Over the past 20 years, I've worked with hundreds of Philadelphia high school dropouts. I've learned that virtually all of them have the potential to complete their education and gain the skills they need for employment.
But reducing the dropout rate is not only the morally right thing to do. It is essential to improving the economy and reducing crime.
According to 2004 data, 72 percent of U.S. Black male high school dropouts in their 20s were jobless; by their mid-30s, 60 percent had spent time in prison. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that for each additional youth who graduates from high school, there is a positive benefit of $209,000 in higher government revenues and lower spending.
I suggest the following steps:
Spend more on programs for disconnected youth.
The District spent about $11,000 per pupil in 2006. If we funded re-engagement programs at this level for just half of the city's 8,000 yearly dropouts and a quarter of the 50,000 local youth already out of school, we'd need $182 million per year. But the investment would be worth it if the programs were effective. Youth Empowerment Services has developed a model that includes counselors who work with each youth and their family, self-paced education, and courses that engage creativity, career interests, and the need for self-expression. Students learn mural arts as well as video, audio, and web production, all while gaining important workplace competencies. As they find satisfaction in their work, attendance and participation improve. More programs like this are needed, as well as models that focus more exclusively on academics, connect to other career interests, or directly lead to college.
Look at the factors that predict dropping out and respond to each student who has any predictors.
We can forecast with near-certainty which students will drop out: eighth graders who failed math or English or attended less than 80 percent of the time, and ninth graders who attended less than 70 percent of the time, earned fewer than two credits, and/or were not promoted to Grade 10. If we listen to youth who dropped out, we hear stories of frustration - not receiving credits they believe they earned, not getting the courses they need to graduate, not being allowed to return after a lengthy absence. We need enough counselors to provide an individualized plan to every student who falls into these "at-risk" groups.
Develop a variety of models to deal with academic failure.
There are small alternative schools all over the country that have high success rates with most of their students. These schools are characterized by high expectations, more one-on-one instruction, and classes that engage student interests and include hands-on experience. In these schools, disciplinary problems are minimal. We should sponsor alternative school models that can inform changes in every classroom. This would need to include expansion of rapid-credit attainment slots as well as "magnet" schools and small high schools.
Expand the number of job opportunities for youth in Philadelphia.
We need to mobilize government, business, and other stakeholders to develop a vision for economic development that includes many good entry-level jobs. At the same time, we need to develop the pipeline so that Philadelphia youth are qualified for these jobs. If we developed program slots for only half the youth at risk of dropping out plus one quarter of the youth who have already dropped out we'd need 16,500 slots. According to the United Way, we currently have fewer than 6,000 slots, most of these summer jobs.
Mayor Nutter has generated "public will" around this important issue. It is now up to all of us to make the dropout crisis a real priority.