Philly coalition sets new goals to boost graduation rates

 Philadelphia District Superintendent William Hite speaks about Project U-Turn's latest goals. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Philadelphia District Superintendent William Hite speaks about Project U-Turn's latest goals. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

More than a decade after it formed, a coalition of city agencies and nonprofits dedicated to improving high school graduation rates in Philadelphia has set new goals.

By 2020, Project U-Turn aims for 70 percent of the city’s dropouts to return to school at some point — and for half of those who return to earn their high school degree. Right now, the coalition said, 54 percent of students who entered high school in 2008, but dropped out at some point, eventually returned to school. Of those who returned, only 35 percent went on to graduate.

The coalition — with members from 25 organizations and government entities, including the School District of Philadelphia — also vowed to reduce the number of students who “disconnect from high school” to 20 percent by 2020. Among students who started at a Philadelphia high school in 2008, 25 percent dropped out within four years, according to a Project U-Turn report.

When Project U-Turn began in 2006, just 52 percent of Philadelphia high school students graduated on time. Today that figure stands at 66 percent, although it has plateaued in recent years. Throughout Pennsylvania, the four-year high school graduation rate is 86 percent.

To improve graduation numbers, district Superintendent William Hite said, schools must start early. Promoting attendance is crucial, he said. The district teamed recently with researchers to test a series of mailing campaigns aimed at emphasizing the importance of attendance.

On the re-engagement front, Hite has expanded the city’s collection of alternative schools and rebranded them as the “Opportunity Network.” They focus on students who have dropped out, are at risk of dropping out, or have serious disciplinary problems.

Christina Grant, assistant superintendent of the Opportunity Network, urged the city to grow and diversify its network of alternative schools.

“When we build it, they come,” she said. “When we set goals, they reach them.”

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