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Ten years later, city's 'dropout crisis' improves

Nearly a decade after a landmark study flagged a "dropout crisis" in Philadelphia, more city youths are graduating from high school on time and fewer are dropping out.

Nearly a decade after a landmark study flagged a "dropout crisis" in Philadelphia, more city youths are graduating from high school on time and fewer are dropping out.

Still, some groups - African American and Hispanic males, teen mothers, students involved in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems - lag significantly, a follow-up study to be released Wednesday has found.

Just over half of the students who entered city high schools between 1997 and 2001 graduated on time. That figure jumped 12 percentage points, to 64 percent, by the class that entered in 2008.

The dropout rate decreased to 25 percent from 29 percent in the same time period.

Other measures improved, too - more students were successfully promoted from grade to grade, and attendance rates rose.

"Progress has been made, and we celebrate that, but we still have a ways to go," said Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network, the nonprofit that hosts Project U-Turn, a dropout-prevention collaborative that she co-chairs.

The study is of particular importance to Mayor Nutter, who has made education a cornerstone of his administration. Early on, he set goals to halve the city's dropout rate and boost its graduation rate to 80 percent by 2015.

The gains made fall short of those lofty goals. Nutter is scheduled to discuss the report at a Wednesday afternoon news conference at City Hall.

In the years since the landmark "Unfulfilled Promise: The Dimensions and Characteristics of Philadelphia's Dropout Crisis, 2000-2005" was released in 2006, school and city leaders have introduced or expanded accelerated high school and workforce-development programs, evening classes, and a reengagement center.

Project U-Turn in 2014 commissioned Johns Hopkins University and PolicyLab at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to investigate whether and how much those initiatives had moved the needle.

Researchers found that graduation rates for at-risk groups, while still relatively low, increased across the board. The rates for Hispanic males and females, for instance, jumped 18 percentage points and 15 percentage points, respectively - to 55 percent and 60 percent.

A daunting one in five Philadelphia youths is involved with the child-welfare or juvenile-justice systems, and the graduation rates of those students have been especially weak. Children involved in the juvenile-justice system have the lowest graduation rate of any subgroup, 36 percent. But that's up from 16 percent.

Teen mothers' graduation rates are also low, increasing from 31 percent to 42 percent. Their gains were the smallest of any subgroup studied.

Students involved in the courts and teen mothers were the most likely to drop out, researchers found.

But of those city students who dropped out, a growing number reentered the school system in some way. Less than half - 47 percent - of all dropouts in the 2002-03 cohort reengaged, and 54 percent did so in the 2008-09 cohort.

Dropouts who reentered the school system had a steady graduation rate: roughly 35 percent of young people who left school and came back managed to earn a diploma.

"This suggests that while reengagement programs pulled more dropouts back in," the report said, "they may not have provided easier or more effective ways of achieving a high school diploma."

And while graduation rates rose steadily, the number of students enrolling in college did not rise accordingly, hovering about 35 percent.

Progress was likely affected by large-scale school-system budget cuts that meant the loss of thousands of staffers and dozens of programs, officials acknowledged.

"Overall, we've been in a challenging educational climate," Fulmore-Townsend said.

Fulmore-Townsend said efforts must continue to focus on at-risk youth and students who have dropped out.

"Project U-Turn has been intentional about opening doors for those young people who have left," she said. "Now we have to be just as intentional as we support them as they come back, achieve, and then move on."

The organizations will also sharpen their work "in prevention and earlier interventions" with students in seventh and eighth grade, Fulmore-Townsend said.