Nearing the end of his second term, Mayor Nutter can chalk up among his achievements a 13-point increase in the percentage of Philadelphia high school students getting a diploma. Raising the high school graduation rate to 80 percent by 2015 was one of his main goals when he took office in 2008.
But the mayor said in an interview that the 70 percent six-year graduation rate the District achieved last year leaves him “pleased, but nowhere near satisfied. There is still a lot more to do. We’re proud of that and we can celebrate for five minutes, but it’s not where we want to be.”
From day one, Nutter said, he made the city’s schools the priority of his administration, working “to have anybody and everybody consistently talking about education.”
“Education is the number one issue in Philadelphia because it involves greater problems, like poverty, crime, unemployment, underemployment, and debilitating despair about finding the way out of generational poverty,” he said. “Education is at the heart, soul, and foundation of building a great city.”
The education mantra is constantly reflected in the city’s day-to-day actions, said Lori Shorr, who has headed up the Mayor's Office of Education since Nutter created the position upon taking office.
“The gains have come because of paying attention to all the wonky stuff that lots of people wouldn’t care about,” Shorr said. “It’s everybody working in their own programs, making sure that kid gets across the finish line. … It’s about making sure that all our investments now have this as a priority.”
Perhaps the best example of that, Shorr said, was the creation of a data-sharing agreement between the School District, the city’s Department of Human Services, and the courts. This, plus the creation of an educational support center within DHS, led to more coordination of effort for the large proportion of city public schoolchildren who are involved with DHS or the juvenile justice system.
“I don’t think anyone else in the country has this arrangement,” Shorr said.
“That may only increase our [graduation] rates by a few percentage points, but an investment there really makes a difference” for the children involved.
DHS is also taking a new approach to truancy, Shorr said, working with neighborhood groups and nonprofits to intervene more quickly after students start missing school.
Project U-Turn, a coalition of educational, civic, academic, business, and government organizations committed to reducing the dropout rate, made a difference by raising public awareness and collecting and distributing education data, Shorr said. “Coming together, looking at outcomes, figuring out where we have gaps – where we are losing kids – that was very important.”
Still, large numbers of students continue to drop out.
Further change needed