by Isaac Riddle
At a school like Frankford High School, where one out of four students is absent on any given day, just getting students through the doors is a constant struggle.
According to recent Pennsylvania Department of Education attendance rates, in the 2011-12 school year, more than 11,500 students were absent daily from District schools.
On Wednesday, members of Project U-Turn, a city-based initiative focused on the dropout crisis, announced the launch of a new campaign that seeks to improve Philadelphia’s school attendance rate.
For Michelle Melendez, the distractions at her local high school were too much. She was not getting her work done; she was doing poorly. “I was a troubled child,” she said.
So she enrolled in the ASPIRA Bilingual Virtual Charter School in the fall of 2011 – the school was brand-new then – and she says she has no regrets.
Sandwiches piled high on a platter, a fresh vegetable tray, pizza, sodas, cake – all for nine young people, most with Latino surnames, most male, who were the center of attention on a recent day at Olney Charter High School.
Their achievement: showing up.
Sheila Hernandez was 15 when she quit Frankford High School in the 9th grade. There was a lot of fighting in the school, and Hernandez, a slight girl with her hair cut short, was also bullied over her appearance.
Comprehensive neighborhood high schools across the nation struggle with dropout prevention, and Philadelphia’s are no different.
“What you see in that research is that these schools tend to have a higher concentration of really at-risk kids,” said Kate Shaw, executive director of Research for Action.
“In part because of that, the percentage of kids who graduate is much lower.”
And although principals at a handful of neighborhood high schools – Roxborough, George Washington, Germantown and Ben Franklin – said that helpful strategies aren’t hard to identify, most also acknowledged that implementing changes in an age of budget cuts, staff turnover, and districtwide strategic shifts is a constant challenge.
When Mastery Charter took over Simon Gratz High School in 2011, the organization was getting into territory it had never been in before.
Mastery’s prior experience with 9th graders had been in the school they started – Lenfest – and in schools they had built up from the 7th grade.
But Gratz was different – a 9th-through-12th grade comprehensive high school that had recently hit a low point in its storied history. When converted to a Renaissance charter in 2011, Gratz was listed by the state as “persistently dangerous,” with a graduation rate under 50 percent and student proficiency rates in the teens.
Philadelphia’s graduation rate continues to improve, yet only about two-thirds of students who start 9th grade in public schools get a diploma four years later.
As the Notebook does its eighth annual edition focusing on the city’s dropout crisis, this is both encouraging and sobering news.
Encouraging because the gains are slow and steady, which makes it more likely that they are real, said Ruth Curran Neild, lead author of Unfulfilled Promise, the 2006 report that first offered hard data and highlighted the depth of the problem in Philadelphia.
But sobering because there are entrenched issues that the city’s educational leaders have yet to conquer. One of those is 9th grade, still where most dropouts run aground.
Interviews by Charlotte Pope and Julie Mazziotta, photos by Chris Willis and Julie Mazziotta