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Summer 2011 Vol. 18. No. 6 Focus on Going to College

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Building on dreams of college

Poor preparation still thwarts the city's efforts to help more students earn degrees.

By by Dale Mezzacappa on May 25, 2011 04:11 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Sayre High School Principal Kahlila Ames talks with college-bound seniors. Sayre’s four-year graduation rate is only 54 percent, but Ames says, “If you show them what they need to do, as opposed to just giving them a grade or credit, they will rise to the occasion.”

In many ways, Philadelphia would seem to be the ideal place for students who want to go to college.

The city does not lack for programs and organizations dedicated toward helping young people reach this goal. Its mayor, Michael Nutter, has put renewed focus on the issue, setting goals to halve the high school dropout rate and double the percentage of adults who attain four-year college degrees. The region has one of the highest concentrations of colleges and universities in the nation.

And yet, statistically, the chances of Philadelphia public school students graduating from college are slim. A recent study showed that of those who entered 9th grade in 1999, only 10 percent had attained a degree 10 years later. Just 39 percent of public school graduates enroll in college the following fall; for those educated in neighborhood high schools, the figure is 29 percent.

At Community College of Philadelphia, the main destination for the city's public school graduates, most start with remedial courses. For students there and at four-year colleges, graduation rates are disappointing – in some cases shockingly low.

Why are the numbers so bleak? The Notebook found myriad causes and a few reasons to hope.

Despite rising test scores and a slight increase in high school graduation rates, most students leave Philadelphia public schools academically unprepared for higher education, even if they earn a diploma. In spite of promises and effort, creating a system that delivers rigorous, relevant instruction to all its students has eluded a succession of superintendents. On the positive side, more schools focus on college as a goal and on building supportive relationships to help students overcome the hurdles.

Nationally, there are some interesting new models. George Weiss, who drew Philadelphia's attention when he offered free college to 112 Belmont Elementary 6th graders in 1987, has expanded his Say Yes to Education program and now works with the entire city of Syracuse, N.Y.

Of Weiss's Belmont 112, 18 ultimately got four-year college degrees. Some people thought Weiss had wasted his money. But based on what we now know about citywide college completion rates, it turns out to have been an impressive achievement.

Comments (32)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2011 7:24 pm

What percent of the Belmont 112 graduated high school?

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on May 26, 2011 10:14 am

The article states 18 of 112 ultimately got college degrees. Not a very high percentage.

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on May 27, 2011 9:14 pm

True, but based on the longtitudinal study of 1999 Philadelphia public school freshmen we know now that only 10 percent of them had gotten a college degree of any kind 10 years later. That figure includes the students who attended magnet and other special admit schools. All the Belmont 112 were from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city and only one or two attended a magnet HS. Still, just over 16 percent got four-year degrees and quite a few others got two-year degrees. That is a much better record. As my longer story inside the edition notes, Weiss used that information to evolve and improve his program over the years, reaching down to younger and younger students and eventually partnering with an entire city.


Submitted by School District Counselor (not verified) on May 25, 2011 9:09 pm

As a relatively new (5 years) Comprehensive High School Counelor, one thing I've learned is that the difference between a student's financial aid award and the cost of attendance can be a real obstacle to college attendance. In my experience, my best students who had an Estimated Family Contribution of 0 had a funding gap of between $5,000 and & $10,000. Without scholarship aid, which requires quite an effort, the possiblilty of college is remote. I see families who really can't afford loans taking out PLUS loans so that their children can go to college. In my mind I think there had to be a better way. It's great to say we want a college going culture, but, at the end of the day, it's still about how much money you have.

If a family comes up with a 0 EFC we need to take that seriously and help that student come up with alternative funding. I hate to sound too liberal, but if we just raised the tax rate 1% on the richest Americans (whose children don't think at all about college cost) we could probably fund the gap that keeps smart poor students from college.

Submitted by Sister Brujo (not verified) on May 26, 2011 9:14 am

I can't believe that we are still trying to establish a link between rising test scores and college success. Rising test scores requires teaching to the test, particularly in 11th grade, arguably the most pivotal year in terms of college prep. Teaching to the test requires limiting imagination, exploration and discovery. It means reading for one right answer and focusing an entire curriculum around "eligible content." It means standardized approaches to lesson planning, the implementation of routines that may or not make sense, scaring administrators and teachers to death, treating children as if their brains are somehow quantifiable. This makes about as much sense as pretending that evolution and intelligent design are equally valid theories.

Then there is cheating.

It is also disingenuous to assert that there has been effort by superintendents to create rigorous "curricula." As an English teacher, let me assure you that the textbooks are joke, the organization is fundamentally illogical and most students can't stand the entire process. Students want to read culturally relevant, challenging texts. They want to feels as though they are special, not reading the same play at the same time as every other 11th grader in a PSD school. Research by Alfred Tatum and others has shown this.

One of the great tragedies of this year is that there has been virtually no discussion on the value of appropriate curricula and teaching methodologies. We have fought over budgets, we have fought over which entity will control which testing factory, we have watched Robert Archie, Arlene Ackerman, Dwight Evans and John Porter fight over a school in a manner that nearly amounts to child abuse. We have watched a mayor, until recently, sit idly by. We have watched the powers at 440 manipulate data, deliver our schools to business people. We have watched so-called leaders in the African-American community offer blind loyalty to a corrupt regime while they wage the most viscious form of class warfare among themselves.

What we have NOT done is talk about learning. We have not talked about how children learn, what matters to them, how can we actually create assessments that allow them to demonstrate what they have learned. We have not talked about valuing their minds.

Educational activists need to understand that what happens in the classroom is just as as important as what happens around it.

Submitted by Rich (not verified) on May 26, 2011 9:47 am

Absolutely correct! The issues in our schools are far deeper than than just the governance issues of who has power and control. You have highlighted one of the major issues in our schools -- the test taking curriculum and pedagogy that is imposed upon you and is counterproductive to what we know are the "best practices" in instruction.

We do need to have an open and public conversation about the issues of pedagogy in our district. Teachers like you have repeatedly voiced their opinions about the points you raise and the issues of what truly are the "best practices" in instruction and assessment.

I submit that what is being imposed upon you is not in the best interests of the children.

Submitted by Philadelphia citizen, former PSD parent (not verified) on May 26, 2011 9:29 am

Bravo, Sister Brujo. Thanks for refocusing our attention on what matters.

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on May 26, 2011 10:42 am

Thank you! When I prepare lessons that do not have to follow the insane "7 step-drill-the-skill-lesson," I remind myself about the classroom lessons I remember from K-12. They were times when we worked collaboratively on projects, debated topics, presented, etc. Of course, the most memorable are extra curricular activities. Under the Ackerman/Wayman regime, we are threatened into deadly compliance that is neither connected to nor affirming of our students or learning. We have to "creatively comply" by finding moments when students get to be engaged and acknowledged as learners - not as mere receivers of test prep skills.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on May 26, 2011 10:58 am

You are absolutely correct. I think that teachers do still think and discuss these issues, but we are beaten down with correctives (that everyone hates) and other meaningless test prep. These sorts of things harm student engagement, and the powers-that-be know that. I am beginning to think it is past time for us to take back our classrooms and do what we know works! We need to get students reading and discussing relevant texts--this can be done with all levels of readers--we do not need to kill our struggling readers with boredom in order to help them reader better!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 29, 2011 11:22 am

Excellent points!

Submitted by Gina (not verified) on July 2, 2011 7:03 pm

Wouldn't that mean that we would then need to revise the SAT and ACT required testing relative to college acceptance?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 26, 2011 9:17 am

At CCP we have found reading comprehension decreasing, NOT increasing, since all the test-prep in the schools. Our many "developmental" students cannot make connections or pose questions as they read because they do not know that "reading" is making meaning from text. The procedures they have learned are to look at the questions or exercises that follow the reading, and then scan the text to find the right answers. So the emphasis in community colleges is on "critical thinking," which needs to be the focus from 3rd grade on if students are to become truly proficient active learners.

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on May 26, 2011 10:50 am

I hope the powers that be see this post. We are doing a disservice to our students and families with Ackerman's skill/drill approach to curriculum.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 26, 2011 11:05 am

We know--but the students don't--the great disservice they have been done. They come to us angry at the need to take remedial classes and not believing us when we tell them that a certain level of reading and writing ability must now be achieved if they are to move on. One has to wonder: why should they believe otherwise when, from their perspective, they could make up in a summer month what they didn't do all year? The majority of the developmental students at CCP do not stay to graduate or transfer to a university. They give up, often angry at the remediation being required of them. The tragedy is that many are intelligent and capable of much more than they have learned to do. Now the colleges are being criticized for lack of rigor and for students' lack of progress in critical thinking and writing. Like most teachers in the schools, we do the best we can with the students we have in our rooms. If only there were a way to "fix" the situation.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on May 26, 2011 3:13 pm

We can fix this situation. We can TEACH. we need to teach comprehension skills, not how to complete a graphic organizer. We can model, explain and provide guided practice with al.l the higher order thinking skills that are activated when someone is reading. We can teach without test prep, which is limiting the thinking our students are required to do.
We can teach - we know how - we know what - based on research, data and experience. We know - Ms. Ackerman needs to be silenced.

Submitted by Rich (not verified) on May 26, 2011 10:57 am

Wow what terrible pedagogy. That isn't even a good test taking strategy. You too are Absolutely Correct and that is what is a crying shame about what is happening in the district. Please keep the courage to speak up about it.

Ps. I am a certified reading specialist who ran a diagnostic - prescritpive reading program for 20 years in a Philadelphia H.S. so I know exactly what you are talking about. I even know what you mean by "developmental" students!

Submitted by youngphillyteacher (not verified) on May 29, 2011 10:47 pm

I discovered same problem when I just started to teach science two years ago, and I was shocked. I tried to implement an SSR program this year using a collection of science magazines, but quickly got overwhelmed with test prep. I hope to do a better job next year, trying to waste less time on test preps.
Here is a good link about importance of background knowledge for good reading comprehension, which inspired me to start SSR.

Submitted by Rich (not verified) on May 30, 2011 8:38 pm

Thank you. I will read it. I am the guy who ran a high school reading pogram for 20 years in the district back in the day when teachers were allowed to be teachers and I used SSR every Monday and it did wonders to get the kids insterested in reading. Whatever the district tries to impose upon you with that test prep rediculousness, SSR is better. Keep up the Great work and the Student Centered approach!!!

And yes, background knowledge and background of experience are critical factors in reading comprehension. Wide reading is the 'best practice" for expaning those two areas.

Submitted by Emmanuel Bussie (not verified) on May 29, 2011 6:01 pm

Rally June 5th, 2011, 4PM School District of Philadelphia HQ 440 N Braod Street
In support of using every means possible to ensure adequate and fair funding of Philadelphia's Schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 1, 2011 10:34 am

I think the notebook building on dreams of college is only spotlighting black students and not emphasizing on all student and this paper and the SRC are all RACIST. and arlene ackerman is just as bad and should be arrested robbing philadelphia school district student of fulfilling their gouls and dreams that are shattered because of her cuts, she and robert archie only care how they can fill their pockets and screw everyone else.

Submitted by Michelle (not verified) on June 14, 2011 7:24 pm

I think it's great that the SDP is trying to better prepare students for college. However, our society focuses so much on kids going to college instead of providing more options for them. COLLEGE IS NOT FOR EVERYONE! I knew several people who did not come back after their first year because they partied too much or figured out that college wasn't for them. Sometimes you have to go through that first year to know if college is for you, but it's expensive. For those who want to pursue a vocational or hands-on occupations like cosmetology, early childhood education, construction, para-legal, emergency medical technicians, and being a chef. There is a place for these people in our society! For those whose talents fit these fields, we should encourage them enter these fields. This goes for kids from all economic backgrounds. In European countries like Germany, there are more vocational programs available.

The problem with wanting everyone to go to college is that if everyone has a college degree, then people are required to pursue a graduate degree in order to "get ahead." Eventually, people will have to have so much education that it really impacts earnings and decisions like whether to have a family.

Submitted by Gina (not verified) on July 2, 2011 2:35 pm

Studies conducted since the early 1990's have shown that in mother-only families, children tend to experience short-and long-term economic and psychological disadvantages; higher absentee rates at school, lower levels of education, and higher dropout rates (with boys more negatively affected than girls).

2010 Census for the City of Philadelphia
23% female head of household, no husband
11% single mother
2% single father
6% male head of household, no wife
34% single households
28% married couple households

What are the performance levels of the School Districts across PA with highest percentage of single mother households?
Darby Borough – 24% single mother
Colwyn – 21% single mother
Chester – 20% single mother
Chester Twp. – 20% single mother

Males adapting an attitude of acceptability relative to abandoning the children they have fathered is a major contributing factor to the academic decline in this city.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on July 2, 2011 6:13 pm

Is it more difficult raising children as a single parent? Sure. (Just imagine doing all the work your partner/spouse does and you'll get an idea.) That said, I'm raising my children alone. Our house is more stable without their father because of his addictions and erratic behavior. It means I have little time to myself and I don't expect to until they are grown. Since we live on my salary it also means they don't have all the "stuff" of some of their peers but they are fine.

I don't think the problem is single parenting - that has gone on for centuries - but the lack of community support/ social safety net and, in some cases, parents who forget parenting is 24/7.

Submitted by Gina (not verified) on July 2, 2011 8:35 pm

I'm sorry if my comment offended you, as that was not my intent but I do understand now that my comment was far to general. I agree, it would be wrong not to remove a child from an addictive or abusive environment.

Single-parents who have networks of friends, relatives and neighbors who care about them and their children, as well as remain a part of their lives for years do thrive.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on July 3, 2011 4:55 am

I wasn't offended. Just as the other person wrote, generalizations usually aren't accurate. I'm fortunate to have a job where I earn a living wage. Parents who lack formal education / training and can't find steady work surely have it more difficult than me. I grew up in a two parent home but learned from aunts who were divorced, also because of an abusive situation, that having a skill was important. College wasn't a given in my family but the need for a trade/skill was stressed. One aunt had gone to nursing school - she could support her kids. Another aunt didn't have a skill/trade and many family members had to pitch in to support her kids. One cousin lived with us for awhile. So, the networks of support are essential.

Submitted by tom-104 on July 2, 2011 5:17 pm

Your analysis is too simplistic. It is not simply a matter of fathers "abandoning the children they have fathered". According to the Pew Center "one in every 15 black males aged 18 or older is in prison or jail,’ versus one in every 36 men for Hispanic males and one in every 106 White males,” and that “the lifetime risk of incarceration for a child born in 2001 is 1 in 3 for black males, 1 in 6 for Latino males, and 1 in 17 for white males.”

The simple fact is that the free enterprise system has failed many of the working class and unemployed. Since there are no jobs available, many turn to selling drugs to survive. There simply are no jobs available for supporting a family for many low income males.

Corbett's solution is to build more prisons. Today in the Inquirer one of the many reactionary commenters about youth violence said the solution is to incarcerate them on an island in the ocean. So much for the American dream.

Submitted by Gina (not verified) on July 2, 2011 7:19 pm

If there are no jobs available for supporting a family for low income males than why are they continuing to father children? It has been known since the mid to late 90's jobs were declining in the US.
The NAFTA agreement ( and is flawed and

Neglecting to take and active interest and role relative to Public Policy is something the middle and lower income communities cannot afford. If Americans within the middle and lower income, regardless of race, continue to look only as far as their backyard they have no one to blame but themselves.

Immigrants arriving in the US with only 100.00 in their pocket have earned PhD's. Why and how are these "newbees" able to secure an advanced education when American born children (regardless of race) can't or choose not to? Failing to learn and comprehend Public policy, taking the extra time to be a fully informed voter, and showing up at the polls to vote (even when it rains) is a duty all American's have to ensure economic stability for their families.

Consider for a moment that it not Corbett to blame and give some power back to yourself. Drop by the district office of the neighborhood council person or schedule a meeting with them at their city hall office to ask questions, seek out information relative to how they could better educate themselves relative to public policy and then dropped by the local free library. As long as we look outside ourselves, we teach our children to do the same and in turn send a clear message they are powerless, which is untrue. This nation would not be here today if those that arrived believed they were powerless.

Submitted by Marie (not verified) on August 9, 2011 6:32 pm

I was laid off . Why don't they give me some unemployment comp ?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 9, 2011 6:21 pm

You probably qualify for unemployment, but you have to apply for it. They don't just magically start sending you checks.

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