Philadelphia's system of accelerated high schools for students at risk of dropping out is boosting graduation rates, according to a new study.
But there are wide variations among programs at the schools, which are run by an array of outside contractors, and researchers suggest looking further into the differences in quality. And few of the schools are meeting District performance goals in areas like attendance and raising literacy levels.
The District created its first accelerated schools in 2004 to address its abysmal graduation rate and target students at risk of dropping out, including those who are over-age, behind on credits, regularly truant, or already dropouts. The schools are supposed to allow students to move rapidly toward graduation and provide extra support staff tailored to social service and career development needs.
"It's certainly encouraging that the accelerated schools are improving outcomes among students at very high risk to drop out," says Hanley Chiang, one of the study authors at Mathematica Policy Research. "But it is also the case that the graduation rates of these students, wherever they are, are still very low."
Comparing similar students in accelerated and traditional high schools, the study found that a group of accelerated school students had a five-year graduation rate of 28.9 percent compared to 21.7 percent of those at traditional schools. Accelerated students in a recent cohort earned an average of 4.4 credits a year, compared to just 3.2 for comparable students in traditional schools.
For the 2009-10 school year, seven different companies ran 14 accelerated schools in the city. Enrollment has increased rapidly each year, rising from fewer than 200 students in 2004 to more than 2,100 last year.
One such school, the Career and Academic Development Institute (CADI) in Center City, has allowed 20-year old Sandra Murray to work towards graduation among peers.
"I like it here," says Murray. "It's not like regular school. Everybody is older, and I'm focused on getting what I want. … You come in here, do what you gotta do, and get out."
Murray, whose father has been in prison for nine years, left Bok Technical High School when she was told she would have to repeat the 10th grade. She says that she used to arrive late to school, cut class, or not show up at all. Then she had a baby. Though teen pregnancy often pushes young women to drop out, Murray says the baby forced her to decide that she had to get her life back on track. She contacted the District's Re-engagement Center, which referred her to CADI, operated by OIC of America.
Camelot gets top rating
The study found that of all the providers, Camelot – which teaches more than 500 students at Excel Academy and Excel Academy South – had the greatest positive effect on student achievement. Schools operated by YouFirst/CEP performed poorest; they actually had lower graduation rates than the comparison group. In August 2010, the District terminated their contract with the firm.
When Mathematica excluded YouFirst/CEP from its analysis, accelerated schools' overall positive impact on graduation increased significantly.
The District downplayed the study's findings, however, even though it seemed to vindicate their program.
"This really supports what we already knew," says Majeedah Scott, director of multiple pathways to graduation at the School District. She pointed out that the study covers a period before a 2009 overhaul, which strengthened oversight, and says the District now does its own monitoring.
In fact, the most recent monitoring report from the District, which uses 16 performance metrics, places accelerated schools in a less favorable light.
For the 2009-10 school year, most schools are ranked as "unacceptable" or "mid-range" on attendance measures. On one measure of "grade level advancement," most schools are ranked unacceptable, a few mid-range, and Camelot is the only provider whose schools are ranked "exceptional."
"According to our contract," says Scott, "if folks are not meeting at least half [the measures] at an acceptable or mid-range [level], we can terminate on poor performance. Of course that wouldn't be our first course of action. What we would want to do is try to support that school and walk them through some kind of an improvement plan."
Most accelerated schools, including CADI, Ombudsman West, Fairhill, North Philadelphia Community High School, and PLC Southwest are rated "unacceptable" on most metrics. Many data points are listed as unavailable.
According to the District, the schools now undergo performance evaluations three times a year and regular site visits.
"Each school has a curriculum that it uses for students, and that curriculum has to hit certain standards," says Scott. "And we ensure that it does."
For further study
Qualitatively, the Mathematica study does not take a close-up look at what's actually happening in any particular accelerated school. And crucially, it does not examine whether accelerated and traditional schools have equivalent standards for course completion and graduation. It has yet to be confirmed that this is the case.
"The next stage that could be fruitful would be to have some site visits, case studies, qualitative analysis," says Chiang. "That these providers do appear to differ in their impact is a motivation to look more closely at the curricula and strategies of these providers."
The Accountability Review Council (ARC), an oversight board mandated by the state takeover law, called for similar measures after an April 2010 Mathematica study of both accelerated and disciplinary schools found low graduation rates. ARC urged "a thorough audit of the curriculum, instructional practices, and staffing and leadership quality of the private providers on a school-by-school basis."
Research for Action, a local evaluation group, is now examining literacy instruction at the accelerated schools, assessing the effectiveness of a two-year-old training program for their teachers.
But evaluating the providers and schools is going to be up to the District, which will be hard-pressed to keep funding accelerated schools at the current level – about $20 million a year out of the operating budget. There are no plans for further independent research.
"I don't anticipate another study looking more closely at the providers," says Scott.