Dominique Holloman appears to have dropped out – from school and from the rest of the world.
She doesn’t predictably live at any one address. At her mother’s house, the television is audible down the block, but no one answers the door.
Her brother’s cell phone number no longer works. Messages left for her with the family of her daughter’s father aren’t returned.
Reached once by phone, Dominique vaguely mentions a “job program” before hurrying off the line.
Among the 6,000 students who drop out in Philadelphia each year, the most difficult to keep connected endure tremendous instability, with family members who may actually discourage school attendance.
Audenried High was better positioned than most schools to hang on to Dominique. In fall 2008, it was newly reopened with just 9th graders, so classes and caseloads were small.
A new class called “freshman seminar” helped promote strong teacher-student relationships and reinforce study skills. Audenried also has a social worker from the ELECT Program, which helps pregnant and parenting teens access outside services and develop academic and attendance plans.
The school has had some success; ELECT’s Janis Durald says 10 young mothers are active in the program and staying in school.
But last year, as Dominique’s pregnancy advanced, the relationships she had formed at Audenried were not strong enough to counteract her family’s pull. Before Dominique knew it, she had a newborn baby and two months of schoolwork to catch up on.
She didn’t make it back last spring, attended summer school for just three days, and never showed up in September.
Is there a school that could have kept Dominique connected?
David Bromley is the director of Big Picture – Philadelphia, a nonprofit that supports the development of highly personalized schools with real-world internships. The more than 60 Big Picture schools across the country boast 96 percent graduation rates and are zealously championed as an effective alternative to traditional high schools.
“Our whole approach is about engaging kids, making them want to come to school and connect to adults,” says Bromley. The schools feature internships, informal classrooms, and independent learning.
In September, Big Picture helped open El Centro de Estudiantes, a District alternative school in Norris Square.
Principal Laura Davis says that El Centro works to pinpoint each student’s barriers to attendance, then makes a plan to overcome those barriers.
Like Dominique, she says, many enrollees “are over-age, undereducated, at-risk, truant. We have a lot of female students who got pregnant and were pushed out of school.”
One major difference, however, is that those students and their families have chosen to reconnect.
“If the culture of a family is such that education is not a priority, it’s very difficult,” she acknowledges.
Indeed, the adults in charge seem at a loss when it comes to working with children like Dominique.
Rocky roads, we can often help students navigate. Dead-end roads, we can occasionally help students escape.
But roads that consistently provide all children – even those from the most destabilized parts of the city – with safe passage into adulthood?
Those roads, we have yet to build.