No major city in America has worked longer and harder on its dropout problem than Philadelphia. Yet those efforts, going back nearly half a century, have gained traction only in the last ten years. Between 2001 and 2009 the percentage of Philadelphia students who entered ninth grade and graduated in four years increased from 48 percent to 56 percent. Those gains might seem modest, and are clearly insufficient. But the fact that they occurred at all, and at a time when dropout rates nationally have not budged, suggests that Philadelphia is doing something right.
It’s a measure of the complexity of the problem, however, that it is difficult to discern which of the flurry of policies and practices that have been tried here are responsible for the gains. Unlike in New York, Philadelphia has not followed a single blueprint or plan. Instead, the work on the issue has accreted over time, with new reforms and initiatives, most of them privately conceived or supported, added to the mix along the way. In the last five years the city has concentrated on providing students with an ever-growing array of options to the city’s traditional high schools—charter schools, small alternative or “accelerated” schools—based on students’ needs and inclination. Yet some of the most promising experiments in reform have also occurred in the city’s traditional high schools, which the vast majority of its students still attend. But for bureaucratic and budgetary reasons those initiatives have seldom been sustained. If Philadelphia wants to continue to make progress, it’ll have to find a way to do so, and the Obama administration’s efforts to combat the dropout problem could provide some real help.
In 1968, Philadelphia’s business, political, and civic elite got together to figure out how to get more high school kids to stay in school and prevent them from being swept up in the maelstrom of anger and urban violence touched off by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The year before, as many as 3,500 African American students demonstrated at school district headquarters demanding better schools, more black teachers, and culturally relevant courses and textbooks.
The big idea the leaders formulated was career academies: subunits within large neighborhood schools that blended academics with a vocational training and established stronger relationships between students and their peers and teachers. The first such academy in the nation, focused on preparing students for jobs in the electrical field, opened in 1969 at Thomas Edison High School, which had the highest dropout rate in the city. New career academies were started throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and by the mid-’90s there were twenty-nine in the city and several thousand nationwide. Extensive research deemed the academies to be a successful anti-dropout strategy.
Over the next thirty years, with strong support and substantial nudging from the city’s foundations and private sector, the school district would attack the dropout problem in a number of other ways. In 1982, when Constance Clayton became superintendent, she looked at the city’s neighborhood high schools and saw “lethargy and sameness and undue stability of faculty and administrators.” She said in a 1993 interview that she saw good anti-dropout programs, career academies among them, but they reached only a relatively small number of students in what was then a school district of more than 200,000 students. Embracing the efforts of the Philadelphia High Schools Collaborative, an outside organization dedicated to reforming city high schools, she decided to shake things up. The Collaborative effort built on the career academies example and divided the high schools into smaller, semiautonomous units within one building that focused more attention on incoming ninth graders. Good results were seen almost immediately at three pilot schools—better attendance, more success in classes, a more studious atmosphere. Eventually, twenty-two high schools were using parts of the strategy and 20,000 students were being affected. The goal was to create more intimate, personalized environments for learning, a concept that still drives much of the thinking on how to reduce the dropout rate.
But the kinds of problems that typically squelch major reforms in large urban school districts were present in Philadelphia as well. Skeptics questioned the statistics showing improvement. The Philadelphia teachers union objected to making the smaller units equivalent to separate schools, which affected teachers’ seniority and job security. Money problems grew. Clayton also had her differences with the Collaborative; she retired in 1993, and the effort faded. The “small learning communities” continued to exist, but lost the autonomy that made them effective. In many high schools, they began to function like academic tracks, separating students by ability. Meanwhile, vocational career academies were reduced in number, from twenty-nine in the ’90s to only ten today.
It’s impossible to say what effect these on-again-off-again reforms had on the school district’s overall dropout rate. By narrowly defining who was a dropout, Philadelphia and other school districts had for decades been underreporting their actual attrition rates. Whatever the effect of the anti-dropout measures, they were overwhelmed by the flight of white and black working- and middle-class families to the suburbs and a growing poverty rate in the city, which rose from 15 percent in 1970 to 24 percent today, according to U.S. Census data. Students were promoted in elementary and middle schools even though they weren’t learning fundamental skills; by 2000 more than 75 percent of the students who enrolled in the district’s neighborhood high schools were far behind academically.
In 1999, Philadelphia’s civic community pushed yet another remedy aimed at reworking the high schools that Clayton, more than a decade before, had characterized as outmoded and resistant to change. The Philadelphia Education Fund, which combines money from foundations, wealthy individuals, corporations, and public agencies, persuaded the school district to bring in a new approach to its worst schools. The model, developed at Johns Hopkins University, was called Talent Development High Schools, and its primary goal was to keep ninth graders on track toward graduation by making sure they passed all of their courses. Over the next four years, the model would show progress in seven of the district’s high schools. A 2004 evaluation by MDRC, the public policy research organization, found that the Talent Development schools “produced substantial gains in academic course credits earned and promotion rates and modest improvements in attendance.”
In 2002, Paul Vallas, the energetic, do-it-all-at-once former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, was hired as Philadelphia’s sixth superintendent in thirty years. He arrived just after the state had declared the Philadelphia schools financially and academically bankrupt, replaced the mayorally appointed school board with a School Reform Commission with a majority named by the governor, and demanded that the district turn over many of its worst-performing schools to private, sometimes for-profit operators. Vallas embraced the “diverse provider” strategy even as he continued to push for more money and implement his own agenda. After the MDRC study came out, Vallas said the district could not afford to continue the existing Talent Development High Schools, let alone expand the program intact. Instead, he said all the neighborhood schools would borrow some ideas from Talent Development.
James Kemple, the researcher who headed up the study of Talent Development, was at the meeting in which Vallas said he’d do his own take on the model. Kemple cautioned him against trying to do it piecemeal. “I was trying to make the case with Paul that the best research you have … is based on this version of the model,” Kemple said. He called Vallas’s decision “changing horses midstream,” and said that when decisions are not made based on evidence they result in districts implementing the “reform du jour.”
Rather than attempt to fix the large neighborhood high schools, Vallas’s plan was to create alternatives to them. He started twenty-six new small schools, backed the creation of more charter schools, and created disciplinary schools that were run on contract by private companies. As of 2002, there were thirty-eight public high schools in Philadelphia, with an average enrollment of 1,700 students. By 2007, there were sixty-two schools, including charters. Today there are ninety, twenty-nine of them charters.
As Vallas was deciding to move away from Talent Development, Robert Balfanz and Ruth Curran Neild, two Johns Hopkins researchers, began a retrospective study, paid for by a number of national and local foundations, of the “dropout crisis,” covering the years from 2000 to 2005. Their 2006 report, called Unfulfilled Promise, was the first definitive counting of high school dropouts in the district, after decades of policies aimed at stemming the tide. They found that, during the period studied, some 30,000 Philadelphia students had dropped out, and thousands more were “near dropouts” who showed up less than half the time. On a positive note, however, they found evidence of improvement. More than 52 percent of the class of 2005 graduated on time in four years. That was about 4 percentage points higher than the average for the previous four years.
Until that study, “[w]e didn’t have a public fix on who was dropping out, where they were dropping out from, and what kind of services they need,” said Neild. Because it was one of the first studies to define the graduation rate in terms of cohorts—tracing the fortunes of each entering ninth-grade class and showing how many graduate—“it helped people realize the scale of it,” she said.
The researchers discovered that many of those most likely to drop out could be identified beginning in the sixth grade and nearly all of them by the ninth grade. They advised that high schools alone could not fix the problem. The middle school grades would have to do a better job of educating their students. Keeping ninth graders on track needed to be a priority. Also important, however, was that one in five dropouts were older students who had either quit school or entered the juvenile justice system a few credits short of a diploma. The researchers recommended the creation of alternative institutions instead of expecting these youths to reenter the high schools they had already given up on. This had the potential to bump up the graduation rate quickly without dealing with the messy politics and adult interests that come with the territory in high school reform efforts.
Not surprisingly, it was this last recommendation that Vallas seized on, because it was consistent with what he was already doing. There also was demand. The release of the report had marked the launch of a new advocacy group called the Project U-Turn Collaborative that would help implement some of these recommendations. In the first year after its October 2006 launch, Project U-Turn raised $10 million from public and private sources, and 1,500 dropouts contacted the project to ask for help in getting a diploma. But seats could only be found for 158 in the city’s existing alternative schools. Vallas created the Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation to expand programs for disengaged youth. He contracted with private companies to run “accelerated” schools that could help students graduate more quickly. Arlene Ackerman succeeded Vallas in 2008, and she has added seats to the network, which now can accommodate 2,200 youths. Under Ackerman the district has also set up a Re-engagement Center, where former students can come and be referred to a school within the expanding network of options. And with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor, Philadelphia community organizations are now helping students who have dropped out earn either a GED or credits toward a diploma.
The traditional high schools have not been abandoned by the new wave of reformers. Since Project U-Turn was created, the city has won about $65 million in grants, also from the Labor Department, for programs in seven neighborhood high schools that were cited as “persistently dangerous.” Using some of this money, the district is creating in most of its neighborhood schools “bridge” programs that try to engage ninth graders in the summer before high school, reviving a practice first introduced by Clayton in the late ’80s. Ackerman has a new plan called Renaissance Schools in which some of the worst schools will be converted to charters or slated for turnaround treatment within the district, some directly under her supervision. In the first year, three long-troubled high schools made that list.
Though disentangling the effects of all these policies on the city’s overall dropout rate isn’t easy, the numbers are certainly moving in the right direction. Between 2005 and 2009 the percentage of students who entered ninth grade and graduated in four years increased from 52 percent to 56 percent. And the six-year graduation rate has been steadily inching up—from 57 percent for the class of 2005 to 60 percent for the class of 2007. At least some of that six-year graduation rate increase is attributable to the new “accelerated” schools, according to Project U-Turn data.
It could be that Vallas and Project U-Turn are right and that taking on dysfunctional high schools was too hard and expensive, at least at the time. But there’s a limit to what the alternative schools Vallas and Ackerman have encouraged can do: most of the students entering them have accumulated very few high school credits and have reading and math proficiency that hovers around the fifth-grade level.
Even with the improvements, each year more than 8,000 Philadelphia students drop out, most from the neighborhood schools. Project U-Turn’s goal is to cut that number by at least 2,000 students by the end of the upcoming school year. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has set a high bar as well. He has committed city resources to increasing the six-year graduation rate to 80 percent. To reach those audacious goals, Philadelphia will need to do what it hasn’t succeeded in doing in the past—fix neighborhood schools. And with the Obama administration now pledging billions of federal dollars for school “turnaround” efforts, Philadelphia has another opportunity to keep trying.