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Opinion: Steps toward better graduation rate in Philly - by Darren Speilman, Phila. Education Fund

Friday, May 22, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Amy Seasholtz
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Graduation day is an important milestone in the lives of young people; a marker between childhood and adult life, the proud moment when they embark upon the lifelong task of pursuing a dream.

And far too many young Philadelphians still aren't getting there.

For every two high school seniors who will graduate this June, there is one who didn't make it. Those thousands of young people dropped out for any one of a number of reasons. Maybe they were traumatized by domestic violence and lost their spirit. Perhaps they became parents and felt overwhelmed. They may have wound up in trouble for some kind of thoughtless crime, interrupting their studies and making reengagement difficult.

We don't have to know their names to know what the future holds in store for them: fewer job options, lower annual incomes, and poorer health. The statistics are clear. Without a high school degree, they are all too likely to join this city's tragically high population of poor people.

We have made some progress. Ten years ago, when the 2006 report "Unfulfilled Promises" first documented the extent of this city's dropout crisis, the numbers were even worse. Only half of all freshmen who entered high school were making it all the way through.

Now, due in part to the efforts of Project U-Turn - a collaborative citywide effort whose members include the Philadelphia Education Fund (Ed Fund), representatives of the School District, city agencies, foundations, and youth-serving organizations - Philadelphia's on-time graduation rate has risen from 50 to 65 percent. We have cut the dropout rate by 5 percent, and attendance rates are improving. And of the students who did drop out, more are returning to school or entering a program designed to help them graduate.

While we do see gains, there is a lot of work left to do. Philadelphia's graduation rate is still far below the statewide average of 84 percent. We still see too many students veer off track in their freshman year, a stumble that can prove too difficult for many to overcome. Graduation rates for African American and Hispanic males remain stubbornly low. And while overall graduation rates are slightly higher, we would like to see an increase in the number of graduates who enroll in college.

At the Ed Fund, we are committed to providing a path to college and career for every student. Our collaborative work to implement a comprehensive dropout prevention system keeps as many students as possible on track to graduation and is aligned with Project U-Turn interests. The Ed Fund also operates in eight neighborhood high schools, encouraging postsecondary success for all students, and pushes for adoption of a college and career framework district-wide.

That's why the Ed Fund endorses the recommended next steps outlined this week by Project U-Turn.

We must build upon and improve the various initiatives that Project U-Turn has developed to keep students from dropping out and to entice those who did drop out to return to school. These are programs that have been carefully tailored to young people who come to school with very specific needs. Some are in the foster-care system, for instance, and need extra attention and support from a stable group of caring adults. Some have spent time in juvenile detention. Some are juggling day-care schedules with their school calendars.

We must also make it a priority to expose more students to college and job-training programs while they're in high school. Too many students look at their schools and their communities and don't see a world of possibilities. They're not finding inspiration at their doorstep. If we want them to do the hard work it takes to achieve their dreams, we must strive to deliver the message that their future can be whatever they want it to be.

We need to continue paying close attention to what works, and what doesn't, so we can expand those programs that really pay off.

And finally, we need to raise money as well as awareness. The School District no longer has funding for many of these programs, which are a significant investment in the lives of our children and in the future city they will create. We need policymakers, corporate leaders, and the people who run our foundations to understand the return on that investment. We need to set aside politics to preserve the progress that has been made.

Stepping in now to alter the future for teenagers who are dangerously close to falling through the cracks is not just the right thing to do. It is good planning. It's smart economic development. And it's a critical step toward building the world-class city that we all want.

Darren Spielman is president and CEO of the Ed Fund.