School & District Management Commentary

What Cities Can Do to Turn the Dropout Crisis Around

By Feather O. Houstoun — January 23, 2007 8 min read

After years in the shadows, the issues of struggling students and out-of-school youths are emerging as key elements in our national conversation about high school reform and economic competitiveness. The newfound public attention—from the pages of Time magazine to TV’s “Oprah Winfrey Show”—is certainly welcome. Now our collective challenge is to leverage this visibility in ways that will make measurable improvements in the lives of these disconnected young people.

— Susan Sanford


Philadelphia is one of several cities where committed individuals are working to do just that. With financial support and technical assistance from the Youth Transition Funders Group, a national network of grantmakers that includes my own philanthropy, the William Penn Foundation, Philadelphia and six other cities are engaged in pursuing multisector approaches to this problem that are designed with one common goal: to build comprehensive systems that reconnect these youths to educational opportunities.

In Philadelphia, a coalition that includes representatives from the city’s major public systems as well as leaders from youth-advocacy and -support organizations has launched a citywide campaign to elevate the visibility of the dropout crisis and to create more quality learning options that will re-engage those who have left school or are close to doing so. Project U-Turn represents almost two years of discussion, consensus-building, and coordinated planning. Central to that effort has been early research work to determine exactly what is happening to the city’s out-of-school young people. Such data have helped the project’s leaders better design, coordinate, and target retention and recovery efforts.

Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert Balfanz and Ruth Curran Neild found that more than 8,200 Philadelphia students drop out each year, and that as many as 5,000 younger students attend school so infrequently they are unlikely to graduate on time, if at all. Most future dropouts can be identified at the start of high school, and 80 percent can be identified by the end of 9th grade. Many of these future dropouts attend a subset of Philadelphia high schools overwhelmed by the number of students in need of intensive intervention.

As research shows, many of the factors contributing to a decision to drop out are school-related, among them academic failure, literacy problems, and issues of safety and alienation. Yet these kinds of problems are not the whole story. Data also reveal that up to one-third of dropouts are young men or women in the foster-care, juvenile-justice, or child-protective-services system, or are young women with children. Students involved in these systems are four times more likely to drop out than peers who are not.

Project U-Turn has been designed not only to encourage better-coordinated and more effective interventions in young lives, but also to convey to policymakers and the community a compelling message also learned from research: Young people who leave high school without a diploma later come to understand the value of education, and are eager to return to programs that will help them prepare for productive citizenship.

We are certainly seeing this in Philadelphia. On the day we launched the initiative, more than 200 of the city’s high school dropouts took part in a daylong event designed to get them back into some kind of learning experience. They received counseling on their high-school-credit status, learned about the kinds of options available to them, and were able to connect with one or more of the education providers on site to advise and enroll them in appropriate programs. The next day, almost 200 more out-of-school youths or their parents called a hotline for information on how to re-enroll in educational programming.

While these contacts represent only a tiny fraction of the total number of youths who drop out of Philadelphia’s public high schools in a given year, they offer evidence that, when given the chance, out-of-school youths will take advantage of opportunities to put themselves on a path toward educational improvement and eventual economic self-sufficiency.

We know that the true effectiveness of these efforts will be measured in what we do in the weeks, months, and years to come to help thousands of young people turn their lives around. Still, even in these early stages, the experiences of Philadelphia and other Youth Transition Funders Group sites can serve as a framework for other communities that want to organize in behalf of struggling students and out-of-school youths.

Our challenge is to leverage the visibility of struggling students in ways that will make measurable improvements in the lives of these disconnected young people.

Based on our experience in Philadelphia so far, we offer the following advice:

Create a strong leadership body with cross-sector partners to shift the debate from a focus on the problem to an examination of solutions and resources. In Philadelphia, the collaborative is composed of nonprofit advocates for education, including parent groups, as well as public members such as the school district, city agencies, and the courts.

Identify and support a trusted convener. This effort will require a strong, neutral broker to bring parties to the table and ensure that they stay there during the hard conversations. In our city, a youth-workforce intermediary, the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN), has been highly effective at ensuring that turf issues and finger-pointing don’t sabotage such an important endeavor. In our case, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the role PYN has played in facilitating the group while managing the sometimes competing interests of individual organizations.

Undertake high-quality data analysis and allow it to guide the work. The out-of-school youth population is much discussed but little understood. Good data can help counteract negative stereotypes and also identify and develop educational programming that targets the specific needs of out-of-school youths and struggling students.

Set benchmarks that are challenging and attainable, measure progress each year, and hold civic leaders accountable. By setting benchmarks for progress, the city can understand how far it needs to go and adjust priorities accordingly. In Philadelphia, we have committed to do the following: reduce the number of dropouts by 25 percent, or more than 2,000 students, by the 2010-11 school year; reduce the number of high-risk youths dropping out by at least 10 percent over the next two years; and increase the number of high-quality alternative educational opportunities available to struggling students and out-of-school youths, from the current level of 2,800 to at least 5,000.

Challenge the school district and city social-services systems to set the tone for aggressive action. In Philadelphia, we’ve benefited from remarkable leadership by the CEO of our school district, Paul G. Vallas, and from the commitment of city agencies to engage in an honest, open process. Doing so has not been without risk for them, but time and again they’ve risen to the challenge and tackled some of the thorniest parts of the problem. Based on our experience, school systems and public agencies in other communities can create new opportunities for the youths in their care through some of the following actions:

• Reaching out to young people who have dropped out and reconnecting them to quality educational pathways that reflect their literacy- and course-acquisition needs;

• Simplifying the re-enrollment process and establishing protocols to determine appropriate educational placements for returning out-of-school youths;

• Building program models that address the needs of older, undercredentialed out-of-school youths through dual-enrollment and gateway-to-college approaches for those who are within two years of graduation;

• Strengthening such social services as casework and counseling in the middle and high schools that have the most difficulty in promoting students; and

• Increasing interagency coordination by establishing an office of educational support within the city’s social-services agency.

Young people who leave high school without a diploma later come to understand the value of education, and are eager to return to programs that will help them prepare for productive citizenship.

Provide support to populations of young people most at risk for dropping out. These efforts might include assessing the curricular offerings at juvenile-placement sites and other non-district educational programs, to promote approaches that are aligned with school requirements and that maximize credit transfer. Cities also must expand teenage-parenting programs, extend parental leave and home study while students are out of school to care for their children, and improve access to child care. To support youths in foster care, districts need to decrease the amount of in-school time that is lost when students move and change schools. City agencies must do more to encourage students who have “aged out” of foster care to complete school.

Challenge elected and appointed officials at all levels to make this issue a top priority. To solidify public support and shatter common misconceptions about the nature of the dropout problem, elected officials and other policymakers must use every available opportunity to highlight the issue. But they also must create incentives for greater cooperation across agencies. These could include mechanisms to monitor progress, the establishment of a unique student identifier enabling the collection of quality data, support for high school reform and dual enrollment, and community-based approaches to re-engaging struggling students and out-of-school youths.

Garner support from the private sector. The business community has an economic interest in reducing the number of dropouts and can show young people the importance of completing high school to be ready for the modern workforce. Business leaders can provide work and mentoring experiences that promote academic achievement, participate in forums, and develop industry-pipeline models that offer youths the chance to enhance their skills through high school. Most importantly, the business community can encourage city leaders to focus investments to re-engage disconnected youths.

As the severity of America’s dropout crisis becomes increasingly clear, it is incumbent upon communities to come together and create better opportunities for young people at risk of falling off the graduation track. Every community is different, and each will have to find its own ways of addressing this complex problem. We still have much to do in our city, but we’re optimistic that Philadelphia is on the right track in its efforts to help thousands of young people make a U-turn in their lives.

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More information about Project U-Turn and copies of its background research (“Unfulfilled Promise: The Dimensions and Characteristics of Philadelphia’s Dropout Crisis, 2000-2005”) and policy recommendations (“Turning It Around: A Collective Effort to Understand and Resolve Philadelphia’s Dropout Crisis”) can be found on the Web at www.ProjectUTurn.net.
A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as What Cities Can Do To Turn the Dropout Crisis Around


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