New efforts to stem flow of dropouts from Philadelphia schools
While an accurate count is still not available, thousands each year are leaving school
by Paul Socolar
Young people in Philadelphia who have left school have most likely experienced one of the defining features of the city's massive dropout problem – the invisibility of out-of-school youth.
Dozens of former students interviewed for this edition of the Notebook said that nobody from their school pursued them when they stopped attending. Some said they got letters or automatic voicemails, but few had any personal contact with the school after leaving.
So not surprisingly, with this lack of follow-up, there is much uncertainty about how many students drop out annually. (The latest official count of some 5,000 Philadelphia dropouts in 2003-04 is widely assumed to be missing hundreds, if not thousands of students.)
“They didn't send me any letters. They didn't call me,” said Sadata (last name withheld), who left Gratz High School in 11th grade and was interviewed this summer at a GED program at Youth Empowerment Services in North Philadelphia. She concluded that her school did not even know she had stopped attending.
For some young people, the sense of invisibility starts early in high school when they conclude they can cut class and nobody seems to care.
“For two weeks, I didn't go to school, and when you're absent for ten days they just drop you off the roll,” said Carlisha, 16, who used to attend Washington High. “So I was like, 'Screw it, I ain't going back, I'm dropped off the roll.”
An overlooked issue
Laura Shubilla, who heads up the Philadelphia Youth Network and is now coordinating a local partnership on this issue, noticed the low profile of out-of-school youth from her own vantage point in youth service and advocacy work.
In meetings, Shubilla noted that until recently, “out-of-school youth were always kind of tacked on at the end of an agenda. It was much easier to talk about in-school youth because there was a framework and there was a system and there were places to go to get information.”
But slowly the issue started garnering more attention locally, and then this year a major grant from three national funders – the Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation – served as a catalyst, activating a broad citywide partnership of local organizations and officials to tackle the dropout issue collaboratively.
The funders emphasized a dual focus on reforming high schools while reconnecting out-of-school youth with education opportunities.
This recent grant from the “Youth Transition Funders Group” calls for the new Philadelphia collaborative to improve data collection and data sharing among agencies, develop policy papers, increase the quantity and quality of educational options, and build public awareness and grassroots activism. Groups that came to the table ranged from the School District to the University of Pennsylvania to the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project.
A profile of the city's out-of-school youth has begun to emerge from the data. It is a racially diverse population, but about 60 percent male. Most students who have withdrawn from the School District did not make it past ninth or 10th grade. Many repeated a grade. This profile could be broadened to include some 15,000 “part-time out-of-school youth” who are chronically truant.
But months into this effort to compile data, it is still difficult to get a handle on the size of the population of out-of-school youth or on what proportion of its students the School District loses every year. Some estimate a third of students don't make it through high schools, while others say losses are as high as one half.
This problem is by no means unique to Philadelphia. A 2004 study by Robert Balfanz and Nettie Letgers of Johns Hopkins University found that at as many as 1,000 high schools in the country, “graduating is at best a 50/50 proposition.”
The researchers found these schools by looking for high schools with poor “promoting power” – schools where so few students make it to senior year that they have fewer than half as many seniors as freshmen.
“The nation's dropout factories are overwhelmingly the province of minority students,” the researchers observed. They found that nearly half of the nation's African American students and 40 percent of its Latino students attend schools in which most students fail to graduate. Whites and Asian Americans are least likely to attend such schools.
Good news, bad news
In Philadelphia, the School District's graduation rate trends are clearly positive – the recently reported 2004 rate climbed to 69 percent, representing a gain of 10 points within three years. Over just a two-year period, the District has seen an 1,800-student increase in the size of its graduating class citywide.
Because most observers maintain that the dropout figures used to determine District graduation rates are understated, the rate probably presents too rosy a picture.
However, CEO Paul Vallas said he is optimistic that the rate will continue to improve due to Philadelphia students being better prepared entering high schools and due to the creation of more small schools in the system.
Flying in the face of this increasing graduation rate, a recent study points to an alarming rise in the number of “disconnected youth” in Philadelphia – defined as youth aged 16-24 who are neither in school nor employed. In 2004, there were 52,000 disconnected youth in Philadelphia, an increase of over 14,000 in just four years, according to Northeastern University researcher Paul Harrington.