March 6 — 12:43 pm, 2009

City agency collaboration: Can talk turn into action?

Stemming the massive tide of dropouts will require a Herculean effort that no one person, organization, or city agency can shoulder alone. When Mayor Michael Nutter last year promised to cut the city’s dropout rate in half by 2014, he called for a new level of cooperation between the city and the District to help with prevention strategies.

Lori Shorr, the city’s chief education officer, has been spearheading the task of getting different offices to collaborate. This involves linking to the District the work of agencies like the Department of Human Services, Department of Behavioral Health, Health Department, and Office of Supportive Housing.

“I think one of the things that the Mayor has done well is to convince many people in this city that the dropout problem is everybody’s problem,” Shorr said.

There are some signs of progress. Several city agencies now provide staff training to better serve the educational needs of kids in their care. DHS is creating an education support center to improve the quality of academic support services to children.

The level of data-sharing continues to improve as agencies align their systems, Shorr said.

The Re-engagement Center for out-of-school youth is one example of District-city collaboration. Staffed by DHS and DBH workers, it referred more than 1,600 youth and adults to educational programs between May 2008 and January 2009.

 The need for interagency teamwork jumps out from the data.

One-third of all dropouts are youth involved with city agencies. According to Project U-Turn’s report Turning it Around, 71 percent of youth who have a substantiated case of abuse or neglect drop out of school; 75 percent of kids in foster care don’t graduate; 90 percent of students in juvenile justice and out-of-home placements fail to get their diploma; and 68 percent of students who give birth within four years of starting high school don’t finish.

David Fair, senior vice president for community impact at United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, is a veteran of many discussions of resource coordination for dropout prevention. When Fair headed prevention services at DHS, his office invested $30 million in after-school and youth development programs for students at risk.

Fair said he is glad city agencies are talking about how they can collaborate, but noted, “Those conversations have happened in almost every administration since the 1960s. So, it’s a question of is this one going to be able to make something happen that other administrations weren’t able to make happen.”

Creating a bridge

DHS is planning to open its new Education Support Center later this year. Liza Rodriguez, a senior policy fellow from the Stoneleigh Center, was hired to develop the plan and oversee its implementation.

She said many specifics about the center’s staff and resources have yet to be determined. But the vision is clear.

“We want the Education Support Center to help the staff look at education as one of the major things that they look at when they talk with a family,” Rodriguez said. “The center would act as a bridge between the School District and DHS,” she said.

Fair explained that in the past, this type of alignment didn’t exist “because the DHS culture was, ‘Well, that’s not our job. Our job is not to educate kids.’”

Through the new center, teachers, principals, and other school officials will get instruction on understanding students who are in DHS care. Beyond the tracking of grades and school attendance, DHS case managers will be coached to spot the indicators that lead to dropping out – and given clearance to look at some School District records – and trained on how to help address those students’ educational needs.

Data-sharing among agencies has already made it possible to conduct analysis of trends in the dropout population in Philadelphia, but the goal now is to share real-time data. Dennis Culhane, University of Pennsylvania professor and faculty co-director of the Cartographic Modeling Lab, said that a data-sharing project he is working on will “integrate data from child-serving agencies so that the District and city data can be seen and analyzed side-by-side.”

Connections made

Other cross-agency efforts include:

  • The Health Department is training principals in a case management model to involve non-instructional staff in meeting weekly with struggling students.
  • The Office of Supportive Housing is receiving staff training on educational issues, and Shorr’s office has created an attendance reward program for students in the shelter system.
  • At 40 schools identified as having safety issues, staff from a variety of city agencies work with the schools to address this as a community problem.

Truancy continues to be a major challenge for cross-agency efforts, with the District experiencing 74,000 truants a year. On any given day, 15,000 kids are out of school.

But Shorr said she’s optimistic about efforts to rethink city strategy about truancy and other issues.

“We have the right people around the table who can change the practice of how money is spent and how program is delivered,” she said. “We’re going to reach our goal one kid at a time.”

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