The dropout rate in Philadelphia, though appalling, has diminished slowly and surely. Yet it is hard to cheer small gains when looking at the problem from the vantage point of Kensington, in the heart of the city's rust belt.
The stark facts: Nearly one of every three young adults in the area is neither in school nor working. Among those 16-24 who left school without a diploma, three-fourths are now disconnected from school and work.
The stories from this neighborhood remind us that the dropout problem is not simply a matter of failing schools. Some areas of the city are suffering acutely from the pervasive economic abandonment and neglect that affects our whole city.
This community became an industrial wasteland because of government policies that encouraged businesses to disinvest. Kensington had most of the economic life sucked out of it long ago as jobs and wealth headed to the suburbs, the nonunion South, or offshore.
It's been an uphill battle ever since for those left behind, who have struggled to keep the community together amidst the hollowed-out factories and vacant lots. Thousands of young people are dealing with the consequences of economic devastation: poverty, hunger, homelessness, joblessness and an underground economy, drugs and violence. None of this is conducive to academic success.
It's not easy to see a way to a bright future, especially with the economy still mired in recession. It hardly seems the time for further public disinvestment, but that is what is happening. State budget cuts have hit the city's schools hard. They have been even harder on the programs serving youth trying to find a way back to a diploma. Last spring, young people fought off plans to shut down accelerated programs for over-age students with few credits. Cuts did shutter a new Re-engagement Center on North Front Street, targeted at Latino youth, who have the city's lowest graduation numbers.
With more reductions coming, the months ahead will test the commitment to provide accessible and rigorous programs to re-engage students who have dropped out. These services must be an integral part of the "portfolio of great schools" officials seek to ensure.
Given the District's budget crisis, this is not the optimal time for reversing the long history of neglect in Kensington and elsewhere. These communities need jobs and affordable housing, better schools and comprehensive social services.
As leaders consider what they can and cannot afford, they need to immerse themselves in the communities most imperiled by the current crisis and strategize with their residents. Educators should reach out to parents and neighbors and find common ground in partnerships to protect and improve services. Parents must step into new advocacy and support roles to ensure their children get the education they need.
We all can find ways to support this Kensington community in making sure its voices are finally heard. Only an organized political force can turn the tide and halt the trend of disinvestment.