As Ronald Hinton, the president of the Allegheny West Foundation, loads boxes of surplus Easter cupcakes onto the shelves of the Tastykake outlet that is staffed by Allegheny high school students, he beams with pride as he delivers the statistics for the most recent batch of seniors who attended the foundation. Of the group of seniors that attended last year, he says, 100 percent of them graduated and 95 percent attended college. This year he’s hoping for 100 percent college rate.
Unfortunately, these figures, which are the pride of diligent after-school programs like Allegheny West, are sadly atypical for Allegheny public schools. While the national graduation rate is around 70 percent, according to the E.P.E. Research Center’s most recent report, the rate for Philadelphia School District, the largest in the country, is 55 percent. The graduation rate for Simon Gratz High School, the major district school in Allegheny, is less than 51 percent, according to Schools-data.com. While the national rate has climbed in the last 10 years, Gratz’s has hovered around the halfway mark.
Hinton believes, from his experience, that one of the major causes of the low rate in the neighborhood is students shuffling constantly between different schools. “Kids move so much in this neighborhood,” Hinton says. “They move from school to school and there’s no continuity in their education. What may be appropriate for a freshman and Gratz may not be appropriate for a freshman at another school.”
Paul Socolar, director and editor of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, agrees with Hinton. The Notebook is a Web site and newspaper that has been analytically and critically dealing with the Philadelphia School System for over 15 years. “The biggest villain in this ‘war for graduation,’” says Socolar, “is that not all students are coming into schools at the same level.” Even at young ages, he says these disparities make a difference. “Kids are coming into kindergarten without pre-school, or first grade without kindergarten, and the schools never catch them up. The further along they get, the further behind they get, until they drop out or get held back.” Teachers, he says, might at one time be teaching students one to two years ahead or one to two years behind in the same classroom.
Socolar also points out the dropout and graduation rates are not an exact science. In
her 2006 report “Unfulfilled Promise: the Dimensions and Characteristics of Philadelphia’s Dropout Crisis, 2000-2005,” Ruth Curran Neild of Johns Hopkins University addressed this issue. She points out that the Pennsylvania rate doesn’t track individual students, following their high school careers. Rather, it aggregates statistics supplied by the various districts over a four-year period. Neild and Socolar use something called a “cohort rate,” which takes into account students who transfer in and out of the district and follow them through their career. Their rate is the number of students who enter the district and graduate within four years. Socolar says the current cohort rate is in the low- to mid-50 percent range. According to Socolar, some schools have inaccurate ways of calculating graduation. If 99 out of 100 seniors graduate, the district might say that the rate is 99 percent, not taking into account all the students who dropped out or were held behind before reaching their senior year. Conventional wisdom, he adds, is that after six years in the system, almost no students graduate.
Whichever way one chooses to look at the graduation statistics in Allegheny, they are not impressive. Barbara Coleman is the director of child care programs at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries of Philadelphia. She represented Philadelphia County after school programs and was the presenter of the “Practicing Promises” segment of the last state convention in Harrisburg. Coleman believes that Allegheny schools are failing their students in terms of quality teachers. She works with children through the junior high level and says that she has found students point out a general lack of interest from their teachers, a problem which she blames on the high teacher turnover rate. “If you come to a classroom and you see that the teacher isn’t interested,” Coleman says, “then you’re not going to be interested, especially if you come from a background of a family in which education isn’t a big deal. If you are in an environment where the teachers really care and are supportive of your education, you’re going to want more of that. Even if you’re family isn’t engaging, you know that the school is going to want the best for you.”
Coleman echoes Hinton and Socolar’s comments about consistency. With students coming in at all different levels and constantly moving between schools and districts, a classroom is hard enough to manage. Add to that teachers who are constantly swapping in and out, Coleman says, and it’s not exactly a recipe for a stable, reliable learning environment. “Children, at these developing ages,” Coleman affirms, “need a lot of consistency.”
Socolar agrees that the teachers placed in poor neighborhoods like Allegheny are a major contributing factor to low graduation rates. “We don’t have a system that puts the best teachers with the neediest kids,” he says. “The schools that are hardest to staff are the ones in rough neighborhoods like Allegheny. This is just the way that hiring works in the Philadelphia School District. There aren’t enough incentives to bring quality teachers out there.”
In addition to incentives to keep teachers at needy schools, these experts all agree, more incentives are needed to keep students in school through graduation. This is another area where public schools in Allegheny and other impoverished areas seem to be falling short. “The schools in North Philadelphia need to offer more incentives for the students,” says Coleman. “They need more than the basic basketball, football and baseball to get kids excited. Things like the 4H Club, which was offered when I was in high school, aren’t readily offered anymore.”
These incentives for keeping kids in school are where the after-school programs seem to be really picking up some of the slack. At Mercy, which cares for students up through junior high, the staff supplies kids with whatever is necessary, whether a backpack or use of a computer. Even after a Mercy child moves on, he and his family can come in to the center for events or to use the facilities.
At Allegheny West, incentive-offering is the main approach to tackling high school dropout rates. The foundation allows productive students who are advancing through high school to work at the Tastykake Outlet and participate in summer work programs. They also bring students on lengthy college trips free of charge, along with other cultural field trips. Just this month they visited 15 southern universities in just four days.
“If you’re not going to school, you don’t get the incentives, the perks,” says Hinton. “The kids who get left back can’t work in the summer job program. They have to go to summer school, bring back the credentials showing that they passed, and then you can go back to work. For a kid who is used to getting a stipend and going on trips, that’s pretty powerful.”
Jamil Williams is an 11th grader at Murrell Dobbins High School who just went on the college trip with Allegheny West. Before the trip he wasn’t sure where he wanted to study, but now he has his sights set on Salisbury University in Delaware, where he wants to study acting and follow in the footsteps of Denzel Washington and Will Smith, his favorite actors. “The way our economy is now,” Williams says, “it’s good to be just doing something as a teen, anything to keep you off the streets, away from the violence. Here at the (Allgheny West) rec center, we’re learning, we’re doing positive stuff.”
Other students at the center all have similar positive attitudes. If they weren’t there, they say, they would be sleeping, watching the boys play basketball, and sitting around chatting on Facebook. But students say they definitely are not getting their homework done and concentrating on graduating on time.
Jaques Louis, the director of after-school programs at Allegheny West, sees the effects of the positive reinforcement and incentives that programs like this offer to students every day. “We try to address these dire statistics,” Louis says, “and ask ourselves, ‘How do we get them to stay in school and not even consider dropping out?’ We tackle the adolescents at the ages that they really start dropping out. We want to be that element that allows them to plug through and graduate. Going out into the world without an education is like going into battle with no armor. To navigate through that battle without any protection is not easy.”