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.
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%).
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.
There 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.”
We 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.”
The 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.
James “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.”
“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.”
The 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.”
Philadelphia public and charter school administrators can nominate 8th grade students via an email to email@example.com. 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.