How the city improved high school graduation rates is a lesson for the future | Editorial

Mayor Kenney sits with students Justice Passe and Megan Davis at Lincoln High School.

The high school graduation rate for Philadelphia public schools used to be so disappointing that the district tried to hide it. The words “about 50 percent” were typically used by various official spokesmen, as if that softened the reality that half the children in city high schools didn’t graduate in four years, if at all.

That history fueled the celebration Thursday when Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced the city’s graduation rate, now 67 percent, had gone up for the third straight year. The announcement was made at Lincoln High School, which has been in the vanguard of schools making significant academic progress.

Lincoln’s graduation rate jumped 12 points to 79 percent. The biggest increase, 16 percent, was at Strawberry Mansion High, but that gave it only a 52 percent graduation rate, which serves as testimony to the challenges to education that students and teachers face in that North Philadelphia neighborhood just east of Fairmount Park.

Mayor Kenney, who has been focused on improving education in the city, participated in the festivities at Lincoln. Kenney pointed out that the higher graduation rates were especially gratifying given the budget gaps the district has struggled with since the recession. “We’re sorry about that,” said Kenney.

All will be forgiven if he makes good on a promise to cover the $100 million deficit that the district expects by 2019. That deficit could grow to $1 billion over five years without significant additional funding. The city will regain control of its schools from the School Reform Commission in June, but it has yet to say where it will find the money.

Kenney and City Council need to reveal how they will step up to the plate after the SRC dies. That creature of the state was supposed to ensure more funding from Harrisburg while providing better governance for city schools. But that didn’t happen.

Management of city schools has improved steadily since 2012 under Hite’s leadership, but almost every school year opened with him hat in hand asking for more money to educate Philadelphia’s schoolchildren.

It’s time for the begging to stop. It’s time for the city to take care of its own. That doesn’t mean the state’s responsibility is absolved. Philadelphia isn’t the only district that lacks adequate funding. But replacing the SRC with local control includes a commitment by Kenney to fill in the gaps left by state funding, no matter how deep.

Do that and the results will be even better than the city’s latest graduation rates, which still fall far below the state average, 86 percent.

But graduation rates and test scores are neither the only or best ways to evaluate how well a school is doing. Just as important is a school’s environment. The right environment helps students and teachers believe learning can take place. And if they believe, it will happen.

Just ask Megan Davis, Lincoln’s student body president, who confesses that her first year there was filled with fear. “I heard rumors that it was a dangerous place, that I should be careful.” But those fears were erased as she found supportive teachers, a great principal in Jack Nelson, and lots of students like her who were there to learn.