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City graduation rate surprises expert;
By Dale Mezzacappa
A new national study shows that Philadelphia has a better high school graduation rate - 70 percent - than many other large cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Washington.
The same study, however, shows that one-third of black students and nearly half of Latinos in the city never finish high school. Fewer than 10 percent of white students drop out.
The study was conducted by Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, composed of African American educators and public officials. The alliance favors charter schools, vouchers, and public school privatization to give inner-city parents a way out of failing neighborhood schools.
"I expected to see Philadelphia . . . towards the bottom," Greene said. "But it came in the middle of the pack."
Philadelphia ranked 14th of the 50 largest districts in the nation, higher than all the big cities to which it is usually compared, except Boston.
Chicago, the study found, graduates 47 percent of its students; New York, 54 percent; and Los Angeles, 56 percent.
Graduation rates, Greene said, "are just one piece of information to see how districts are doing" and should be considered with test scores and other factors. It could be that Philadelphia has such low standards that students "are receiving diplomas who shouldn't be," he said.
Nevertheless, the study seems to undermine the conclusion of Edison Schools Inc. that Philadelphia is among the worst urban districts in the nation - a statement for which it provided scant evidence in its $2.7 million evaluation of the district that former Gov. Tom Ridge commissioned. Using Edison's findings, Gov. Schweiker proposed that a for-profit company - preferably Edison - manage the district.
Three Edison officers - Floyd Flake, Deborah McGriff and Tom Stewart - are on the board of the alliance, as is State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), who wants to help run schools in his West Oak Lane neighborhood.
"We can do better, and we should do better," Evans said. "We don't want to settle for, 'Oh, well, it's not as bad as we thought.' "
Deidre Farmbry, Philadelphia's chief academic officer, said the numbers reflected the district's efforts to set up alternative programs for at-risk students, including those returning from incarceration.
The alliance commissioned the study out of concern that most states and school districts underestimate the dropout rates for African Americans as a way to fend off privatization and other forms of school choice. Greene found that was true across the country - but not in Philadelphia. The city, using a different method, reports a lower graduation rate - about 60 percent.
The National Center for Education Statistics, using still another method, yesterday reported a national high school completion rate of 87 percent, the highest ever, including 92 percent of white and 84 percent of black students. Greene said those numbers were "implausibly high." He calculated a national high school completion rate of 74 percent.
Greene compared the numbers of eighth graders in 1993 with the number of diplomas awarded in 1998, adjusting for changes in demographic makeup. Philadelphia has followed ninth graders in each class since 1990 to see how many graduate four, five and six years later. The National Center counts all people under age 24 with diplomas, including general equivalency diplomas.
Green's study showed that nationwide, 56 percent of black students, 52 percent of Latinos, and 78 percent of whites graduate. In Philadelphia the numbers are 65 percent for blacks, 52 percent for Latinos, and 91 percent for whites.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey rank near the top among states, although both have gaps among ethnic groups.
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