Coming off the recent release of a similar data set for individual state-level graduation rates, the United States Department of Education has released a comprehensive school-level data set that analyzes states’ high-school graduation rates, and compares the averages between states. The data presents a statewide snapshot of some of the broad educational gains made by the state, along with outlining some of the obstacles left to hurdle.
The good news is that Pennsylvania had an 83 percent graduation rate for all its students at the conclusion of the 2010-2011 school year, the last in which a full data set is available, tying New Jersey as the tri-state leader, with Delaware coming in third, with a rate of 78 percent. It also means that Pennsylvania ranks in the upper 10 percent of all states when comparing graduation figures.
This is the first year that states have reported their educational numbers figures using a standardized four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate. According to the Department of Education, a key goal of these regulations was to develop a graduation rate that provides parents, educators and community stakeholders with pertinent information on the state’s progress while allowing meaningful comparison between states and districts. The new system is supposed to accurately account for in-year dropouts.
“Having good information is critical to making good decisions, and these high school graduation rates are a vital tool to help parents and school leaders make useful comparisons of student growth and success,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “These data will also help state, district and school leaders better gauge progress and support their work to help more students graduate on time, ready for college and careers.”
A further drilling down of the data reveals that while Pennsylvania enjoys good numbers overall, there are some areas that bear minding. For example, of the most important metrics, only 67 percent of all statewide African-American fourth-grade students tested at a proficient level in math, while even fewer of those students – 55 percent – tested proficient in reading. As a comparison, 89 percent of all white fourth-grade students throughout the state tested at proficient levels in math, while 79 percent of those students tested at a proficient level in reading.
Of great import, given the attention afforded to STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – related coursework, is the statewide science numbers, and the good news there is that 82 percent of all students in the state tested proficient in science. A deeper look, however, shows that minority students are again lagging in that field, with only 59 percent of African-American elementary school students testing at a proficient level. That compares to 89 percent of white students.
Lastly, in terms of Adequate Yearly Progress, 86 percent of all schools in Pennsylvania made AYP, which puts Pennsylvania in the top ten; Wisconsin leads the nation with a 99 percentage rate, while South Carolina, New Mexico and Virginia lag as the states well behind the AYP curve, with 1 percent, three percent and three percent, respectively.
“Previously, the variety of methods states used to report high school graduation rates made comparisons among states unreliable. While the new measure is not comparable to previously reported rates, it provides a more accurate snapshot of high school graduation and can inform schools’ efforts to improve going forward,” read an explanatory note from the education department. “States, districts and schools can use the new, common metric to promote greater accountability and to develop strategies that will reduce dropout rates and increase graduation rates in schools nationwide.”
Capable, caring teachers are considered heroes by many of their pupils, and now, 20 teachers throughout the region – including eight with direct connections to public education in Philadelphia – will be honored with a reception and award banquet on Thursday at the National Liberty Museum.
Teachers were nominated for the “Hero as Teacher” award through a combination of metrics, including how long each teacher has consistently excelled, volunteers outside of school, demonstrates classroom and coursework creativity, leads in anti-bully and conflict-diffusing initiatives, overcomes institutional obstacles and lastly, serves as a role model for their peers. The honor also recognizes outstanding educators for excellence and leadership; this annual program is judged by a panel of Museum officials and educators from throughout the tri-state area.
“Our honorees excel at preparing the next generation of Philadelphians and beyond for future challenges,” said National Liberty Museum CEO Gwen Borowsy. “All teachers make a footprint on a student’s life, but our winners make a deeper one than others. We are grateful to them for going the extra mile beyond the classroom - with others. We are grateful to them for going the extra mile beyond the classroom - with creativity, dedication and inspiration.”
The eight teachers with Philadelphia ties are Alan Bonstein from Central High School; Stacey Carlough from Freire Charter School; Sean Deal from Gesu School; Pat Eaton from Girard College; Aaron Gerwer from Murrell Dobbins CTE High School; Karen Kardon-Weber from Abraham Lincoln High School; James More from Thomas May Pierce and Mehmet Cogal from Truebright Science Academy Charter School.
The honored teachers will receive a free family membership to the museum; a free guided tour of the museum for their class; featured placement in the museum’s “Teacher as Heroes Exhibit”; participation in a Museum Act 48 Teacher Training Workshop of their choice at no charge and various other museum-related offerings.
Each of the teachers selected are trailblazers in their own right. Cogal, for example, has made over 100 home visits to understand where his students come from and how they live, and has provided all parents with his cell phone number and makes himself available to them before, during, and after school hours. Cogal also coaches the Middle School Math Team, which won first and second place in 2011 regional competitions, volunteers at school science fairs and tutors students during lunch, prep times, and Saturdays.
For his part, Deal has taught physical education at Gesu for 10 years, and gives up much of his free time to be involved in the sports and other extracurricular activities, often using his athletic background to diffuse escalating confrontations and conflicts. Deal, according the museum, continues to advise his students after they go on to high school. Deal himself overcame a learning disability and challenges to his fine and gross motor skills, but practice and perseverance allowed him to play basketball in high school.
“Since 2001, State Farm has partnered with the National Liberty Museum and has been a sponsor of the museum’s Teacher as Hero Awards since the program’s inception in 2006.
Each year the program has grown with more teachers being recognized and more nominations submitted. As the nation’s largest insurer, our investment in education is tied to our company mission to help individuals realize their dreams,” said State Farm Spokesman Dave Phillips, who will present the awards at Thursday’s ceremony. “Our teachers help our children realize their dreams with access to a quality education that helps them to achieve their greatest potential that helps them become good community citizens, and that helps prepare them for the workforce.
“According to the America’s Promise Alliance, every 26 seconds a young person drops out of high school. That’s more than 7,000 every day and over 1 million each year,” Phillips continued. “The teachers recognized tomorrow night have fostered classroom engagement with creativity that promotes personal respect. In turn, their students respond and excel through their guidance.
The success of our future lies within the youth of today. For those reasons, these teachers are true heroes.”
While just about everyone involved – including School Reform Commission members, pro-public school organizations and concerned stakeholders – all seemed to have stepped back to catch breaths and further evaluate the situation, one group has ramped up pressure on the SRC and its vote to close two dozen schools by filing a class-action lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia.
The suit, filed on February 28 by a group of parents with support from the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, alleges that the closures will have a disproportionally negative effect on their special-needs children; the group also wants the courts to force the district to reveal all of its funding streams and determine if all available federal funds were used before district Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen requested and received a $300 million loan to keep the district afloat for the current school year.
Representatives recently met to discuss the lawsuit, and have another meeting scheduled for next week; listed references haven’t returned calls by Tribune press time; the School District of Philadelphia has a longstanding policy of not commenting on ongoing and pending litigation.
The groups’ suit - buttressed by recent findings by Dr. A.V. Hankins which proves that school dropouts pose not only an economic problem, but a health one as well – and alleges the district either skirted or outright violated several clauses, including the Community Mental Health Act, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, Handicapped Amendments of 1986, Americans With Disabilities Act of 2001 and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, among others.
“There are multiple codes that are outlined in the motion that could have assisted the district, and the SRC, in providing quality education. The district, instead, has decided, without demonstrable cause, to uproot, displace, and arbitrarily transfer special-needs students, by closing schools, increasing the transportation burden and decreasing their chance of educational success. The health of an individual is directly related to their obtained educational level,” read the suit, in part. “The closing of multiple high schools with children with multiple special needs without pursuing all possible stabilizing possibilities is against these stated laws. The Germantown High School has 30 percent homeless students, 30 percent with special needs and others that are handicapped. The district has not provided the financial records, or how the individual education programs for the individuals will be modified to provide the additional services that these students will need after these forced transfers and school closures.
“By transferring special needs children without outlining the proper provisions, the district violates the Individuals with Disabilities Act and Chapter 14 of the Pennsylvania Code,” the suit continued. “These transfers are scheduled to occur with little or no parental involvement, without required consideration of the children’s individualized circumstances, and in direct violation of the mandated individual planning process of the IDEA.”
The suit further alleges that the method in which the district went about closing the school has a strong inference of discrimination and claims the district isn’t following national guidelines, particularly those of the National Policy Board for Education Administration; the alleged discriminatory nature of the closures remain the driving force behind the suit, which doesn’t mince words in its claims against the district.
“The premature attempt to close multiple minority Philadelphia schools should be halted. This would completely dismantle the public school system in Philadelphia. The claim of lack of funding as the reason behind the systems failure is, in fact, a possible cover up for a lack of knowledge or interest in the demographics or special needs of the students of the free public school system,” read the suit. “The city, state and federal governments have failed to provide quality education and the necessary support for the special needs, homeless, handicapped and minority students, consequently jeopardizing the entire student body.”
Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School combines on-site, online learning
With charter and cyber-charter schools under attack, and varying levels of criticism from those that believe that charters are cannibalizing traditional brick-and-mortar public education offerings, the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School – a hybrid charter/cyber charter with a location at the Community Women’s Education Project, 2801 Frankford Ave., – is enjoying certifiable success, by way of a 100 percent graduation rate and meeting several academic standards.
Not bad for a school that has only been in that location for a year. And now, PALCS leadership will hold an open house on Tuesday, March 12 beginning at 4 p.m. at its Frankford Avenue location.
“We have an amazing program here at the Community Women’s Education Project, which is geared toward getting students a high school diploma free of the drama that perhaps goes on inside traditional public schools,” said PALCS Graduation Academy Director Tara Cartafalsa. “Right now, we have a small group of students, and we do have some seats to fill.
“Our program is for grades 9 through 12, and it’s for [nontraditional] students,” Cartafalsa continued. “We also accept students who previously dropped out of school, and students who have trouble keeping up with coursework, due to family issues and other things going on in their lives.”
While critics revile charters and cyber charters for everything from funding inequality to cyber and cyber-charters enjoying a level of autonomy that is foreign to their traditional public school peers, Cartafalsa explained that schools like PALCS are necessary in catching students that might otherwise slip through the cracks.
“There is no denying the demand for cyber-education here in Philadelphia. More than ever, parents are putting a high priority on placing their kids in an environment where the flexibility of working from home and structure of a guiding facility come together,” Cartafalsa previously stated. “For these parents and children, we are excited that PALCS has established a Brick and Click E-Learning Center in Fishtown–West Kensington. Whether students need an orderly working environment, assistance from academic advisers, or just interactions with other kids, this new center makes it possible to complete their cyber coursework and receive additional support they may need.
“The cyber-environment is a good fit for me and our students,” Cartafalsa added. “Our kids really like the independence and flexibility of PALCS. Without the distractions and bad influences, they are able to live up to their potentials.”
Cartafalsa also noted several other differences between PALCS and other charter schools, most notably the schools’ daily academic schedule. The school day begins at 9 a.m. and end at 2 p.m., but have round-the-clock access to course material and counseling, should they need it.
“We have our teachers live, online, every day, and they all have office hours as well,” Cartafalsa explained. “And the student’s coursework is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so students can continue working. And if they have questions at night, we also have nighttime chats. And if students experience some things and cannot come to school, the school is available online, and as long as they log in within 24 hours [and complete the work], they won’t be marked absent.
“And at Tuesday’s open house, we will give tours, and show the course software we have, so students and parents will know what their school day looks like,” continued Cartafalsa. “Graduation is still a milestone for students as well, and we have things like proms, graduations and senior trips.”
At first glance, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and public education in Philadelphia have very little in common, but that will change as education nonprofit Turning Points for Children will use the university to help expand its FAST program here.
The university received a $15 million federal grant, and a portion of that will go toward the continued funding of FAST – Families and Schools Together – a TPC-facilitated program that has been active within the School District of Philadelphia since 2003. According to TPC, this grant will also fund a five-year study on kindergarten students and families, and will work with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services on the assessments included within the study.
As part of the five-year grant, Turning Points for Children will raise $1.5 million from the private sector, including foundations, corporations and individuals.
Turning Points for Children came about as the result of the 2008 merger of the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Society for Services to Children.
“We are grateful to the Wisconsin Center for Education Research for inviting our FAST program to participate in this project,” said Turning Points for Children Executive Director Michael J. Vogel. “We especially want to thank DHS for their support of both FAST and Turning Points for Children over the last seven years.”
FAST will operate in two middle schools this semester, and is intended to bring about a synergy among families, teachers, community stakeholders via a shared meal and a number of structured social activities, including sports and family-oriented events.
The U.S. Department of Education issued the grant under its Invest in Innovation initiative, and the school district, along with Families and Schools Together, Inc. are two of the main partners; the Wisconsin Center for Education Research will be the main facilitators of the five-year project, with organizers there commending the work of the local outfit, noting its dedication and recent gains.
“First, the local agency Turning Points for Children has nine years of experience implementing the FAST program in 30 schools in the district,” said WCER Director Adam Gamoran in a statement released by the center. “The new grant will validate that success on a larger scale while maintaining high quality.
“Second, the School District of Philadelphia has identified parent and family engagement as a priority in school improvement efforts, as reflected in the district’s strategic plan.”
In data provided by Turning Points for Children, according to the 2010 Census, 38.5 percent of Philadelphia families with children under age 18 live below the federal poverty level; the project will study 60 schools – serving more than 4,000 kindergarteners – that are not currently involved with FAST.
“Our students and families need a wealth of resources to success, both inside and outside of school,” said School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr., who attended the grant’s announcement alongside Vogel. “The grant will go a long way toward reaching even more children and families.”