New paths to a diploma

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

A look at the raw dropout numbers is almost as chilling today as it was five years ago when a citywide campaign now called Project U-Turn took on the challenge of publicizing and addressing this epidemic in Philadelphia.

Citywide, only 56 percent of students who started high school in 2005 graduated on time in 2009.

The graduation rate for that class will grow by several points as additional students persist and earn their diplomas after five or six years. But still, nearly 40 percent of each class fails to graduate even after six years.

Following several years of upward movement in graduation rates, the most recent data show a leveling off – there is no steady, sustained progress yet. While public awareness of the dropout epidemic has grown, we still have miles to go in treating it.

What Philadelphia can point to, after a lot of hard work in the past year, is a coherent set of initiatives that are showing signs of re-engaging adolescent youth.

A broad array of alternative programs is now available for re-connecting young people who were not making it in traditional high schools. There’s been a major expansion in the number of slots for returning students in accelerated high schools, designed for those who stopped attending and have earned only a few credits. These small, alternative schools are run by outside providers under contract with the School District.

Students in accelerated programs are finding more personalized learning environments and stronger student supports than are available in most large neighborhood high schools. The result is improved attendance and a safer and more positive school climate.

Steering students to these second-chance schools is the nation’s first Re-engagement Center, an entry point for young people who want to find a path to a diploma but need some guidance. In less than two years, 4,000 individuals have gone to the center to try to reconnect with an academic program. Word of mouth is strong, and demand is still outstripping the supply of open school slots.

The jury is still out, however, on whether these new schools are producing graduates in significant numbers and teaching the skills young people need to succeed after high school. We should know soon; current contracts with accelerated school providers include detailed accountability provisions that can provide meaningful evaluation data.

Along with this growing network of alternative schools, it’s hopeful that an infusion of state and federal funds this year has allowed Superintendent Ackerman to ratchet up key supports to help students stay on track: smaller class sizes in early grades, a sorely needed expansion in counseling services, and a restoration of art and music to many schools, to name a few.

The new alternative schools are not a cure-all for the dropout crisis. There is no escaping the need for early intervention with struggling students before they start failing and lose interest in school. Teaching literacy skills early is key. Many of the students who show up at the Re-engagement Center or alternative programs are reading at a 3rd or 4th grade level.

These interventions urgently need to be coupled with significant reorganization of the comprehensive high schools that continue to hemorrhage students. It’s not clear that the “turnaround” models proposed for high schools, such as Ackerman’s Promise Academy blueprint, address the extent to which the student experience at these schools must be reshaped.

With an array of alternative approaches, let us seize the opportunity to evaluate them closely and decide which ideas are worthy of wider adoption.