One Student at a Time

One Student at a Time: At El Centro de Estudiantes, intense adult interaction helps high school dropouts graduate—and sets them up for success in their lives

By the time Ryan Rivera was 18 years old he had dropped out of high school twice, lost his father, almost lost his mother to breast cancer, had a child, been to a disciplinary school, and been arrested twice. Perhaps counterintuitively, after a lifetime of seeing drugs sold on every corner, selling drugs himself, witnessing regular violence on his block, and frequent run-ins with law enforcement, this North Philly kid—now 21—had always wanted to be a police officer.

But first he needed a high school diploma. Traditional school environments had never worked for Rivera. He had a mild learning disability and had conflicts with teachers whom he felt had labeled him as a “problem child.” So Rivera enrolled in one of Philadelphia’s alternative schools for students who have disengaged from high school: El Centro de Estudiantes in Kensington, which—as its name suggests—serves the neighborhood’s large Latino population.

Like Philadelphia’s 11 other public alternative and accelerated schools, El Centro opened as part of an effort to counter the high dropout rate in Philadelphia and find ways to re-engage youth who had either dropped out or been kicked out of traditional schools. They give students who are between 16 and 21 the opportunity to graduate in 3 years or less.  (Some students need only a few more credits, others the full three years.)

While many of these schools use online credit-recovery programs, blended learning models and other experimental technologies to help disengaged students earn the credits they need for graduation, El Centro uses a different approach to encourage engagement in their students. Their model includes having more caring adults in the school than is possible for a district high school to provide, building strong relationships between staff and students, and inspiring students to take control and responsibility for their own education through project-based learning and mandatory internships.

El Centro is run by Big Picture Philadelphia and grew out of the national organization, Big Picture Learning. The focus on individualized learning based on student interests is part of the larger Big Picture Learning “one student at a time” model used in more than 40 schools in 17 states across the country.

But El Centro is Big Picture’s only accelerated school. In 2008, in response to the alarming city dropout rate and a call from City Hall for new ideas for alternative schools, Big Picture thought that its model could help. So that year Big Picture Philadelphia applied for a contract from the district, and opened El Centro the following year.

Since its first year, El Centro has had an 88 percent graduation rate, significantly higher than Philadelphia’s 65 percent overall graduation rate—and more impressive still when compared to the 22 percent  graduation rate for a similar population of students. The school boasts a daily attendance rate of almost 80 percent, with 100 percent of their students enrolled in outside internships. It holds three graduations a year, and so far this year 79 percent of El Centro graduates have been accepted into colleges.

The student-first approach is more than just the school’s mission, it is what drives every interaction  at El Centro. With only 180 students, El Centro is able to devote more time and attention to each individual student, assigning each to an advisor with whom they work for the duration of their time at the school. There are no more than 18 students per advising group, who become like family units, where conflicts are resolved, support is provided, and relationships grow at morning and afternoon meetings.

“My advisor bought me my first tux for prom,” says Rivera, “he taught me to drive and was going to take me to my driving test.”

All 24 El Centro staff members are experienced with trauma, and resilience and restorative practices inform everything from how students are assigned to one of three staff counselors, to the way they construct detention. Stephanie Contreras, director of counseling services, says almost all El Centro students are dealing with issues of abuse, neglect or violence which has hampered their abilities to learn in traditional schools. Like Rivera, she says, they’ve often been labeled as “bad,” “aggressive,” and “defiant.” At El Centro, the goal is to help students take charge of their own lives, starting with their education.

“We are not here to authorize over their education, but facilitate it,” says Contreras.

Students spend three days a week at El Centro in project-based classroom learning, in which academic skills are taught through individualized projects overseen by their teachers. Students move through courses by demonstrating to their teachers that they have achieved significant personal growth in that subject area. At the end of the year, instead of final exams, each student does presentations for the staff and their peers about the subjects they learned that semester both in the classroom and in their internships.

The other days are spent in internships, which are mandatory and are focused on mentorship and exploring potential passions, as well as career-readiness. The students are responsible for finding their own jobs after brainstorming their interests with the internship coordinator and cold calling different businesses that may fit into that interest. While the internships teach students real-life job skills, the primary goal of the program is to make students think about life after El Centro. Like Rivera, many of the students at El Centro are accustomed to seeing violence, drug dealing, and gangs running the block. “That’s what you know, that’s what you think is normal,” he says. But the internship gets students thinking about what professions they want to pursue and what dreams are actually within their grasp if they stay on track.

Throughout the week, between the teachers, advisors, resilience specialists, post-secondary specialists, and mentors, “we have constant points of contact” with students, Contreras says. This allows staff to deal with issues before they arise, better understand how to keep individual students engaged, and keep them from falling through the cracks.

For Rivera, his internships proved to be key to his continued success after graduation. During his final year at El Centro, Rivera had his sights on interning for one particular judge at the Criminal Justice Center whom he’d come to respect after seeing him preside over a friend’s case. One morning in January, he went to the courtroom, where he sat for hours until the judge finally asked what he was doing there. “I am here because I go to El Centro High School and we need to find internships and I would like to intern with you,” Rivera told him.

The next week, he was working in the judge’s office. A few months later, he graduated and got a job as a security guard, putting him one step closer to his dream. Now that dream is about to come true. He graduated from El Centro in March after more than two years at El Centro and his record has been granted for expungement by the Criminal Justice Center. He plans to apply to the Philadelphia Police Department this fall.

“El Centro molded me into the person I am today,” said Rivera. “Without it I would probably be back on the streets or back in jail. It’s like home.”