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   April 24, 2008 Issue                                       

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Second Annual Fiction & Poetry Edition

Opinion: Mayor tackles the dropout problem

Since taking office in January, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter captured headlines when he made the bold promise to cut in half the city’s 45 percent dropout rate — and again when he convinced nine actors from the gritty HBO series The Wire to show up for a private screening of the last episode in City Hall.

Nutter, a former city councilman, can speak with passion both about his determination to turn around the dismal dropout statistic and about his favorite TV show, which ended its five-year run in March.

He has called his dropout pledge an economic, educational and moral imperative. And he loved The Wire, he said, because it unflinchingly portrayed urban reality, presenting human beings of all ranks and circumstances as complex and flawed.

The Wire, he wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “has taken the veil off many of our institutions — police, schools, media, and, of course, the political world.“  

Indeed, the fourth season, which many critics considered the best, peeled back the veil from the education system. It entered a tough middle school through the eyes of four appealing African-American boys trying to cope with their bleak lives, all of whom put a face on the kinds of students who vanish from urban schools in high numbers.

Randy bounces through foster care. Namond endures his mother’s scorn that he is not a successful drug dealer. Michael lovingly tends to his little brother while seething with anger at the adults who have failed him. And Dukie comes from a family so addled by addiction that relatives steal the clothes off his back.  

In delineating these lives, The Wire paints a grim, almost mocking picture of the ability of anti-dropout programs to help them change course, questioning the very relevance of school as we know it in these crime- and poverty-beset neighborhoods. Wire creator David Simon suggested — no, insisted — that the only way to stem the urban dropout tide is to ignore the test-focused No Child Left Behind, forget traditional academics, and lead these students to self-worth and learning in highly unconventional ways.

So the well-meaning math teacher introduces probability through dice and card games.  And an ex-cop teams up with a sociologist to devise an unorthodox anti-dropout project to deal with the toughest kids. It builds a curriculum around their lives, asking them, for instance, to write a constitution for a “corner boy.” It refuses to suspend them for acting out, thwarting their sure-fire way for getting back to their posts.

But the project soon gets swallowed up not just by budget cuts but also by educator concerns that it lowers expectations and ignores the strict disciplinary code. And the well-meaning math teacher is forced to abandon the games and return to test prep worksheets.

These lessons have not been lost on Nutter, nor on the two key people he is counting on to fulfill his dropout promise: Lori Shorr, his chief education officer, and Laura Shubilla, who heads a citywide, multi-agency effort to get students through school by means of a project called Project U-Turn.

Both are enthusiastic Wire fans and attended the City Hall showing, rubbing elbows with 15-year-old actor Jermaine Crawford, who played Dukie.

“The Wire shows so clearly that sometimes we all organize ourselves, either purposefully or not, in ways that make it harder for young people to do the right thing,” Shorr said later. “It asks us to consider how we in Philadelphia are organized to make sure the default for young people is to stay in school, not the opposite.”

Making sure students get what they need requires a deep collaboration involving parents, community leaders, religious institutions, the criminal justice system, the social services bureaucracy and policymakers. Nutter is promising “a call to arms” to do this, but such a massive task is easier said than done.

First and foremost, said Shubilla, there is the issue of resources — not just a shortage of them, but their volatility. The Philadelphia school district currently faces a $64 million shortfall, principals are cutting their budgets, and uncertainty reigns.

“We have to create structures that can survive political transitions,” said Shubilla, co-director of the Philadelphia Youth Network, who spent her early career working with dropouts and gang members in New York. “We’re always in the process of building up or shutting down programs. That is not a sustainable strategy.”

Right now, she said, there is momentum around creating privatized alternative schools to take in dropouts and near-dropouts. But, as yet, there is little hard evidence about their impact, even as the district’s “regular” high schools continue to hemorrhage students dropping out.

“We have goals around creating more seats so kids have good educational options, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t focus on what will stop kids from leaving in the first place,” she said.

The history here is not encouraging — past efforts at total high school restructuring have run aground on the shoals of bureaucratic and union resistance, and the demand to increase test scores makes it harder to look at radical new models.

Project U-Turn, Shubilla said, has to do rigorous evaluation and not be afraid to act on the findings. First up is devising a reliable system to measure whether progress is being made toward Nutter’s goal.

Some are still skeptical.

Speaking to the Public School Notebook, Eric K. Grimes, who founded an organization of African American youth, said “Plain and simple, black youth are not affirmed in school.”

He said that if the city’s main dropout strategy is to create more programs rather than work harder to understand and empower communities, it will fail.

“The idea that we can somehow produce great schools while maintaining the social and economic repression of their communities is ridiculous,” he said.

At the end of The Wire, all that is left of the anti-dropout pilot project is a boring conference session where the sociologist presents his research. The students? The ex-cop saves Namond by literally adopting him. But the others are back in the streets. Randy is hardened by bigger, tougher boys in his group home.

Michael, a once promising math student, leaves his brother with an aunt and becomes a drug lieutenant, stick-up boy and killer. Dukie, who formed a bond with his math teacher but then lies to him to get money — he said he needed it to enroll in a GED course — is last seen putting a needle in his arm.

Shubilla was among those at the City Hall screening who gasped in dismay at that sight.

“We need to figure out what’s going on with families, peer support, social services,” she said. “The tragedy of Dukie, everything was exhausted. The last safety net was pulled out from under him.”

To have any hope of fulfilling Nutter’s promise, she added, “We have to challenge ourselves to do what we should be doing, and not settle for what we can do.”

Dale Mezzacappa, contributing editor at the independent, non-profit Philadelphia Public School Notebook (, has written about education in the city for more than 20 years. The spring 2008 edition of The Notebook is an in-depth look at the city’s dropout crisis.