Connecting the disconnected

The Re-engagement Center sees a steady stream of youth wanting to resume their education.

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

Demetrius Newton is sitting up straight in a chair at the District’s Re-engagement Center. He’s making eye contact with Bill Simon, one of the center’s three caseworkers, and answering every question clearly and thoughtfully.

Newton is 20 years old, and for the last 18 months, “all day, every day” his friends and family have been bugging him to go back to school. So, now he’s making the effort.

“But it’s been a struggle,” he says, ticking off a list of obstacles that he thinks stand between him and a diploma.

He cites the age limit imposed by traditional public schools that makes him too old to enroll and the credit requirements of alternative schools, which Newton says for some out-of-school youth mean having to “find a school on your own and pay for it.”

Newton was dismissed from Shallcross, one of the District’s disciplinary schools, as a result of verbal confrontations with staff. A counselor there told him about the Re-engagement Center, located on the first floor of District headquarters.

In collaboration with city government and local nonprofits, the District opened the Re-engagement Center in May 2008, the first of its kind in the country. That year, according to state data, 6,000 students dropped out of Philadelphia’s public schools, and the center was hailed locally and nationally as a valuable tool in helping to get these youth reconnected to their education. It is a key component in Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to boost Philadelphia’s graduation rate from 60 percent to 80 percent by 2014.

Since its opening, about 4,000 former students have visited the center and nearly 2,800 have been placed in a variety of schools and programs, including accelerated schools, EOPs (Educational Options Programs), the Gateway to College program at Community College of Philadelphia, GED programs, literacy programs, online learning centers, Job Corps, charter schools, and comprehensive high schools. (see chart).

Like Newton, many of those who come to the center are over-age and under-credited, so it’s no surprise that as of November 2009, only 21 had earned diplomas, one for every 200 students who passed through the center’s doors during its first 18 months.

Newton had only 4.5 of the necessary 23.5 credits when coming to the center. He took the required assessment tests, and learned that his reading and math skills qualified him for an accelerated program at a school in the Northeast or one in Germantown.

Newton chooses a program at a charter school in Germantown because it’s close to home, so Simon calls the school to schedule an interview.

“I think you’re going to do well,” the caseworker tells Newton. “But it’s a zero-tolerance situation [so] you can’t be missing class or acting out.”

Newton has two weeks to wait to see if he is accepted. While he can expect calls from his caseworker over the next few months to check in on his progress, Simon points out that it will be up to him to stick with the program.

A slow climb

The city’s Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr says the center shows progress where there was none before.

“We’re moving the needle,” she says, adding that while there is no indication how many students are on track to earning their diplomas, she expects the center’s graduation numbers to jump significantly in the months to come.

“If we’re looking at 40 [graduates] this time next year, then I think we’ll need to go back [and re-work the program],” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the numbers.”

Meanwhile, the District is taking other steps to boost graduation rates. District officials say they’ve added 1,000 new slots in the popular accelerated high schools, cutting the wait list from 1,200 to about 500, and have opened a satellite center at 4224 North Front Street in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia, an area that has provided the original Re-engagement Center with over a third of its visitors.

The satellite center is open one day a week, but in May it will operate full time with two on-site caseworkers. District officials say they hope the newest location will boost the overall number of students served. Predominantly Latino neighborhoods nearby have some of the city’s highest dropout rates.

There are no plans to add caseworkers at the main center, but Shorr says the city is looking at ways to build networks of adult volunteers to coach youth through the re-engagement process.

Shorr says the center has now resolved most of the data-sharing and staffing issues that surfaced during its inaugural year.

Still, “I can’t imagine there’s not room for improvement,” she says.

An increasing number of students coming through the center can’t read well enough to earn a diploma. Center staff tell students that accelerated programs require at least a 4th grade reading level.

There are some literacy programs for such students. In fact, about 5 percent of the total number of the center’s visitors have been referred to so-called “skill-building” courses that focus on basic literacy, but Simon says there aren’t nearly enough of them.

What isn’t a problem is demand. The center depends on only word-of-mouth referrals from school counselors and students’ friends and families. On any given day, it may host 50 to 60 students.

Zamir Dukes of North Philadelphia walked into the center on the advice of a friend.

“My ‘old head’ told me that I need a diploma,” says Dukes of his 19-year-old friend Ish.

“He’s like my big brother, and he didn’t graduate.”

Dukes, 15, was kicked out of three schools for fighting, but finds that despite his disciplinary problems, he is still eligible for a computer-based learning program that could allow him to graduate on time.

Making a case to reconnect

Simon can relate to most of the students that come through the center’s doors. Although now a caseworker, 40 years ago he was a dropout.

“I was 17 years old, and I had a brand-new baby,” he recalls. “So I went to work on Erie Avenue at a knitting mill. But my mother and my father saw fit to ambush me one day. And when your mother cries, you don’t say no.”

Simon says that “90 percent of the youth come in ready to continue their education,” and on a busy day he’ll see over a dozen students.

He often shares his personal experiences with students to help make a case for reconnection, but then tells them to make good use of available resources, ask questions no matter how simple they may seem, and plan to work hard.

“They think it’s like the old days, where you can talk to one person and leave with books, a classroom seat, and a roster [of classes] that’s accurate to your needs,” he says.

“They actually believe that if they spent two years in [foster care] in Lackawanna County, their transcript will be sent here. They don’t understand how they’ve got zero credits in Philly.”

To get students back on track, Simon first unravels whatever red tape entangles them. Some students are on probation and have judicial orders to comply with. The vast majority, Simon says, have open files with the Department of Human Services (DHS), which may be trying to address anything from homelessness to drug addiction to child care.

Many students still have one of the District’s Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), legally binding documents that require the District to provide counseling or other assistance. But IEPs are sometimes years old and carry demands with which accelerated programs can’t comply.

It’s the caseworker’s job to help resolve any conflicting issues while connecting students with helpful resources. And that’s been made easier with the coordination of computer systems between the District and agencies that it relies on to help place students.

Still, a student’s initiative is what matters most.

Caseworkers say the assertive and persistent students stand the best chance of getting what they need and that there is little time to track down those who drift away.

Demetrius Newton says he has learned his lesson about drifting and now wants to take control of his life.

“If you take that time off, two things are gonna happen – either you’re not going to want to go back, or your brain is not going to be in shape,” he says.

“School prepares you for the outside world, [so] I want to graduate for myself.”