The gift of $750,000 by philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest to boost college-attainment rates is a reminder that the city must use all available tools to prevent students from dropping out.
One vital program helping Philadelphia students to stay in school is City Year, which pairs young adult mentors with at-risk kids in the classroom. It's part of the AmeriCorps national service effort, and has operated in Philadelphia since 1997.
In the current school year, City Year has 225 members working in 20 schools throughout Philadelphia. Teams, sporting trademark red jackets, work in some of the poorest neighborhoods for one year in return for a small stipend.
The program gets results. From June 2009 to June 2010, 82 percent of Philadelphia students who were tutored directly by City Year members improved at least one letter grade in math. About 78 percent improved at least one letter grade in English. Attendance among such students improved 55 percent.
City Year's board of directors approved a plan in the spring of 2009 to double the size of the program within five years. Its current annual budget is $6.8 million, and increasing the program's reach will require a greater commitment from the private sector as well as from the city and school district.
City Year operates in 19 other cities nationwide. Generally the affiliates receive one-third of their funding from AmeriCorps, one-third from private industry, and one-third from local government agencies.
The Philadelphia program has enjoyed strong support from a variety of corporate sponsors, including Aramark, Comcast, CSX, T-Mobile, and Bank of America.
To reach more students, it needs more help. That goes for the city. Mayor Nutter is on the City Year board and is an enthusiastic booster. But he said through a spokesman that it's too early in the city's budget process to commit more money for the program.
The school district is facing more budget difficulties, too, with a projected shortfall of $430 million or more and a state legislature that is facing a large budget deficit as well.
In an era of dwindling government revenue, lowering the dropout rate in Philadelphia must remain a priority. There are 20 high schools in the city with graduation rates below 50 percent. Nutter put the focus on the problem when he was elected, but the city still has a long way to go toward the goal of a 90-percent graduation rate by 2020.