A taskforce agenda awaits District action

Black and Latino males suffer alarming dropout rates. A panel's proposal released last fall seeks to put them back on track. Follow-up has been slow.

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

If Daniel Shaw could change only one thing to help African American and Latino male students stay on track to graduate, it would be the District’s zero- tolerance policy.

Data show that Black and Latino male students are suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates and are more likely than their White counterparts to be transferred to a disciplinary school.

Shaw, now a 22-year-old senior at Excel Academy Central, was expelled from Franklin Learning Center seven years ago for bringing a pocketknife to school. He said a friend gave him the blade, and he mistakenly grouped it with his things and brought it to school, setting off the metal detector. But District policy says weapons possession on school property is grounds for expulsion, so although Shaw was an honor roll student with an unblemished behavior record, he was given a disciplinary transfer to CEP.

"It was one of the major turning points in my life," said Shaw, who also struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder following an assault by 15 youths before going to CEP.

"For someone who never had any disciplinary problems, it was like throwing a sheep in the lion’s den," he said. "Eventually I just couldn’t take it there, so I dropped out."

Shaw spent the next four years in a chaotic and ephemeral trip through a variety of alternative programs as he also struggled – through therapy and medication – to overcome his fears of being attacked. Last school year, finally more confident, Shaw went through the District’s Re-engagement Center and enrolled at Excel. He expects to graduate in June.

But about half of all Black and Latino males in the District never earn a diploma.

This crisis is what guided the work of the African American and Latino Male Dropout Taskforce, a panel including two School Reform Commission members who last September presented the whole SRC a lengthy set of recommendations to help turn the tide.

Those recommendations are still awaiting action.

Cultural insensitivity

Among the panel’s conclusions from 10 months of work are that many Black and Latino boys drop out because there is insensitivity to their cultural differences, teachers focus on their behavior rather than their academic achievement or potential, and the curriculum is not rooted in real-world situations they can relate to. Students also pointed to a zero-tolerance policy that merely casts them out rather than helping them learn from mistakes.

It’s unclear how the District will prioritize the laundry list of suggestions, and if anything at all will get done in light of a $500 million budget shortfall.

But taskforce and SRC member Johnny Irizarry said action is imperative.

"We don’t want this report to just sit on a shelf and collect dust," Irizarry said.

Getting started

While several recommendations align with Imagine 2014 initiatives, the report outlines some that have yet to be addressed and others that require greater emphasis.

Some suggestions include: more evening school; cultural competency training for teachers and staff; more work-based learning opportunities so students can earn money while getting their diploma; more in-school mentors; and less punitive approaches to discipline.

The District has formed an Implementation Oversight Committee (IOC) to advise its staff on fleshing out these recommendations. The first meeting is scheduled for early April.

"We expect the IOC to evaluate the recommendations and discuss the extent to which the recommendations are possible, but to also prioritize and determine how to measure success," said Nicky Charles, SRC deputy chief of staff.

Charles says the IOC will use a subcommittee structure and meet quarterly.

Irizarry, an IOC member, thinks the District’s Promise Academies are a good place to push some of the work forward.

"You have very motivated principals and communities that care and are being impacted, and that’s a perfect place to go and say, ‘What in particular from these recommendations have you already been doing and can we enhance that, and what kinds of supports would you need in order to actually implement this?’" he said.

Principal Margaret Mullen of Germantown High School, due to become a Promise Academy, believes mentorship should be the first order of business.

"Our students need to have conversations with people that they know they can depend on, and who can help them through their lives," Mullen said. "If we do not build relationships with our children, nothing is going to work."

Charles said the District already has some "models that we should expand on," that address the recommendations, including programs that help students build those kinds of connections.

The Sankofa Passages Program, a rites-of-passage mentoring initiative that targets at-risk boys, is just one. Launched this year, it is offered at Germantown, Sayre, FitzSimons, Strawberry Mansion, Audenried, and Edison.

"I believe we can do all this oversight, city policy-making, and writing guidelines," Irizarry said.

"But if schools don’t internalize the recommendations and interpret them locally, city wide, and within the community, you can’t make the difference."