News Article

PYN News Article

Project U-Turn highlighted in D.C.

Philadelphia's Project U-Turn: Citywide Efforts to Address the Dropout Crisis

Category: Project U-Turn | Mar 1, 2007

Graduation and Dropout Basics

According to AYPF’s publication, Whatever It Takes:

  • Every nine seconds in America, a student becomes a dropout.
  • A staggering one-third of freshmen in U.S. public high schools fail to graduate with their class. Graduation rates are even lower for minorities, males and students from low-income families.
  • From 1990 to 2000, high school completion rates declined in all but seven states and the rate of students dropping out between 9th and 10th grades increased.

Panelists explained how dozens of public and private agencies in Philadelphia used data-driven collaboration and multiple funding streams to develop Project U-Turn, a citywide collective effort by the city government, the school district, and more than three dozen public and private agencies to understand and resolve Philadelphia’s dropout crisis.

Ruth Curran Neild, a Research Scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University, explained how she and co-author Robert Balfanz (also a Research Scientist at Johns Hopkins) measured the scope and nature of the dropout problem.  Using data from a unique data system (the Kids Integrated Data System, or KIDS), which merges years of individual-level data on youths from the city’s school district and social service agencies, Neild and Balfanz estimated annual and cohort dropout rates from the city’s public schools and identified factors that school and youth agency personnel could use for early identification of students likely to drop out.  Key findings included:

Annual Dropout Rate. In a typical school year, about 6% of the 130,000 students in Grades 6 through 12 in Philadelphia’s public schools (including charter school) dropped out, and another 4% were “near-dropouts”  - that is, students who were officially enrolled in school but attended less than 50% of the time.  In total, 13,000 students could be classified as dropouts or “near-dropouts.”  Most of the dropouts were at least 17, and were predominately overage, under-credited students in Grades 9 or 10. However, some were juniors or seniors, just a credit or two short of a diploma, and 15% were in Grades 6 to 8.  Most of the “near-dropouts” were 15 or younger – technically too young to leave school.

Cohort Graduation Rate.   About 50% of the high school students earned their diploma in four years, nearly 10% graduated within five or six years, and only few graduated after that.  In other words, more than 40% left school without a diploma.  These percentages were approximately consistent over six cohorts of students who started high school between 1996 and 2001. “We found variations by gender, neighborhood, race and ethnicity, but no group, no neighborhood, and neither gender was doing very well,” Neild said. Still, it was clear that students in danger of falling off the graduation track were heavily concentrated in neighborhood high schools serving large percentages of low-income students.

Warning Signs. Eighth-graders who failed math and/or English and/or attended less than 80% of the time had at least a 75% probability of dropping out, as did ninth graders who attended less than 70% of the time, earned fewer than two credits, and/or were not promoted to Grade 10 after their first year of high school. Together those two groups accounted for 80% of Philadelphia’s dropouts.  Other groups with dropout rates far above the citywide average of 40% included youth who were involved with the juvenile justice system (90%), placed in foster care (75%), substantiated as victims of abuse or neglect (71%), or had given birth within four years of entering high school (68%).

Laura Shubilla, President and co-founder of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN), explained her organization’s role in Project U-Turn. PYN is a citywide network, formed in 1999 to cut across jurisdictional lines between public and private youth-serving agencies that works to integrate services and build systems that promote positive postsecondary outcomes for young people.  In addition, PYN manages the Youth Council, a committee of the city’s business-oriented Workforce Investment Board, appointed by the mayor to oversee federal workforce spending in Philadelphia. In 2004, the Youth Council formed the Philadelphia Youth Transitions Collaborative, which includes representatives of the school district, major city agencies, and youth advocacy and support organizations. The efforts of this Collaborative focused on finding ways to prevent or remedy the city’s high dropout rates. The Collaborative, working primarily through its 40-member steering committee, used the findings from Neild and Balfanz to develop a consensus on recommendations for changes in policy and practice in numerous agencies.

The Neild- Balfanz study and a companion report outlining the Collaborative’s recommendations were released in October 2006, along with Project U-Turn, the implementation stage of their anti-dropout efforts. Their major financial support comes from the William Penn Foundation and three national philanthropic partners, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Shubilla said the project’s initial activities include increasing public awareness of the extent and implications of the crisis and of efforts to alleviate it, and supporting Philadelphia School District’s efforts in high school reform that develop “multiple pathways” that “prevent young people from dropping out and recapture and recover young people who have left school.”

Courtney Collins-Shapiro, Director of Multiple Pathways to Graduation in the Philadelphia School District’s Office of Secondary Education, said the multiple pathways used by the school district within the last three years include:

He said the research by Neild and Balfanz shows that the students most likely to drop out in Philadelphia are youth who get in trouble, pregnant teens, and students who are overage and under-credit. Given sufficient funding, Project U-Turn’s recommendations for helping them can be implemented, Vallas said. Placing social workers in schools already has helped to personalize ties to some students and hiring parents as truant officers has helped to raise attendance. Youth who emerge from juvenile detention and simply return to their neighborhood schools are far more likely to drop out than those who, under a new program,  are evaluated and assigned to transitional programs, whether public or private. These programs recognize the needs of students who are overage and under-credit, as they are encouraged to accelerate the pace at which they acquire credits, and are offered wrap-around social services. Pregnant teens and their children are less likely to drop out when the teens are trained in mothering by mentors who encourage them to stay in school, Vallas said.

“The Youth Collaborative has told us where the problems lie, and what the solutions are,” Vallas said, “Now it’s up to the local, state, and federal governments to step up to the plate and bring their recommendations up to scale.”

Question and Answers

Fielding questions from an audience that included congressional, executive branch and youth-service agency staff members, Vallas said the anti-dropout effort has stronger support from his district, the city, foundations, and nonprofit agencies than from local businesses. Collins-Shapiro said the number of local firms involved in the effort has been increasing.

Vallas told another questioner that cooperation between his district and city agencies “is no worse” than in his previous post in Chicago, but would be even better if, like Chicago and New York City, the mayor were in charge of the schools. Vallas reports to a board of three gubernatorial appointees and two mayoral appointees.

It is too early to quantify the impact of Philadelphia’s three-year-old high school reform efforts, including its anti-dropout programs, Vallas said. “Many of the things recommended in the Project U-Turn study are things we’ve been piloting. We’re trying to get the funding to bring them up to scale.”

Presenter Biographies

Paul Vallas was appointed Chief Executive Officer for the School District of Philadelphia in July of 2002. Mr. Vallas has implemented sweeping District-wide reforms in Philadelphia, duplicating many of the approaches that changed Chicago's Public School System from one of the worst in the nation to a nationally recognized model for education reform. His reforms are creating safer schools, better-trained teachers, a unified curriculum, more support for students with special needs and a fiscal plan that improves the financial health of the District. His approach to reforming the District is one of inclusion because parents, staff, community organizations, religious institutions and the City of Philadelphia all deserve a say in their schools.

Mr. Vallas served as the Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001. During his tenure, Mr. Vallas transformed the nation's third largest school system from what was thought of as "the worst in the country" to "a model for the nation." Mr. Vallas initiated a broad series of educational reforms to reverse the system's persistent failure. He eliminated a projected four-year shortfall of $1.3 billion within two years and balanced the system's budget each year thereafter. Mr. Vallas fully restored financial stability to the Chicago Public Schools, which earned thirteen bond rating upgrades within a six year period.

During his term, he also implemented an unprecedented capital improvement program by constructing 76 new buildings and renovating more than 500 existing buildings. The program produced a vastly improved learning and teaching environment for the school system. Mr. Vallas is also credited with ending social promotion, the reorganization of Chicago's high schools, and establishing the largest after-school and summer reading programs in the country. Between 1996 and 2000, student test scores improved by virtually every academic indicator, including six consecutive years of improved elementary reading scores.

Mr. Vallas was Executive Director of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission from 1985 to 1990, where he was responsible for reviewing, analyzing and assessing the legislative impact of state finances on state and local taxes. He also dealt with economic development issues.

Before joining the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission, Mr. Vallas served as a policy advisor to the Illinois State Senate. Mr. Vallas was the principal advisor to the Senate Elementary and Secondary Education and Appropriations Committees.


Courtney Collins-Shapiro is Director, Multiple Pathways to Graduation, Office of Secondary Education.  In her role with the School District of Philadelphia, Ms. Collins-Shapiro manages the District’s multiple education pathways for overage, under-credited youth, including: contracts with external providers who manage five accelerated high schools, an after-hours Educational Options Program, the new Gateway to College program, and creation of new academic programs for this group of youth.  In addition, she oversees the District’s dropout prevention and re-engagement efforts and serves as the District’s liaison for Philadelphia’s Youth Transitions Collaborative to create a systemic, citywide approach to solving the dropout crisis.  Prior to this appointment in January 2006, Ms. Collins-Shapiro started the District’s Office of College and Career Awareness in 2003.   Here she focused on creating large-scale systems and programs for increasing college awareness and preparation for the 90,000 primarily low-income, minority students in Philadelphia public schools in grades 6 through 12.  Key projects included redesigning the District’s guidance counseling model and professional development approach, implementation of 12 full-service “Student Success Centers” in neighborhood high schools, and management of two GEAR UP grants encompassing more than 23,000 student participants and $9 million in annual grant funds.

Prior to joining the School District of Philadelphia, Ms. Collins-Shapiro focused her efforts on the needs of students enrolled in higher education.  From 1996 to 2002 she held progressively responsible positions in student advising and leadership development at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Maryland, College Park.   At College Park, she also taught undergraduate leadership development classes for five years.   She has a Masters of Science in Higher Education Administration from the University of Pennsylvania and has completed her coursework for the Doctor of Philosophy degree in Education Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland.  Her research focuses on increasing access to and success in higher education for low-income, minority students. Ms. Collins-Shapiro earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Villanova University and spent three years in the private sector with a Fortune 500 healthcare services firm working in marketing and employer strategy.

Ruth Curran Neild is a Research Scientist, Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. She is the co-author of a recent study, entitled Unfulfilled Promises, which explores the causes and consequences of high school dropout rates in Philadelphia.  Her research interests include urban education, school choice, recruitment and retention of teachers for urban school districts, and high school reform.  Recent publications include an article on parent management of high school choice in large urban districts and an article on the effects of magnet schools on the composition of neighborhood high schools.  With Research for Action, a nonprofit research organization, she has published two reports on teacher quality in Philadelphia.

She received her PhD in sociology in 1999 from the University of Pennsylvania.

Laura Shubilla, President, Philadelphia Youth Network, is also a co-founder of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN), a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all of Philadelphia’s young people take their rightful place as full and contributing members of a world-class workforce for the region.  Ms. Shubilla served as PYN’s Senior Vice President from its inception in 1999, overseeing the growth of the organization from a small non-profit subsidiary to an independent citywide entity dedicated to integrating services and building systems that promote positive post-secondary outcomes for young people.  Appointed as President of the organization in July 2002, Ms. Shubilla now oversees all PYN’s programmatic and fiscal operations, encompassing the work of more than one hundred and fifty full-and part-time staff and a budget in excess of $20 million.   Through initiatives like WorkReady Philadelphia and Project U-Turn, PYN reaches thousands of 14- to 21-year-old youth each year.

Prior to her work in Philadelphia, Ms. Shubilla was based in New York City.  After receiving her Masters of Science in Social Policy, Planning and Administration from Columbia University's School of Social Work in 1992, she served as Assistant Director of the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, where she raised more than $4 million for social and legal services, and subsequently served as program consultant on the implementation of a national welfare-to-work demonstration project.  From 1996 to 1998, Ms. Shubilla worked with the Bronx-based Banana Kelly Community Improvement Corporation, where she designed and developed the Banana Kelly High School, a public high school featuring experiential, project-based learning focused on community development.  At Banana Kelly, she also designed and implemented a $1 million demonstration project to develop a comprehensive curriculum providing life-skills and case management to 170 individuals who were homeless and living with AIDS.  During this same period, Ms. Shubilla also served as an Adjunct Professor and Lecturer at the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Ms. Shubilla was recently selected as one of Philadelphia’s 101 top “connectors” by Leadership Philadelphia, a non-profit organization that has been working with top leaders in the region to identify qualities of good leadership and how to teach these qualities to youth.

PYN, Inc.  
400 Market St.
Suite 200
Philadelphia, PA 19106