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The Main Scoop

Rx for dropout epidemic: a coordinated, citywide approach

By by Paul Socolar

With thousands of Philadelphia students dropping out each year, government agencies need to work with the School District and community organizations to construct a “web of supports” for struggling students, several speakers testified to Pennsylvania's House Education Committee at a March 29 hearing.

Education Committee Co-chair James Roebuck, who represents West Philadelphia, said the legislative hearing was aimed at determining what kinds of interventions are effective with dropouts.

“There is no one intervention that is going to solve the problem,” maintained Laura Shubilla, director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Youth Network, which is spearheading a local collaborative to coordinate and strengthen efforts in the city on the problem of out-of-school youth.

Shubilla, like others who testified, called on legislators to support “a system of interventions” with out-of-school youth and struggling students. She said these youth require a variety of supports, including “early prevention, incentives, and multiple pathways” to pursue their education.

Other testimony from community advocates, policy experts, and School District CEO Paul Vallas seemed in agreement that while a complete, accurate count of dropouts is difficult, the scope of the problem is massive - and a multifaceted, community-wide response is required to address it. Terms such as “crisis” and “epidemic” were used by speaker after speaker to characterize the dropout situation and its impact on cities such as Philadelphia.

“Every day in my community, I see what 'out-of-school youth' looks like,” said parent activist Dolores Shaw, vice chair of the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project, an alliance of faith-based and community groups. “I see it when I pass numbers of youth on any particular corner - from the age of 12 on.”

“Clearly these young people need to be in school,” Shaw told the legislators.

“But they're left to their own devices,” Shaw added. She observed that as a result, youth who could be contributing to their communities often end up causing harm to the community.

The House committee held the hearing at Community College of Philadelphia in connection with a House bill introduced by Roebuck that would require schools to interview students who have stopped attending regularly to find out to find out why.

Shelly Yanoff, executive director of the child advocacy group Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth(PCCY), applauded the committee hearings for highlighting “an issue that has been so hidden and so invisible for so long.” A just-released PCCY report calls the problem of out-of-school youth an “invisible epidemic.”

Yanoff attributed the invisibility of out-of-school youth in part to lack of consistency and care in how school systems count dropouts and also noted that child welfare and juvenile justice agencies serve many struggling students but are not charged with monitoring their educational progress toward high school graduation.

Yanoff, Shaw, and Shubilla were part of a large panel of speakers from organizations belonging to the Youth Transitions Collaborative, a local alliance of education, advocacy, and community organizations partnering with the School District and city agencies to collect and analyze data and use it to stem the flow of dropouts in the city.

This collaborative in Philadelphia is part of a national foundation-funded effort in five cities to keep track of how many students leave school each year, to implement cross-system strategies to keep students in school, and to provide educational options for youth who have left school. The cities were selected both for their previous work on the issue of out-of-school youth and for their potential for broad-based partnerships.

By June, the collaborative in Philadelphia expects to release a report with extensive data analysis accurately detailing the scope of the dropout problem locally.

An official figure of how many students drop out annually is provided by the School District to the state. The count by the District in 2004-05 was 5,550 dropouts - up 4 percent from one year earlier.

But this count is widely believed to reflect only a fraction of the full spectrum of out-of-school youth in Philadelphia. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University have been examining student data from the School District and other government agencies to offer a more complete picture.

At least two significant categories of youth - each believed to number in the thousands in Philadelphia - are not captured in the dropout reports compiled by the state.

The count omits the many students who have left the School District but whose whereabouts cannot be determined. Nor does the state's dropout definition account for thousands of students who are still enrolled in the District but attend sporadically if at all.

“All the numbers out there underestimate the size of the problem,” District CEO Vallas noted in his testimony.

Vallas told the House committee the District would not be successful in tackling the issue “unless we deal with this transitory population of students who do not show up in the dropout statistics but are for all practical purposes academic dropouts - who simply drift away.”

Other speakers described the inability of the school system and other agencies to address the individual challenges of so many students who have fallen off track and yet still have aspirations of getting an education and succeeding in life.

Shubilla of the Philadelphia Youth Network spoke of the perspective she gained when her office phone number was inadvertently listed on a flyer distributed to hundreds of students who had been placed on a waiting list for an alternative high school program for youth with truancy problems.

She noted that she was flooded with calls from students who had a wide range of needs and in many cases has already “knocked on many doors”but weren't getting adequate help navigating the city to find the specific services they needed.

From talking with these youth, Shubilla said she concluded, “The strategies have to be as varied as the stories that the young people tell.”

“Some students had fallen off track and needed a short-term approach to going back to school,” Shubilla said. “Some had situations where they weren't attending school regularly - maybe they were teen parents, or maybe they were in the juvenile justice system. Some were older out-of-school youth who were pretty close to graduation and needed some kind of intervention for that last five or six credits. A large number were 17-year-olds who had dropped out at a ninth-grade level, and they were the young people we had the most difficulty finding options for.”

Policy recommendations put before the committee included providing more counseling, changing state attendance laws, and funding programs that would offer students multiple educational pathways.

The committee heard testimony about a 2005 Philadelphia Education Fund study finding that many of the students likely to drop out can be identified based on their school problems as early as sixth grade, suggesting that dropout prevention work in the middle grades is critical.

Parent Carmen Lebron of EPOP told the committee about the struggles she went through with her son between sixth and ninth grades before he finally dropped out of school, and the difficulty she had finding help.

“We need to have professionals to help kids with the alternatives to dropping out of school,” Lebron stated. “Until then, we cannot expect a real change. Sometimes all it takes is someone who cares.”

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Ted Kirsch recommended changing state laws on compulsory school attendance that now allow students to leave school as early as age 17 or even younger under certain circumstances.

Shaw of EPOP, whose son left high school without graduating, agreed that 17-year old shouldn't have an “opt-out.”

“Often, when you as a parent are trying to get a 17-year-old out of the house to go to school, the District does not offer you a lot of support. When a child reaches the age of 17, you as a parent are left holding the bag,” Shaw said.

Other recommendations for state policy changes backed by the Youth Transitions Collaborative included the following:

-That the state quickly implement a proposed student tracking system that assigns each student in Pennsylvania a unique number - “an education identifier” - which would help count dropouts because students could be more easily followed when they leave a school or a school system;

-That the state develop financial incentives for districts that successfully re-enroll students who have dropped out and for schools that retain their students throughout the school year;

-That the state provide additional financial support for alternative educational programs as well as develop new programs that support rapid credit accumulation, credit recovery, and accumulation of post-secondary credits;

-That the state Department of Public Welfare track and regularly report on the educational progress of children in the dependency and delinquency systems;

-That the state provide additional funding to support social workers and counselors in schools that serve large numbers of children in out-of-home placement and also in schools with low promotion rates.

For previous Notebook coverage of out-of-school youth, see the Fall 2005 edition.

Contact Notebook editor Paul Socolar at 215-951-0330 x107 or pauls@thenotebook.org.

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