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Boosting Graduation, Reducing Dropout Rates Key to Philly Schools’ Success, City Schools Chief Says

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by Special to the Capital-Star, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
January 23, 2023

By Chanel Hill

PHILADELPHIA — Increasing the graduation rate, reducing the dropout rate and improving student attendance are among the areas that School District of Philadelphia superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. said he would like the district to focus on in the future.

Watlington is working with several groups to create a strategic plan that will guide the district’s academic goals for the next several years. He spent the first several months of his tenure participating in a listening and learning tour.

“In May, I will bring to the Board of Education a comprehensive plan that answers questions that speak to our vision, which is to become the fastest-improving large urban school district in the country,” Watlington said during a recent Philadelphia Tribune editorial board meeting.

“In order to do that, we must improve our attendance, increase our graduation rate and address our dropout rate. We will measure that goal by the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores,” he added.

Over the last few school years, Philadelphia has had a double digit drop-out rate. During the 2020-2021 school year, the dropout rate was 14%. In 2019-2020, the dropout rate was 16.3% and in 2018-2019 the dropout rate was 21.3%.

Every month, Watlington will give the school board regular updates on the dropout rate as well as how many students and teachers attend classes.

“Our goal is to get students to have no less than 90% attendance every month and to really make graduation a reality,” Watlington said. “We’re looking at how we can get teachers to have no less than 90% attendance every month.

“We also have to significantly reduce the number of kids dropping out of school in Philadelphia,” he said. “As we dig into the data, the next step is to examine it and figure out what is driving students, teachers and principals to not have a regular attendance of 90% or higher.

“We don’t want to make assumptions because everyone’s situation or reason will be different. However, we will be reaching out to teachers, principals, students and families to better understand what’s going on and how we can come up with a better strategy to raise those numbers,” he added.

The district’s four-year graduation rate is currently 70%. In 2019-2020, the graduate rate for district students was 72.2% and during the 2018-2019 school year it was 69.2%.

Starting with the class of 2023, Pennsylvania students must graduate through one of five pathways. Two of the pathways rely on scores from Keystone exams.

Philly schools chief Watlington begins final part of strategic plan

If students don’t have high scores on the three exams, they can still earn their diploma by completing one of three alternate pathways including career and technical concentrator, alternative assessment and the evidence based pathway.

Fifty-seven percent of Philadelphia’s high school seniors, or 4,586 out of 8,114, have completed the state’s new graduation requirement, as of Jan. 5. Gov. Tom Wolf signed Act 158 in 2018.

“No decision should be based on just one test,” Watlington said. “We know that while some kids may be strong test takers, there are some students who are not.

“The five pathways allow students to demonstrate their graduation readiness in other ways,” he said. “Students don’t just need to pass Keystone exams with a certain score to graduate.

“They can now get credit for completing internships. If they receive an acceptance letter to a two or four year institution that can be used for their graduation requirements,” he added.

To prepare students and families for the graduation requirement, the district has created the 2022-2023 graduation requirement toolkit and resources. Newly approved industry certifications are available for schools and student use.

District-wide systems will capture individual graduation plans for seniors. That plan will expand to all high school students next school year. The city’s Department of Commerce also gave the district $2 million to help schools meet the new requirements.

“We are tracking the data on a daily basis,” Watlington said. “We’re supporting schools and communicating with parents both in writing. We’re doing public service announcements and robo calls. We’re preparing principals and counselors to have one-on-one conversations with parents.

Weeks into the job, new Philly schools boss Watlington checks in with district families

“We’re also partnering with a lot of community organizations from local universities to employers to coordinate, grow and develop internships and apprenticeship opportunities for students.

“We’re looking at how we can reallocate resources by seeing who can help us be the connector between community groups and the opportunities for our students in terms of Act 158 requirements and tutoring opportunities,” he added.

The district will also continue to focus on the school board’s goals and guardrails. The board wants to improve the percentage of third- to eighth-grade students who meet state benchmarks in English from 36%, its current level, to 65% and in math from 22% to 52% by 2026.

“When it comes to state tests, PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) tests and Keystone tests, we have improved 4% in English for grades 3-8 and by 5% in grades 3-8 in math,” Watlington said.

“However, third grade reading remains flat,” he said. “We want to achieve a 30% increase in reading and math within the next five years.”

Watlington said the five-year strategic plan will help the district have long term academic success for its students.

“Part of my job as the superintendent is to bring people together and build systems and structures where we can learn to collaborate,” Watlington said. “We need to continue to have stakeholders, parents, educators, community members and students be at the table.

“We all have to be able to sit down together, communicate with each other and come up with a solution together,” he added. “If we all work together and align around this strategic plan, I believe we can move the needle in the school district.”

Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.