-Turn was launched along with the release of a detailed report, Unfulfilled Promise, by Ruth Neild and Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University. Their research quantified with precision the magnitude of the dropout crisis in Philadelphia, finding that among the classes of 2000 through 2005, 30,000 students who began ninth grade left without earning a diploma. In the 2003-04 school year alone, 13,000 students either dropped out entirely or attended school for less than half the time. In general, only 51 percent of ninth graders graduated from high school in four years.

When the report was released, the Collaborative – a coalition that unites the District, city agencies, and youth advocacy organizations – kicked off the Project U-Turn campaign with an expo where students could find out immediately how many credits they had and what programs were available to them.

Sophia showed up at the expo, seeking a spot in an alternative school. So far, she’s had no luck – she needs to clear up her discipline record first. She didn’t complete the program at Community Education Partners, a school for students with behavior problems.

“I can’t go to [an accelerated school] because I missed days at CEP,” she said. “Well, that was back when I first dropped out in 2003-2004. I’m not a disobedient child.”

Her story – difficulties with finding the right match – is not unusual. Tenly Pau, the coordinator for the Project U-Turn hotline at PYN, said that since the expo about 300 students have called, and perhaps 40 so far have successfully reconnected to alternative programs that suit their needs.

But the future of all the alternative programs is jeopardized by the District’s looming budget shortfall. Collins-Shapiro said that to expand the programs minimally next year would cost an additional $16.5 million that is not now included in the preliminary budget. To create accelerated schools for 5,000 students would cost $47.5 million a year, she said, compared to less than $9 million being spent now.

Pennsylvania, unlike most states, does not base its aid to school districts on fluctuations in enrollment, meaning that it doesn’t contribute per capita for the cost of educating returning dropouts, so the more who come back, the more they stress District finances.

The District has been relying primarily on earmarked funding from the state’s Alternative Education Demonstration Grants to fund many alternative and discipline schools. But that money, doled out by the legislature with specific conditions attached, is not guaranteed from year to year.

If those grants don’t continue, “it’s possible we don’t have any funds to do this,” Collins-Shapiro said. CEO Paul Vallas has begun making a pitch to the city and state for new earmarked funds to support Project U-Turn initiatives.

The Collaborative’s long-range strategy for dropout prevention is to transform secondary education.

“We don’t want just one basic high school structure and a second-tier array of catch-up ‘alternatives’ for those who can’t make it in the traditional program,” Collins-Shapiro said. “The whole concept is one size doesn’t fit all, every student isn’t going to experience high school in the same way.”

The buzz phrase is “multiple pathways” – many high school options, small and large, specialized and general, vocational and liberal arts – along with more internships and training programs coordinated with the job needs of local businesses.

Chism said that in addition to more academic options, young people and their families also need “a wider range of services” – child care, college and career counseling, literacy support, and jobs – that will increase their chances of succeeding.

Along those lines, the city’s Division of Social Services is moving to better coordinate information and the responses of various agencies to families in need. It is compiling a new database, and Social Services Director Julia Danzy has convened a working group of city departments to take a special look at the dropout issue. Participating departments are Human Services, Public Health, Behavioral Health, and Recreation, as well as Prisons, Housing and the Mayor’s Office.

“Each of the departments has a different role in the life of a child,” said Annabelle Roig, Danzy’s deputy. “We have to work together to identify those critical moments where a child could go in a different direction.”

The meetings have been eye-opening to Patricia Hall of the prison system, which houses some 130 mostly male juvenile offenders who have been adjudicated as adults. Although they attend mandatory classes taught by School District employees for four and a half hours a day, nobody checks to see if they’ve returned to school after leaving prison.

“We need to beef up our collaboration with other agencies so we can inform someone that a person has been discharged,” she said. “We have to make sure that some of these young people don’t slip through the cracks.”

The next step is to look at more types of programs and thoroughly evaluate whether the ones now available are working. The Collaborative invited six groups, including several whose schools have impressed big-money philanthropists, to make presentations. And the District has hired a Baltimore firm to evaluate accelerated high schools.

“We have to determine what should be the benchmark of success,” Collins-Shapiro said. “If a student came in reading at a fourth grade level and they get through courses and read at a 9th grade level, is that enough? Or should they be reading at a 12th grade level? These kinds of issues have implications for all our schools.”

Additional reporting by Christine Schiavo and Notebook intern Megan Richardson.