Calling the high school dropout rate for city students one of the most serious problems facing Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter said Thursday his administration would work with the School District to address it.
"There is nothing less at stake here than the future of this city," Nutter told an audience at the district's administration building following release of a blueprint for stemming the dropout rates for African American and Latino males.
After studying the dropout problems of African American and Latino males in Philadelphia for 10 months, a task force called for the district to reexamine its zero-tolerance policy toward violence, consider offering single-sex classes, add music and arts programs to help engage students' interest, and raise academic standards.
Overall, only 56 percent of district students graduate in four years, according to 2009 data. The rates for minority male students are worse: 45 percent for African American males and 43 percent for Latino males.
"These numbers indicate an alarming crisis requiring immediate interventions," according to the report from a task force established by Robert L. Archie Jr., chairman of the School Reform Commission, and commission member Johnny Irizarry.
Philadelphia is not alone. The national graduation rate was 48 percent for African American males and 49 percent for Latino males, according to a recent report by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Researchers at the think tank found female students from every racial group outperforming males.
In Philadelphia, students and former students told the task force that the district's hard-line policy on violence prevents students from learning from their mistakes and just transfers them to other schools.
The task force says the district should amend its violence policy "to strike a balance" between making schools safe and offering disciplinary options that keep students engaged in learning.
The report also said the district should provide mentors, internships, and opportunities for paying jobs to connect students with caring adults and show them how their academic subjects are applied in the workforce.
But above all, the panel said, teachers and staff must treat students fairly and with respect. Students and former students told the task force that they felt as though the district now pushes them to leave before graduation.
Bill McKinney, director of a research center at City University of New York who served as chairman of the volunteer task force, said the issue of being pushed out of school surfaced repeatedly in talks with young people. They said that when they turned to staff for help with problems, they often didn't receive it or were ignored.
"That's the starting point for the feelings of a lot of folks," McKinney said.
Irizarry said the panel wanted Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to include dropout rates for African American and Latino males in the district's annual School Report Card. The group also wants the district to create an advisory board to monitor progress, he said.
Ackerman, who has made eliminating the gap in academic achievement between white and minority students a priority, on Thursday pointed out that the gulf was widest for African American and Latino males.
She said that she would study the report and that its recommendations would help accelerate steps her administration has begun, such as creating re-engagement centers to help students who are on the brink of dropping out and bringing back those who already have.
"By looking at these recommendations and looking at the data, you are giving us a start, a firestart . . . so we can accelerate our efforts," she said.
Nutter, who has made improving high school and college completion rates a top priority in his administration, said the report "trains a very bright spotlight on this challenge that Philadelphia must solve if we are to be competitive in the 21st century global economy."
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called for district schools to provide more services to improve graduation rates for minority male students.
Said Jordan: "Being born poor, minority and male shouldn't be synonymous with a high risk of dropping out of school."