The sheer numbers are staggering. Between September and December, 3,788 Philadelphia students left high school.
Dropping out is not just happening at a handful of dysfunctional schools. Two dozen Philadelphia high schools had dropout rates of 40 percent or more from the class of 2006 (see page two of this PDF for a charter of dropout rates).
Much has been written about the associated costs of lost future earnings, government services, and prisons. Numbers alone don’t capture the human toll of lives put at risk from the failure of our city and its school system to support thousands of students in earning the basic credential of a high school diploma.
One glimmer of hope is an upward trend in graduation rates over the last three years, and a recent increase of 10 points in the four-year graduation rate. While it’s premature to celebrate, it is good news that finally more than 60 percent of an entering ninth-grade class has graduated within six years.
We don’t know yet what accounts for the increase or how real the trend is. Some see hope that better preparation in the K-8 grades and the attention brought by the Project U-Turn collaborative and the mayor can bring continued progress.
Yet it’s clear that the persistent epidemic is intertwined with Philadelphia’s sharply stratified high school system. The type of high school students attend has a huge impact on their odds of graduating. Dropping out is uncommon at the city’s special admission schools, but it’s a 50-50 proposition at the typical neighborhood high school.
More than two-thirds of all students attend the neighborhood high schools. Most of those students want out. A Research for Action study found that more than 70 percent apply for admission to a different high school, but half are rejected from all choices. The city’s neediest students end up in large numbers at the schools least equipped to deal with them.
Neighborhood high schools have a long history of failed reform efforts. As a result, it has become habit to try to work around them.
But they remain the elephant in the room. And while Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has brought renewed attention to the inequities among city high schools, her draft strategic plan lacks focus and firepower regarding the neighborhood schools.
Repeated efforts to create personalized learning environments without downsizing have fallen short, so the plan should continue to explore conversions into smaller schools, while rethinking the high school admission process. It should spell out who will lead high school reform efforts and embrace the participation of the community. Students and neighbors at West Philly High School are still waiting for the District to get behind their plan to overhaul that school.
A reinvention of the neighborhood high schools should become the linchpin of the District’s and city’s plans to cut the dropout rate in half by 2014.