Demetrius Newton is sitting up straight in a chair at the District’s Re-engagement Center. He’s making eye contact with Bill Simon, one of the center’s three caseworkers, and answering every question clearly and thoughtfully.
Newton is 20 years old, and for the last 18 months, “all day, every day” his friends and family have been bugging him to go back to school. So, now he’s making the effort.
“But it’s been a struggle,” he says, ticking off a list of obstacles that he thinks stand between him and a diploma.
He cites the age limit imposed by traditional public schools that makes him too old to enroll and the credit requirements of alternative schools, which Newton says for some out-of-school youth mean having to “find a school on your own and pay for it.”
Newton was dismissed from Shallcross, one of the District’s disciplinary schools, as a result of verbal confrontations with staff. A counselor there told him about the Re-engagement Center, located on the first floor of District headquarters.
In collaboration with city government and local nonprofits, the District opened the Re-engagement Center in May 2008, the first of its kind in the country. That year, according to state data, 6,000 students dropped out of Philadelphia’s public schools, and the center was hailed locally and nationally as a valuable tool in helping to get these youth reconnected to their education. It is a key component in Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to boost Philadelphia’s graduation rate from 60 percent to 80 percent by 2014.
Since its opening, about 4,000 former students have visited the center and nearly 2,800 have been placed in a variety of schools and programs, including accelerated schools, EOPs (Educational Options Programs), the Gateway to College program at Community College of Philadelphia, GED programs, literacy programs, online learning centers, Job Corps, charter schools, and comprehensive high schools. (see chart).
Like Newton, many of those who come to the center are over-age and under-credited, so it’s no surprise that as of November 2009, only 21 had earned diplomas, one for every 200 students who passed through the center’s doors during its first 18 months.
Newton had only 4.5 of the necessary 23.5 credits when coming to the center. He took the required assessment tests, and learned that his reading and math skills qualified him for an accelerated program at a school in the Northeast or one in Germantown.
Newton chooses a program at a charter school in Germantown because it’s close to home, so Simon calls the school to schedule an interview.
“I think you’re going to do well,” the caseworker tells Newton. “But it’s a zero-tolerance situation [so] you can’t be missing class or acting out.”
Newton has two weeks to wait to see if he is accepted. While he can expect calls from his caseworker over the next few months to check in on his progress, Simon points out that it will be up to him to stick with the program.
A slow climb
The city’s Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr says the center shows progress where there was none before.
“We’re moving the needle,” she says, adding that while there is no indication how many students are on track to earning their diplomas, she expects the center’s graduation numbers to jump significantly in the months to come.
“If we’re looking at 40 [graduates] this time next year, then I think we’ll need to go back [and re-work the program],” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the numbers.”
Meanwhile, the District is taking other steps to boost graduation rates. District officials say they’ve added 1,000 new slots in the popular accelerated high schools, cutting the wait list from 1,200 to about 500, and have opened a satellite center at 4224 North Front Street in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia, an area that has provided the original Re-engagement Center with over a third of its visitors.
The satellite center is open one day a week, but in May it will operate full time with two on-site caseworkers. District officials say they hope the newest location will boost the overall number of students served. Predominantly Latino neighborhoods nearby have some of the city’s highest dropout rates.
There are no plans to add caseworkers at the main center, but Shorr says the city is looking at ways to build networks of adult volunteers to coach youth through the re-engagement process.
Shorr says the center has now resolved most of the data-sharing and staffing issues that surfaced during its inaugural year.
Still, “I can’t imagine there’s not room for improvement,” she says.
An increasing number of students coming through the center can’t read well enough to earn a diploma. Center staff tell students that accelerated programs require at least a 4th grade reading level.