One reason for the increase in graduation rates among students with juvenile justice involvement is the availability of more options to get these students back on a path to securing their diplomas.
About 10 years ago, initiatives regarding re-engagement of at-risk youth became a top priority for Philadelphia – and for good reason.
Ariesha Geier, director of case management at YouthBuild, said that advocates from all parts of the social justice, education, youth development, and juvenile justice sectors noticed a connection between the dropout crisis and many of the city’s other problems.
“We started looking at the numbers of students or young people who weren't being successful, and it was like, ‘what we are doing is not working,'” Geier said.
“Probation officers have always felt like if we can get young people involved in something, they do better. But having programs available, I think, was a challenge,” she said.
To remedy the problem, the School District of Philadelphia launched the Multiple Pathways to Graduation programs – which today fall within the responsibilities of the Opportunity Network office – and opened more alternative schools and accelerated programs for off-track and out-of-school youth.
In 2009, the District also opened two transitional schools: Philadelphia Learning Academy North (PLAN) and Philadelphia Learning Academy South (PLAS). Both are designed for students who are coming out of juvenile justice placements or who need more services and supports to keep them on track to graduation. Most students coming out of the juvenile justice system now go to one of these two schools when they first return to the Philadelphia School District.
For some, like Ford, who attended PLAN before transitioning to YouthBuild, going to a PLA eases the transition from the juvenile justice system to one of the District’s alternative programs because of the smaller class sizes, more personalized attention, and opportunity for students to focus on the future rather than reflecting on past missteps.
Judges will often require that students coming out of placement spend a minimum amount of time – typically about 60 days – at a PLA before transferring to an alternative school if the student wishes to go somewhere else after leaving the PLA. But many students stay at the PLA for the rest of their high school years and graduate from there.
The PLAs offer blended learning models, which combine structured classrooms and personalized learning strategies. The classes consist of 5 to 12 students, with a second teacher for any class that has more than 10 students. Students in these schools are able to make up missing credits by taking one class at a time on the school’s computer-based A+ credit recovery program. The A+ credit recovery classes are tailored to individual students’ needs, and there are teachers on standby in case a student needs help. The schools also have more comprehensive counseling services available to students.
Nalik Lark-Hightower, 18, bounced around to various high schools and spent 20 months in two juvenile placement facilities before enrolling at PLAS about four months ago.
When she got to PLAS, she worked with principal Darryl Blackwell and program manager Ngoc Nguyen to figure out what holes existed in her transcript and how she could make up the 5.5 credits she needed to graduate. Lark-Hightower said the school’s personalized attention was something that helped motivate her to stay at PLAS and focus on graduating.
“They figured out a way to do it so that if I can stay focused and really work hard, I could graduate this June,” she said.
According to many students, the environments at the PLAs give them more guidance and support than a traditional school. Lark-Hightower said that this is why more kids are staying “out of trouble.”
“There is always someone around to help you out if you want it,” she said.
Reworking the system