A new beginning for Philadelphia high school drop outs

Philadelphia’s much-publicized high school drop-out rate hovers around 50 percent – and many drop-outs never return to school. But more than 200 young people are having a new go at a diploma at a charter school; it’s a chance they had to earn.

In early September, cheers and tears – of joy – marked a new beginning for this year’s class at Philadelphia’s YouthBuild Charter school.

Each of the students who got into the one-year program has worked hard to get there:

Sidhu: This is as much about you choosing us, as us choosing you.

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Youthbuild executive director Simran Sidhu says motivation is key in being admitted to this school, which caters to people between the ages of 18 – 21. About 900 people apply every year. Applicants have to show up for an interview, then go through an in-depth orientation, and finally, complete what’s known as “mental toughness” training:

Sidhu: It’s 8 days of you have to be there on time every day, you have to go by the school’s rules. Really, the most important thing is that it starts students off with a feeling of success, that yes, they CAN do it.

That’s something the 214 students in this year’s incoming class will have to continue to prove every day – as they complete a challenging curriculum split evenly between academics and practical job training.

Sidhu: Our students for example in the building trades training track rebuild abandoned houses in the city, so that when they leave, they have the sense that they have a trade, I have something to prove that I did this, and I built this house, and nobody is ever taking that away from you.

Students can also choose healthcare or technology as vocational tracks, and will leave with a high school diploma in addition to their job training certificates. The 17-year-old program gets funding from several sources: state charter school funding, work force development grants, and private foundations.

Gregory Jefferies, YouthBuild studentMornings at YouthBuild on Broad Street begin with an assembly. Dean Ameen Akbar discusses what’s on the agenda for the week, and leads the students in their school pledge, which reinforces concepts like dedication, and respect.

The students wear YouthBuild t-shirts and khakis. Many are covered in tattoos – but they are as eager as first-graders to be called on by Akbar.

Akbar says his relationship with students is built on mutual respect:

Akbar: There’s a reason why we don’t have metal detectors and never will have metal detectors. There is a reason why we don’t have school police, and will never have school police. People have told our students that yeah, I respect you. But when they see us play it out, when we say thank you to them, when we make a mistake, we apologize to them – these are things that they haven’t gotten by and large in their communities, in their families, and quite frankly, in school.

Respect was completely absent at Gregory Jefferies’ former high school, which is why he says he dropped out:

Jefferies: I couldn’t focus, because you had guys in the back of the classroom, rolling up blunts, marijuana, smoking with the windows open, it was like the teachers were inferior to the students, they were not showing any discipline whatsoever.

After a several-year hiatus, Jefferies is now determined to get his diploma:

Jefferies: You can’t really move on in life without your diploma, having your diploma is they key to unlock another door in life.

Jefferies is 20, and has two young children. About half of all students at YouthBuild have children, and face a myriad of other challenges. Many become homeless over the course of the year, their families struggle with drug and alcohol addictions, and then, says Ameen Akbar, there is the ever present specter of violence: Inspirational messages and letters from students in the hallways.

Akbar: Every year since I have been here, we have had a young man either shot or killed. Every year, through every class. Names like Shawn Bolden, looking at his obituary here in my office. We had a young man he needed two more days to finish our mental toughness period, Nasseef Ingram, he was murdered in Frankford.

The graduation rate at Youthbuild is between 75 and 80 percent, and executive director Simran Sidhu says her staff is working hard to keep everybody enrolled

Sidhu: You know, you miss three days of school you get called by a case manager by your mentor, by your teacher, by me, so they come back with this “oh my god, five people called me, I better show up.”

The school year at YouthBuild is still young, and even with so many odds stacked against his students, Ameen Akbar is full of energy and optimism.

Akbar: I get an opportunity and we get an opportunity here to touch and feel change every day. It’s not a word, we can touch it.

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