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Building on dreams of college

Poor preparation still thwarts the city's efforts to help more students earn degrees.
  • 1 cover shot sayre 1
    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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In many ways, Philadelphia would seem to be the ideal place for students who want to go to college.

The city does not lack for programs and organizations dedicated toward helping young people reach this goal. Its mayor, Michael Nutter, has put renewed focus on the issue, setting goals to halve the high school dropout rate and double the percentage of adults who attain four-year college degrees. The region has one of the highest concentrations of colleges and universities in the nation.

And yet, statistically, the chances of Philadelphia public school students graduating from college are slim. A recent study showed that of those who entered 9th grade in 1999, only 10 percent had attained a degree 10 years later. Just 39 percent of public school graduates enroll in college the following fall; for those educated in neighborhood high schools, the figure is 29 percent.

At Community College of Philadelphia, the main destination for the city's public school graduates, most start with remedial courses. For students there and at four-year colleges, graduation rates are disappointing – in some cases shockingly low.

Why are the numbers so bleak? The Notebook found myriad causes and a few reasons to hope.

Despite rising test scores and a slight increase in high school graduation rates, most students leave Philadelphia public schools academically unprepared for higher education, even if they earn a diploma. In spite of promises and effort, creating a system that delivers rigorous, relevant instruction to all its students has eluded a succession of superintendents. On the positive side, more schools focus on college as a goal and on building supportive relationships to help students overcome the hurdles.

Nationally, there are some interesting new models. George Weiss, who drew Philadelphia's attention when he offered free college to 112 Belmont Elementary 6th graders in 1987, has expanded his Say Yes to Education program and now works with the entire city of Syracuse, N.Y.

Of Weiss's Belmont 112, 18 ultimately got four-year college degrees. Some people thought Weiss had wasted his money. But based on what we now know about citywide college completion rates, it turns out to have been an impressive achievement.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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