College Coaches Reinforcing Positive School Behaviors

The high school dropout problem is a national crisis. Approximately one-third of all high school students leave the public school system before graduating. The problem is especially pronounced among students of color in America’s major cities. For example, in Philadelphia, twenty-two (22) District high schools lost 50 or more of their students from the Class of 2012 cohort, 2,200 dropouts in all. This represents a significant shrinkage of one graduating class. Unfortunately, it’s even worse across the Delaware River. According to the recent data only 42% of Camden High students and and 46% of Woodrow Wilson students graduate from high school. Low-income, urban, predominantly Black and Latino public and charter school students are struggling mightily in the classroom. Black males, in particular are drowning in Philadelphia’s public schools.

boystackbooksIn 2010, a major study found that Philadelphia, along with New York was the worst performing district in the nation with regard to Black male graduation rates. The five worst performing districts with large Black male student enrollment (exceeding 40,000) were New York City, N.Y. (28%); Philadelphia, Pa. (28%); Detroit, Mich. (27%); Broward County, Fla. (39%); Dade County, Fla. (27%).

Educators, researchers, and policymakers continue to work to identify effective dropout prevention approaches. One important element of such prevention efforts is the identification of students at highest risk for dropping out and then the targeting of resources to keep them in school. Locally, we seem determined to do the exact opposite of what works.  In Philadelphia, there is massive contraction of resources. The city is the midst of an unprecedented series of budget cuts. In 2013, the Philadelphia school system laid off 3,783 employees, including 676 teachers and 283 counselors. Along with teachers and counselors, those losing their jobs included 127 assistant principals and 1,202 aides who monitor the cafeteria and playgrounds.

In 2014, it was announced that high school students who live within two miles of school will not receive transportation support (an increase from 1.5 miles), impacting approximately 7,500 students at district, charter, and non-public schools. There will also be reduced services in alternative education programs, which will result in fewer higher-quality options for approximately 300 students. There will be less frequent cleaning of schools, fewer cleaning supplies, and delayed repairs at schools. The district will not fill 34 school police officer vacancies, reducing the number of officers available to support school climate and safety.

drop outThere is very little, if any, good news coming from the state, the city or the district regarding public education. Clearly, innovative interventions will have to emerge from Philadelphia’s civil society.  Government, at all levels appears to be fresh out of new ideas.  Civil society is the sum total of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens.  Civil society includes the family and the private sphere, often referred to as the “third sector” of society, it is distinct from government and business.

With an abundance of major college basketball programs, the Greater Philadelphia region is unique.  College coaches are potentially a very important part of Philadelphia’s civil society.  The ASSIST Project is partnering with college coaches and athletic departments to provide middle school administrators with tools and incentives they can use to help manage student behaviors within their respective schools.  Public and charter 8th grade students with excellent academic records or significantly improved behaviors will receive tickets collegiate sporting events for them and their parents.

St. Joseph’s Head Coach Phil Martelli (below, far right) notes, “One of the most gratifying aspect of my job is watching my players graduate after four years.  It never gets old. I am eager to help in any way I can.”  Martelli has a player from Philadelphia’s public league on his current roster and two commitments from Catholic League players.  “Philadelphia is my primary area of focus, I played HS ball in Philly, I coached HS ball in Philly.  I’ll help Philly kids in any way I can.”

photo-29We know which kids need reinforcement.  Research has shown that an early warning system using indicators based on readily accessible data (grades, attendance, standardized test scores, suspensions, etc) can predict whether the students are on the right path toward eventual graduation. The ASSIST Project will provide school administrators with incentives they can offer to those on the right path. We will also reward students that show marked improvement in behavior and attendance.

Research is also clear that ninth grade is a “make or break” year. More students fail ninth grade than any other grade in high school, and a disproportionate number of students who are held back in ninth grade subsequently drop out. Recent research in large urban school districts, including Chicago and Philadelphia, provides information about powerful indicators that can predict, by the end of the first year of high school, or even during the first semester, whether students will complete high school. For this reason, we are focusing on getting eighth graders ready for high school.

Delaware Head Coach Monté Ross (below) notes, “My wife is an educator. I am a product of Philadelphia’s public school system. We will do anything we can to help kids understand the importance of education.  I look forward to hosting middle school kids that are working hard and doing the right things in school.”

MonteThe ASSIST Project is partnering with basketball coaches at Temple, Drexel, Villanova, St. Joseph’s, Pennsylvania, LaSalle, Penn State, Rutgers, Delaware and Lincoln Universities. We want middle school Principals, Assistant Principals and Guidance Counselors to know that they are not alone. Top academic performers and students exhibiting most improved behaviors, as identified by the school leadership teams will be eligible for tickets to college athletic events. The kids will be allowed to bring their parents and they will meet the players and coaches.  At a time when the resources available to educators dealing with the most needy students are dwindling, the ASSIST Project and area coaches are trying to step up and be a positive influence on school performance and behavior.

We know which kids need reinforcement.  The ASSIST Project is placing emphasis on the creation of early warning systems. We are partnering with college athletic programs to follow through with strategic allocation of rewards and positive reinforcement based on empirical data to help school leadership teams meet their academic and behavioral goals.  By helping school leadership teams develop a school-level early warning and reward system, we hope to contribute to a consistency in vision, goals, and resources that are targeted toward monitoring students through to high school graduation.

Fran Dunphy (below) says, “I’ve spent most my professional life in Philadelphia.  As a coach, I’ve been to most of the local high schools.  Every day I drive through North Philadelphia to get to Temple.  I want to expose positive young people to our campus.  Temple is a special place and we look forward to hosting young students and their families.”


LaSalle Head Coach John Giannini (below) says he will treat the middle school kids no differently than he treats top recruits.  “We will give the kids and their parents seats right behind our bench.  They will have an opportunity to interact with our coaches and players.  This is an important initiative.  I have tremendous respect for public educators and I look forward to giving positive kids, the LaSalle experience.  We are an urban university and I want to have my program engaged in our community as much as possible.”  Giannini’s program has graduated students from Strawberry Mansion and John Bartram high schools.

John GianniniJames “Bruiser” Flint (below) grew up in Southwest Philadelphia.  He spent his formative basketball years immersed in the culture of the Sonny Hill Community Involvement League where his father coached for years.  According to Flint, “Sometimes I worry about the educational situation faced by many of the young people in Philadelphia.  I was fortunate enough to go to Episcopal Academy and St. Joe’s.  One thing I know for sure is that my education prepared me for life as a professional.  If there’s anything I can do to help school teachers and administrators in any small way I can, I’m going to do it.  My office is a few blocks away from the Mantua section of the city and about a mile from my childhood home.  I want good kids to come and see how we do things at Drexel.”

bruiser-flint“I recruit Philly kids.  I love Philly kids,” says Kevin Baggett (below).  Over the past few years, Baggett has graduated public league players from Bartram and Paul Robeson.  He has also coached Catholic League players from Bonner, Roman Catholic, Neumann and LaSalle College high schools.  His roster has featured players from Abington and Cheltenham in the Philly suburbs.  According to Baggett, “Philly kids have a level of toughness that helps a program reach its’ goals.  In college basketball, things don’t always go as planned.  It has been my experience that Philly kids fight rather than give up.  I really respect the job that teachers and principals are doing with limited resources.  We look forward to exposing more Philly kids to the Rider way of doing things.”

BaggettThe first institution of higher learning for African-Americans, Lincoln University has been educating Philadelphians since 1854.  At any given time in its history about half of Lincoln’s student body hailed from Philadelphia and its’ surrounding suburbs.  Lincoln’s Basketball coach John Hill says, “We would be honored to have the top middle school kids come see us play.  Lincoln is unique in a lot of ways.  The players, the fans, the people working will all look like the public school kids.  Lincoln is the oldest historically Black college in America.  We play a very high level of basketball in the CIAA Conference.  I welcome an opportunity to share the Lincoln story with any kid from Philadelphia.”

John HillPhiladelphia public and charter school administrators can nominate 8th grade students via an email to  Representatives of the ASSIST Project will visit guidance counselors and principals at every public and charter middle school in September.  The goal is to “catch” our kids doing the right thing and reinforce positive behaviors.  We want public school employees to know that they are not in this thing alone.  For additional information about the ASSIST Project, visit ASSIST Project website.

RysheedRysheed Jordan, VAUX HS/St. John University, PG

Young, Gifted and Black: Tony Chennault “Filmmaker”

The situation for young Black males in Philadelphia is bleak. The data is beyond alarming. There are, literally, thousands of “lost” Black Philly boys and young men in Pennsylvania’s prisons. Every day local print and television media outlets provide us with “boxscores” and highlights of the carnage that young Black men inflict upon one another in the City of Brotherly Love. For many, it must seem like there’s no way out.


Philadelphia’s homicide rate is consistently among the worst in the nation. Unfortunately, “lost” young Black males between the ages of 17 to 25 are the overwhelming majority of the victims and perpetrators. A few years ago, Mayor Michael Nutter noted, “Of the 2010 homicides, 86.9 percent were African-American males. African-American males were 65.5 percent of the admissions into the Philadelphia Prison System in 2010. These statistics demonstrate there is a real crisis among Black males. If you don’t have an education, if you drop out, you’re already a step behind everyone else. If you drop out from high school your options are already limited and if you’re a Black male and turn to a life of crime, life is already against you.”

One particular Black male homicide occurred on May 31, 2012. On this day, Michael Jay was shot in the back and head. He was immediately rushed to Albert Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia, where he was pronounced dead at 2:47 p.m. the next day. For most Philadelphians, this represented just another senseless killing in a city that has become all too familiar with the lives of Black males ending in a hail of bullets. But for one young man, this killing inspired him to find a way to make a difference.

Tony Chennault Neumann

Tony Chennault, a tough hard-nosed Philly guard, was in the midst of transitioning back to Philadelphia to help care for his ailing mother when his brother Michael was gunned down. After two successful seasons in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) at Wake Forest University, Chennault had decided to transfer home and play his final two years of college hoops for Jay Wright at Villanova. Basketball-wise, this was not an easy decision.  As a sophomore at Wake Forest, Chennault started in all 31 games at point guard and played 30.2 minutes a game, averaging 9 points with 3.0 assists. Despite his early success in what many consider the finest conference in college basketball, Chennault felt a profound need to be close to his mother.  Somethings are more important than sports.

A little more than year after his brother’s murder, Chennault’s mother passed away.  Through all of this adversity, with the support of his Villanova coaches and teammates, Chennault managed to maintain focus on his obligations on and off the court. Despite transferring from Wake Forest to Villanova, despite the loss of a sibling and his mother, Chennault played an important role on a Big East regular season Championship team and, more importantly, graduated in May with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications.

Chennault credits his ability to persevere to lessons he learned at Neumann-Goretti High School under the tutelage of Coach Carl Arrigale. He says, “At Neumann, I learned the importance of faith and loyalty… People just don’t understand the relationship I have with Coach Carl. He calls and texts me every day. He really has an open door policy with current and former Neumann players. Our relationship helped me be strong when times were tough.”

While many of his peers are traveling the globe in pursuit of elusive hoop dreams, Chennault is putting his communications degree to good use. He co-founded 267 Productions with friends, and fellow Villanova alums, Alex Ruane, Rob Jennings and Tom Smith. On Friday, August 22, Chennault will debut the latest release from 267 Productions, OLDHEAD, at his alma mater Nenmann-Goretti High School at 7:00 pm.

The term “Oldhead” refers to older male members of urban Black communities who provide guidance to younger generations, especially Black males. The film is set in Philadelphia, the protagonist Sean must decide between staying loyal to his friend Kareem, or following the insightful words of oldhead Bumpy.


Chennault draws upon his life experiences to tell stories that center on the struggle to succeed against seemingly overwhelming odds. A wise and mature young man, he emphasizes the fact that “people from all backgrounds and races struggle, not just Black people.” While Chennault and his partners aim to make films that are financially successful, that is not the sole means by which they measure their impact.

Chennault says he wants young people to understand that “they have to make the best of the hand you were dealt in life.” He understands that there are barriers and obstacles that young people, especially poor urban kids, have to overcome. However, his message is very simple. Keep pushing, keep studying and make the most out of your situation.

As for the future, Chennault says eventually he would like to venture to New York and Los Angeles. But for now, he is focused on establishing and solidifying Philadelphia as a place where high quality films are made.  It is vitally important that we “catch” young Black males doing the right thing!  As a society, we are bombarded with images of young Black males engaging in destructive and criminal behaviors.  The proliferation of negative imagery is so pervasive that many have developed a numbness to the plight of young Black males.

Here we have a graduate of a Philadelphia Catholic High School.  He is a celebrated athlete, a Catholic League, PIAA State and Big East Champion.  He is an outstanding scholar and a recent Villanova graduate.  He is the co-founder of film company. He is storyteller and a filmmaker.  He is a role model.  He is young, gifted and Black. He is Tony Chennault.


School Choice: A Personal Story

There’s a false dichotomy permeating the Black community in Philadelphia. All across the city parents are succumbing to the notion that they have to either leave their children in rapidly deteriorating and highly dysfunctional neighborhood public schools or they are “selling out.”  Black and Latino parents, in particular, do not want to be viewed as abandoning support for a “societal good” represented by public education. As a result, many fall victim to the fallacy of this false dichotomy when in fact there are other possibilities. Supporters of public education, especially teachers and teacher’s unions go to great lengths to make the case that “school choice” is clearly outrageous, and so allegiance to traditional public schools must be embraced.  Nonetheless, one can opt to place their own child in a Catholic, private or magnet school setting AND still work to improve the situation for those those languishing in traditional public schools.

I was confronted with the false dichotomy fifteen years ago. My daughter, from the age of 3 to 5, attended Head Start/Day Care at a neighborhood public school. I really liked the school for that purpose. It was clean, safe, the staff was pleasant and they really engaged the kids. They did a very good job at the pre-school level. However, when the time came to choose a kindergarten placement, I chose an integrated high performing elementary school in Center City.


When I requested the form to enroll her in another school, the secretary at the neighborhood school loudly said, “It’s parents like you that are the problem.” She then went on to elaborate, “You are involved with you child, you come here everyday to pick her up, she’s a good girl… We need parents like you to keep your kids in our school.” Needless to say, I felt she was way out of bounds.

“Excuse me,” I interjected, “But my responsibility is to ensure the educational and social development of one child. While I want the best for all the children,  I can only make decisions for my daughter. I choose to place her in a diverse, highly competitive educational setting. This school is 99% Black and the test scores are abysmal. I want better for my daughter.” At that point, the Principal, a white male, overheard our discussion and asked me to come into his office. He immediately gave me the required paperwork and told me to bring it back to him directly. He told me he understood, respected and supported my choice.


In the scenario prescribed by the secretary, either you keep your child in ghettoized under-performing neighborhood public schools or you are a sellout abandoning all poor Black kids. Her argument, albeit highly flawed, was very simple powerful.  I know you don’t want to be a sellout and leave Black kids to fend for themselves. So, therefore you should leave your kids in the neighborhood public school.  Too many fall victim to this type of logic.

My daughter has never attended a neighborhood public school. I enrolled her in very diverse and highly competitive magnet programs throughout her K-12 career. I also worked extensively with thousands of students in neighborhood public schools. You can do both. You should do both.

Harrisburg pic

Under NO circumstance should a parent enroll their children in Philadelphia’s neighborhood public high schools. This is especially true for parents of Black male students.  The simple fact is that you are fighting against staggering odds.

In 2010, a major study found that Philadelphia, along with New York was the worst performing district in the nation with regard to Black male graduation rates. The five worst performing districts with large Black male student enrollment (exceeding 40,000) were New York City, N.Y. (28%); Philadelphia, Pa. (28%); Detroit, Mich. (27%); Broward County, Fla. (39%); Dade County, Fla. (27%).

Three years later, in 2013 the Philadelphia school system laid off 3,783 employees, including 676 teachers and 283 counselors. Along with teachers and counselors, those losing their jobs included 127 assistant principals and 1,202 aides who monitor the cafeteria and playgrounds. Among the targeted teachers are those that teach reading, math, English, special education and music.

There were widely publicized episodes of school violence, including one where a faculty member suffered a fractured skull in a confrontation with a student at John Bartram High School. There were also two incidents where young elementary school students died in schools where no nurses where on duty.

This past week the School District of Philadelphia announced it was discontinuing TransPasses for 7,500 high school students who live less than two miles from school, eliminating 300 slots in alternative programs for students at risk of dropping out, making 27 more elementary schools share police officers, reducing school cleaning and repairs, cutting extra professional development time at the District’s Promise Academies, and eliminating some administrative positions.

Clearly, the State of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia are making it harder for Blacks to graduate. It seems, the 28% graduation rate for Black males has been deemed too high by those funding Pennsylvania schools and the local politicians. Please take some time to consider your options.  You have choices.  There are schools that want to provide your child with a rigorous, high-quality education.  There are schools that welcome students of color.

Currently, the nonprofit foundation that manages Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is offering $1,000 grants to encourage students to transfer to the schools.  Christopher Mominey, chief operating officer of the Faith in the Future Foundation and the archdiocese’s secretary for Catholic education, said the new “transfer advantage” grants were part of the effort to boost enrollment at the 17 high schools.

I have met extensively with the leaders of the Faith in the Future Foundation and the presidents of Catholic High Schools across Philadelphia.  Mominey understands the dilemma faced by parents of school-age children in Philadelphia.  Where are parents to turn as the public school system crumbles around them?  The foundation wants to attract students who were not enrolled at Catholic high schools but were interested in learning more about them.

The $1,000 grants are available for all transferring 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade students who qualify for admission and enroll at one of the schools in the fall. The grants will help defray the cost of Catholic high schools, where annual tuition and fees range from $6,500 to $7,000.

Mominey said other dioceses had found that “sometimes, that $1,000 makes the difference for families.”

Students may also be eligible for scholarships based on financial need.   The only way to find out if you qualify is to apply.  Mominey said there was no limit on the number of grants available, “We’ve made a commitment to accept as many students as are qualified.”

Explore your options.  Exercise school choice.


My daughter’s first day in her dormitory freshman year of college.