Educators and policymakers in Philadelphia knew that meeting the complex needs of the most vulnerable students in struggling public schools was a big challenge, but they did not know exactly how big. So they turned to PolicyLab at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to do the math.
A report released in June by PolicyLab revealed that 17 percent of all Philadelphia public school students have been involved with the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, and it described the educational barriers that these students face.
“This report illustrates the magnitude of youth in our school district who have been involved with the child welfare system — 20 percent by the high school years, and for many schools more than a third of their student body,” stated David Rubin, MD, MSCE, co-director of PolicyLab.
The analysis showed that students who had interaction with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) had poor academic outcomes, were less likely to be promoted to the next grade on time, earned fewer credits during the year, had lower scores on standardized assessment tests, were more likely to receive special education services, and were absent more days from school.
The report — “Supporting the Needs of Students Involved With the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice System in the School District of Philadelphia” — was commissioned by the Mayor’s Office of Education, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, and DHS to help inform policy decisions to align resources to best meet the needs of the diverse student population across the SDP. PolicyLab collected and analyzed data in a targeted cross-system review of students in the third, seventh, ninth, and twelfth grades from the 2011-2012 academic year across all schools within the SDP.
In addition to determining that a substantial percentage of the school population had involvement with DHS, the report also found that these students tend to cluster in certain school types. Within these struggling schools, the report noted, performance was poor even for those students without DHS involvement, demonstrating the need to transform all students’ educational experience in these difficult environments.
“Improving outcomes for these students starts with identifying and deploying the appropriate resources that these schools need to support all students,” Dr. Rubin stated.
At a press conference announcing the report’s key findings, DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose announced an action plan that will include stationing 27 social workers as educational liaisons in public schools with high concentrations of DHS-served youth to help support their learning needs in the 2014-2015 school year. But the report’s partners admitted that they alone cannot address all of the challenges that PolicyLab uncovered.
“This can only be one part of the solution,” wrote the project’s director, Sophia Hwang, MSED, in a PolicyLab blog. “In order for our most at-risk students to achieve academically, they also need safe school environments, appropriate behavioral health services, and caring and supportive mentors.”
As a former SDP high school science teacher, Hwang brought a unique perspective to the report. She recalled not knowing to what extent the approximately 160 students who she taught every day were touched by the child welfare or juvenile justice system. Based on the report’s data, she estimates it is likely that one in every three students on her roster was involved with DHS in some way.
“Now, as a researcher, I ask myself, ‘What supports did my children deserve? What resources would have helped me as their teacher?’” Hwang wrote.
With data from this new report in hand, those making educational policy decisions in Philadelphia and in large cities throughout the country can address those questions more strategically.
“I hope that our report will inspire conversations in other urban school districts about the resources and supports needed for students in their communities,” Hwang wrote.
For more information and to view the full report, please visit Sophia Hwang’s blog post on PolicyLab’s website