Engaging students in an age of austere budgets
4 neighborhood high school principals share their dropout prevention strategies.
By by Bill Hangley Jr.
Comprehensive neighborhood high schools across the nation struggle with dropout prevention, and Philadelphia’s are no different.
“What you see in that research is that these schools tend to have a higher concentration of really at-risk kids,” said Kate Shaw, executive director of Research for Action.
“In part because of that, the percentage of kids who graduate is much lower.”
And although principals at a handful of neighborhood high schools – Roxborough, George Washington, Germantown and Ben Franklin – said that helpful strategies aren’t hard to identify, most also acknowledged that implementing changes in an age of budget cuts, staff turnover, and districtwide strategic shifts is a constant challenge.
Comprehensive high schools are distinguished by their open doors. They must welcome all students – special education, homeless, pregnant and parenting teens, students asked to leave charters and magnet schools, and students with language barriers.
And while many of the city’s special admission schools boast four-year graduation rates of over 90 percent, their neighborhood counterparts often lose half of their students between freshman and senior years.
According to District data, the best four-year graduation rate in Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools can be found at George Washington High – 80 percent. Lamberton and Northeast High Schools come in close behind.
But the rates in the rest of the city’s neighborhood high schools are significantly lower. Until a few years ago, most were below 50 percent, and while their overall performance has improved, their on-time graduation rates still range from 44 to 62 percent.
The most obvious difference between the top three schools and the rest is poverty. At Washington and Northeast, less than two-thirds of the student body qualifies as low-income. In most of the city’s comprehensive high schools, that figure rises to 80 or 90 percent.
A 2006 Johns Hopkins study found a “near-perfect” correlation between high schools’ poverty levels and their dropout patterns. Although income is a well-established predictor for those at risk of dropping out, Shaw said there’s no definitive research showing why graduation rates vary among comprehensive high schools with comparable poverty rates.
“There’s no simple answer why one school does better than another – even if you hold student demographics constant,” Shaw said.
“We know that teachers are the most important part of the equation, but there’s also the leadership, safety, and amount of money the school is receiving. It’s a combination of who the students are and what their needs are, and the school’s capacity to meet the students’ needs.”
Principals cite the same factors, plus the need for appealing classes and activities, resources, and school culture, to prevent dropouts. Success, they said, requires a clearly and consistently structured school environment, stable relationships between staff and students, and classes and services that match student’s interests and needs. But implementation is often easier said than done.
At Roxborough High in northwest Philadelphia, where the four-year graduation rate is 62 percent, principal Stephen Brandt calls the dropout issue “an epidemic problem across the nation.”
Part of his strategy to fight it has been to maximize the number of available counselors.
“We have three counselors for the 480 kids. That was a building-level choice we made,” Brandt said.
Establishing that ratio – one counselor for every 160 students – required reducing his administrative staff to three: himself, an assistant principal, and a secretary.
“We’ve sacrificed,” Brandt said.
“We’ve empowered teacher leaders to pick up different roles … serving as instructional coaches, providing support to fellow teachers, leading professional development, handling discipline, attendance and truancy.”
Brandt also emphasizes a “college-going” culture in which every senior applies to college, a task that depends heavily on a college access center paid for by an outside partner, the Philadelphia Education Fund.
He tries to maximize his number of AP classes (currently at 10) and continually improve his special academic programs such as cinematography and web design.
“My ultimate goal would be to find a corporate partner and a collegiate partner for every program we have.”
He’s convinced that part of the solution is to attract ambitious students.
“We need to do a better job at branding our schools and programs, and marketing to our families and communities,” Brandt said.
He meets regularly with principals at local feeder schools and is boosting the number of events in order to bring in visitors and show them that it’s not “the wild, wild West.”
But Brandt worries about the sustainability of his initiatives and about his budget.
“To say that there’s not concerns moving forward, with more cuts potentially looming, would be dishonest.”
Using low-cost interventions
At George Washington High, principal Kathy Murphy says that keeping students engaged requires tight internal management and whatever low-cost interventions a school leader can muster.