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Spring 2009 Vol. 16. No. 3 Focus on Keeping Students on Track

Theme articles

High schools: What's our best bet

By by Paul Socolar on Mar 4, 2009 10:44 PM

What's the most promising and important strategic focus for the District to go about turning its high schools into producers of graduates rather than producers of dropouts?


To reduce the dropout rate, the School District needs to focus on caring about its students. Dropouts come from neighborhood schools, which are the most underfunded and most lacking schools. I graduated from West Philadelphia High and it has over 1,000 students. There was a lack of resources, challenging classes, counselors, qualified and experienced teachers who actually care, to name a few things. Students need teachers who care about them because they might not have anyone else. Students also need the tools to be able to graduate, go to college, and graduate from there. Worksheets and boring lectures won't help. Students need classes to be interactive and hands on. And probably most of all, the District needs to LISTEN! Students have been saying what they need in many different ways and if the District doesn't listen to them, the problem will grow until it's too late to turn back.

Lawrence Jones-Mahoney
2008 graduate, West Philadelphia Automotive Academy
Board member, Philadelphia Student Union

The key to solving the dropout crisis is figuring out what to do with our neighborhood high schools.  They need to be fundamentally redesigned to promote excellence and equity.  Here are some suggested principles for H.S. transformation:
1.       Shared Vision.  Engage students, parents, staff, and community members in creating and implementing a shared vision for improving teaching and learning in their school. 
2.      Personalization. Students are more likely to succeed when staff knows every student.  For this reason, large schools should be broken into clusters of smaller learning units on a shared campus.
3.      Flexibility, Accountability, and Equity.  We must unleash the talent in our schools.  Give staff the flexibility to craft scheduling, staffing, budget, and to adjust curriculum to meet students’ needs.  Central administration should provide strong support and accountability.
With these principles the District CAN build the capacity to fundamentally transform neighborhood high schools while serving the same population of students without special admission requirements.

Carol Fixman
Executive director, Philadelphia Education Fund

Communities In Schools of Philadelphia has spent 25 years addressing the Philadelphia dropout epidemic, and it is apparent that the students who succeed and stay in school are those who have choices. Improved strategies must provide exposure to best practices and new alternatives in education, which in turn impact the way students see themselves, their current situations and their futures.  
We are no longer dealing with cookie-cutter situations or cookie-cutter students. The right strategy should entail a plethora of alternatives for students, so that each child is serviced and educated to meet their needs. Then we will see a positive shift to the currently bleak dropout situation.

Martin Nock
President, Communities in Schools of Philadelphia

Choice in education inside the public school system and in the community. Parents must have the option of finding the best school or combination of schools for their children. We have to recognize that what is best for one child at any grade level isn’t necessarily the best for another child. Beyond that, we have to commit the resources to our schools, and not just for students, but for teachers, too. We can’t expect educators to produce graduates when we fail to give them the support they need in terms of mentoring, training, instructional materials, additional classroom help, and safety.

Dwight Evans
State Representative (PA-203)

The District should duplicate best practices at high performing public schools to decrease the dropout rate. These schools have a strong parent engagement component and consistent, experienced staff in administrative positions, in support roles, and in core subjects. They offer a variety of class options that meet student needs. Administrators understand that teachers, students, parents, and community stakeholders must work together to create academically enriching environments. We must raise the level of expectations and reinforce to parents, staff, and administrators that our children can and will be successful, life-long learners.

My son was struggling academically in the 9th grade. His Individualized Education Plan wasn't being followed and he was exhibiting behavioral problems as a result. By 10th grade, and his second high school placement, he had become so frustrated in his special education classes that he dropped out. His job prospects for the next 10 years were dismal. Only when he was offered a job opportunity last year that required him to obtain his GED did he finally feel he had a future.

Aissia Richardson
President, African American United Fund and parent of a 6th grader at GAMP.

One of the biggest problems that we have seen while working in Germantown High School, a Corrective Action II, Third Tier school (failing school) for the past five years is the lack of continuity and follow-through. We have gone through six principals, three regional superintendents, two District superintendents, three CAO's, three CFO's, a change in the chair of the SRC and numerous teacher turnovers in the four years it takes for a student to matriculate through high school. Each change brings new "best practices" and adjustments that affect school life.
We need to start providing consistency and follow-through. Secondly, we need to start sharing money evenly within the District so that the failing schools don't fall even further behind the magnet schools who get the lion's share of resources and the best staff.

Reverend LeRoi Simmons
Germantown Clergy Initiative

Ten ways to turn around the dropout situation in Philadelphia: (Note: We must also address the educational and emplpoyment needs of the thousands of young people (now young adults) who have already left...)
#10 Do not leave it to the "free marketplace" of charters, private managers, and non-profitintermediaries, the District needs to have real strategies around teaching and learning;
#9 Develop real policies such as schools keeping in touch with parents and young people who are chronically absent;
#8 Smaller high schools and more personalization;
#7 Smaller classes and more personalization;
#6 Real political will with real funding;
#5 The District and the PFT need to take this on together with the community;
#4 Create a real guidance system, a counselor for every 30 young people and not 300 young people;
#3 Schools should not get their funding decided only in October before young people dropout, the money should follow the student creating a real incentive for schools to stop young people from leaving;
#2 Make high schools more interesting and relevant;
# 1 Let's listen to the young people, many are boycotters and not dropouts, and find out what they think will keep them from leaving and improve their schools.

Steve Honeyman,
Parent, consultant with In the Public Interest

The most promising strategic focus is individualized instruction that is adequately resourced and properly implemented at every turn, with an eye on the post-graduate world for all students. The system needs to more closely match the needs of its students with a menu of approaches that can deliver each student to the same outcome – a youth ready and prepared for the next challenge.

The current strategic plan hints at openings to that – talent centers, career academies, expansion of Career and Technical Education, attention to transition services for students moving from the 8th to the 9th grade, a comprehensive guidance program, individual graduation plans, and work-based opportunities to allow students to feel the relevance of their school experience. Also, high school students are more likely to thrive when they’re active in activities in their school. We know that small schools work better for at-risk students in urban environments, though the current plan did not mention that model specifically. For any worthwhile strategy to be realized, it does need the adequate resources and proper implementation referenced above.

Sheila Simmons
Education Director, Public Citizens for Children and Youth

There is no magic bullet!

Comprehensive high schools must combine traditional college preparatory academics with career and technical education programs that are aligned with college and workforce expectations. Content specialists or department heads must be restored to support teachers. Every school needs a library staffed by a certified librarian and sufficient counselors to assist and guide students. High schools need clubs for choir, drama, band, orchestra, and a school newspaper. These are the activities that interest students and bring them to school.

Students who are at risk of dropping out can be identified as early as the sixth grade. These are the students who have not mastered the requisite reading comprehension skills and need intensive interventions. Without such interventions, students will flounder and more than half of them will not complete high school.

Safety and order in high schools is paramount. Violent student behavior is disturbing to students and employees alike. Schools need clear codes of conduct, fair and consistent consequences for misbehavior, and streamlined disciplinary procedures.

Jerry Jordan
President, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Addressing Philadelphia’s dropout problem takes a community focus – students, parents, teachers, and business and civic leaders united in a commitment to educate every child to high standards. Our academic targets must go hand-in-hand with creating an environment of social and emotional support in every school and classroom. Students need to be guided to success through a combination of clear goals, high expectations, unconditional support, and a sense of connectedness with their school and community. This kind of community collaboration is happening in Philadelphia more than ever before. Organizations are working together to create solutions as part of the Project U-Turn initiative. Mayor Nutter has set ambitious goals for reducing dropout rates, and Dr. Ackerman has put forward a strategic plan that will not only strengthen high schools, but also ensure young people who are off-track to graduation get the supports they need early.

Gerald L. Zahorchak
PA Education Secretary

About the Author

Contact Notebook Editor Paul Socolar.

Comments (2)

Submitted by David T. Shulick, Esquire (not verified) on April 4, 2009 4:34 pm

As the President of DVHS, a 39 year old alternative school in N.E. Philadelphia and Lower Bucks County (, which touts a 93% graduation rate with 100% of our student population being former "drop-outs" or "disruptive" in their public school, I am compelled to post a comment.

It takes much more than vague concepts which offer no accountability. Teachers, Administrators, and ultimately students, must attend a single school community where there are small classes, no restrictions on hiring and firing of staff as needed (putting student success ahead of teacher and administrator desires), rules are rigorously and uniformly enforced, and student management software is available for staff that enables a school's Administrators to track academic progress AND social and behavioral needs of each and every student. More often than not, these adolescents do not understand the value of education, and their home life lacks the support and guidance they need. These realities are wide-spread and schools that service "at risk" youth MUST make students feel valued, respected, cared about, and their academic efforts supported. In fact, by tracking social and emotional needs and issues, and providing effective counseling for students and their families, a school can help keep these students attending, feeling valued, and ultimately move them forward to college or a viable technical career.

Finally, merit pay is essential!! Each and every hard working administrator and teacher needs to be recognized for their efforts. Human nature being human nature, unless people are rewarded financially for their hard work, tough days, and their "extra" efforts for each and every student, in an objective yet variable manner, eventually, little by little, they will stop putting out that "extra effort". While I applaud many educators who are truly in education to help - eventually - the realities of our world set in - and people need to pay their bills. Being rewarded financially for taking that extra effort creates a competitive culture among staff to help these students, and fosters that caring, respectful environment that they so desperately need.

Unless this comprehensive approach is taken, the problem will never be solved.

Submitted by f (not verified) on April 4, 2009 5:07 pm

Lets take a brief moment to examine the irony of a commonly used statement of the school reform rhetoric. ‘Its all about the children” or some variation of this phrase such as,

“Putting student success ahead of teacher and administrator desires”

Of course our mission as educators is to help children to succeed in this world. Our goal is to help every child to develop proficiency in the literacy skills that will help she or he to become productive and successful members of our society. To this end most all-educational professionals do help students by fostering the caring and respectful environments that a child so desperately needs. This is where the irony comes into play. Everyone craves a caring and respectful environment in which to live and learn. Children crave this and so do adults. How do we expect adults who are treated with out regard to their own needs for respect and dignity to cheerfully and selflessly create such an environment for their students?

A healthy school community tends to the needs of all of it members. Teachers are not merely parts that can be replaced when someone determines that the school machine is broken. When thinking of a school as a community of people the points that Carol Fixman makes are more than vague concepts. They are principles that can guide the people of a school community as they strive to create and maintain a successful school.

In regards to paying the bills, how about we pay a decent salary to all of the members of the school staff from the start. When a child’s success in school depends on teachers building on the success of other teachers isn’t it better to create a cooperative and collaborative culture as opposed to an environment where teachers compete against each other?

I agree with Mr. Shulick statement in his post that we,

“MUST make students feel valued, respected, cared about, and their academic efforts supported."

I also believe that we must do the same for Teachers, principals and parents?

A school that shows that it doesn’t care for any member of its community is a school that doesn’t care.

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