School-based programs aimed at curbing youth violence in Philadelphia are beginning to make a dent, but should be expanded, and other measures, such as transitional schools for overage middle-schoolers, should be tried, schools chief Paul Vallas suggested yesterday.

He made the recommendations to some of the state's top pols during a daylong hearing at the Constitution Center that focused on mentorship and the reduction of youth violence. It was chaired by Pennsylvania's U.S. senators, Arlen Specter and Bob Casey.

The senators heard a parade of local officials say that the number of young Philadelphians involved in violence is heartbreaking.

Police Commssioner Sylvester Johnson said it's particularly bittersweet to him when law enforcement becomes involved with a troubled child.

"There is no higher duty to our government than to protect our children, but law enforcement should be the last step in protecting the youth," he said.

Other panelists included city Managing Director Pedro Ramos, Deputy District Attorney John Delaney, and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak.

"We need to line up all of our efforts to support all schools" through various youth-oriented programs, said Zahorchak. "The goal is to see all Pennsylvania students succeed."

A later session included representatives from Big Brothers/Big Sisters, United Way, and the Center for Community Partnerships.

Most panelists spoke about the city's Adolescent Violence Reduction Program and the Youth Violence Reduction Program, the goals of which are to reach and mentor at-risk young people.

Ramos said a "comprehensive strategy is needed," and he, as well as many of the other panelists, cited the successes of both programs. He said the matter is "very important" to the Street administration.

Those on the front lines said they believe in both programs but realize more needs to be done.

Johnson noted that, by the time an adolescent gets the attention of law enforcement, he's either already committed a crime or has been the victim of one.

The city's top cop said he has implored his officers, particularly African-Americans, to visit schools and become a stitch in the mentorship fabric.

Vallas is a proponent of the violence reduction programs, which reach thousands of area students and target youths ages 8 to 24.

The pair of programs "works and needs to be brought to scale," Vallas said. "We need to change the dynamics and expectations."

According to Vallas, the high drop-out rate afflicting city schools can be attributed to incarceration, students who are parents forgoing classes to tend to their children, and over-age and underachieving students.

"The initiatives that target these three will be successful," Vallas said.

Vallas said transitional schools are needed that would accept over-age students now filling the rolls of many middle schools.

Yesterday's hearing followed up Specter's 2005 hearing, "Prevention of Youth Gang Violence," also at the Constitution Center.

"We need to keep the streets safe," Specter said. "Keeping the streets safe is more important than keeping them clean." *