Crime continues to rise in Philadelphia, stores are closing or cutting hours, and national news outlets, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are highlighting the issues. However, neither the media nor the midterm candidates are discussing the relationship between crime and the education system. 

The Pew Trust released a report earlier this year highlighting the increase in shooting victims and homicides in the city. Homicides (page 18) in the city rose from 236 in 2019 to 562 in 2021, and shooting victims (page 20) rose from 1,463 in 2019 to 2,326 in 2021. These are unprecedented increases in violence and criminal behavior in the city.

There are many theories on why crime is up, yet no one is pointing the finger at the abysmal state of the school system in the city. The single biggest predictor of adult incarceration is the lack of a high school diploma or GED. The Hamilton Project conducted a comprehensive research study in 2014 and concluded that “there is nearly a 70 percent chance that an African American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-thirties.” Dropping out of high school is a pipeline to prison, and the Philadelphia School District is supplying the steel to transport their failed students.

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An analysis of the Philadelphia School District over the past few years reveals sobering statistics regarding absenteeism, graduation rates, student enrollment, and dropout rates. Axios just published a report on chronic absenteeism in the district. “Nearly half of all students in the School District of Philadelphia were chronically truant last year, up sharply over the previous twelve months.” The report links chronic absenteeism to lower academic achievement and higher drop-out rates. During the 2021–2022 school year, 55,586 students met the criteria for chronic absenteeism with ten or more unexcused absences.

In addition to skyrocketing absenteeism, enrollment was also down. In a report from last year, the Pew Trust stated that enrollment (page 28) in the district declined by approximately 5,000 students. Where are those children? That same report reveals a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable students who did not have equal access to technology (page 34) during the school closures. Children living in South Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, and Overbrook were less likely to receive a Chromebook than children in other areas of the city. Without technology, how were students expected to access instruction?

The Philadelphia School District graduation rate was never stellar, but the situation was exacerbated when schools closed their doors, particularly for black and Hispanic students. According to the District’s report released in May 2022, the city-wide graduation rate for the 2020–2021 school year was 75 percent, and the on-time graduation rate was 80 percent. On-time is defined as students who complete graduation requirements in the typical four-year time frame. 

It is well past time to end the dropout to prison pipeline and ensure every Philadelphia child has the opportunity to earn a high school diploma and the right to a future that does not include prison.

While the on-time graduation rate remained the same from 2019–2020 to 2020–2021, there were several groups that did not fare so well. Alternative school graduation rates declined by ten percentage points over that same time period. Alternative schools are designed for students who for a variety of reasons, many related to behavioral issues, cannot succeed in the regular public-school setting. Additionally, while graduation rates increased for Asian and white students, they decreased for black and Hispanic students. Interestingly, students enrolled in charter schools had a better chance of graduating by six percent.

These statistics show that the most vulnerable students in the city fared the worst on all accounts. Additionally, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education for the 2020–2021 school year, 1,861 or 3.24 percent of enrolled Philadelphia School District students dropped out of school.

A lack of a high school diploma is a high predictor of adult incarceration. Additionally, school failure is a significant adolescent risk factor that can lead to violence and criminal activity. Data from the Philadelphia School District shows a trend that at-risk students were less likely to have access to technology, less likely to graduate, more likely to score poorly or achieve at lower levels, and more likely to drop out of school.

Clearly, there is a relationship, if not a correlation, between crime, violence, and lack of educational attainment in the city of Philadelphia. If city leaders and politicians truly want to address the issue of crime and violence, it starts with the schools and the educational system. Every child regardless of zip code is entitled to a free and appropriate education under the Pennsylvania constitution. These sobering statistics do not reflect an appropriate education for many students, particularly those most at-risk for dropping out.

It is well past time to end the dropout to prison pipeline and ensure every Philadelphia child has the opportunity to earn a high school diploma and the right to a future that does not include prison.

Beth Ann Rosica holds a Ph.D. in Education and has dedicated her career advocating on behalf of underserved children and families. She owns a consulting business and lives with her family in West Chester, Pa.

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