TOPICS > Education

As Poorest U.S. City, Reading Also Struggling With High Dropout Rate

November 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
One city's struggle to regain its economic footing is also tied to significant problems in its schools. Jeffrey Brown reports from Reading, Pa., as part of our American Graduate series.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, we turn to our series on the high school dropout problem. Over the next 18 months, the NewsHour is joining with other public media to examine consequences and solutions.

In tonight’s report, Jeffrey Brown looks at how one city’s struggle to regain its economic footing is tied to problems in its schools.

It’s all part of our series called American Graduate.

MAN: Just remember we’re making these posters. We’re hitting the streets later on, reminding people that today is Election Day.

JEFFREY BROWN: These high school students and their fellow citizens in Reading, Pa., may have needed a reminder of the city’s mayoral election recently, but the critical issues were clear.

MAN: This could be like a real (INAUDIBLE) city, but it’s not. It’s a poor city. This city is poor. The streets is messed up. Everything is messed up.

CHARLENE SPOHN, Reading, Pa.: There’s no money. Everybody is getting laid off. Everybody’s — they have — they don’t know what to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what does that make you feel about your own future?

CHARLENE SPOHN: You have got to move out of Reading to get a future.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you feel that way? You got to move out?

CHARLENE SPOHN: That’s how I feel, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It hasn’t always been like this. The city was founded by German immigrants in a river valley about an hour northwest of Philadelphia, and has long attracted people seeking jobs and a better life.

More than 100 years ago, Reading was a symbol of industrial power, home to the Reading Railroad, so famous from the “Monopoly” game and in its day one of the richest corporations in the world. Today, though, Reading is a different sort of symbol, as a new census reckoning makes it the poorest city in the nation.

More than 41 percent of Reading’s population of 88,000 now live beneath the poverty line, less than $22,000 for a family of four. This is a city that has seen numerous industries come and go, steel manufacturers, textile mills, retail centers. Reading was home to the first outlet malls in the 1970s.

There’s also been a huge demographic shift in the last 20 years with an influx of Latinos, many of them immigrants attracted on the low cost of living in Reading. That’s caused the population to rise, even as jobs went away.

Were you surprised when the city, when that — those numbers came out showing the city was the poorest in the country?

DELORIS REVIERE, Olivet Boys and Girls Club: No. I sort of knew it was coming.

JEFFREY BROWN: You knew it was coming?

DELORIS REVIERE: Yes, I knew it was coming. It’s just getting more difficult for a lot of families to make ends meet.

MANNY SOSTRE, Olivet Boys and Girls Club: You see all the businesses leaving and stuff closing down. It just — it was inevitable.

JEFFREY BROWN: At a Boys and Girls Club in one of the poorest areas of the city, Deloris Reviere and Manny Sostre see the effects of poverty firsthand.

Every afternoon, the center provides tutoring, recreation and hot meals for children age 5 to 18 who aren’t often getting them at home, and they’re providing something else, a message that, if you want a better life, you need to stay in school.

MANNY SOSTRE: Some of them live in the parts of the city where it’s tough. So they have a lot of peer pressure, a lot of pressures from their community.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean not to go to school?

MANNY SOSTRE: Not to go to school. Like, walking to school, they see different — some of their friends that don’t go to school and get caught up in some of the stuff that is going on, on the streets.

DELORIS REVIERE: But we want to tell them that you do need that diploma. And we do want you to advance and go on to further education.

JEFFREY BROWN: To get a job.

DELORIS REVIERE: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: It can be a vicious cycle playing out here in Reading and in older industrial cities all over the country.

Young people see jobs leaving town and decide there’s little point in getting an education. And the companies that might look to move here see a work force that isn’t ready for many of today’s workplace needs.

WILLIAM BENDER, Kutztown University: A neighborhood that is reflective of just about everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: William Bender is a professor at nearby Kutztown University and serves on the mayor’s poverty commission.

WILLIAM BENDER: Yes, I think it’s very well known that education is one of the key predictors of a person not falling into poverty. And if a person has access to quality education, completes education, it’s less likely that the person is going to fall into poverty. The city of Reading dropout rate is significantly high. Some estimates is, it is approaches 50 percent. That’s not a good statistic for us to be dealing with.

JEFFREY BROWN: But if quality education is an answer, Reading struggles to offer it.

Yvonne Stroman, president of the Reading School Board, says the system has many challenges, but one of the biggest is meeting the needs of Latino students.

YVONNE STROMAN, Reading School Board: We have to be honest about what is here now demographically in the city of Reading. When you have an influx of Latino population — currently, the Reading School District has a greater than 70 percent Latino population. Having said that, a number of our young people are just coming from other countries, and so their ability to speak English may not be to the point that we need that to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Money for new programs that might help in and after school is hard to come by. To avoid bankruptcy, Reading is operating under a strict financial plan with the state which calls for property tax hikes, pay freezes and budget cutbacks.

And state budget constraints recently prompted the governor to cut K-12 education spending by $900 million statewide, $17 million from the Reading school budget.

YVONNE STROMAN: Public dollars are being spread all across the table. And we’re having to scramble for some of the dollars that are left. We just have to kind of think outside of the box and look at ways in which we can entice our young people to want to learn, to want to stay motivated, to want to stay educated, and doing more with less.

ANGEL FIGUEROA, I-LEAD Charter School: Where is your sister?

JEFFREY BROWN: Angel Figueroa says, up to now, Reading’s overstretched school system hasn’t done that.

ANGEL FIGUEROA: I think the most meaningful barrier that the institution has created is the lack of motivation or inspiration to give young people to want to stay in school.

Thank you, guys for doing this, OK?

JEFFREY BROWN: Figueroa is founder of the I-LEAD charter school that just opened in Reading this fall in a former factory building. It serves 200 students, with a plan to double in size next year, its mission, attract and mentor those at risk of dropping out or who already have, but are willing to give it another try.

JANESA COLON, student: I dropped out of school my 11th grade year because I got pregnant, became lazy, didn’t want to do anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, before that, were you into school, or you didn’t care much about school, or…

JANESA COLON: Like, I had good grades. Like, my ninth and 10th grade year, I had good grades.

JEFFREY BROWN: You started by telling me you made — you made some bad decisions early on leaving school.

MALIK JALAL, student: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, now what? You changing that?

MALIK JALAL: Yes, sir. Any man can change. Anybody can change. You can’t just change something overnight. It doesn’t just happen overnight. You have to keep wanting it and keep going for it and keep trying to do it.

ANGEL FIGUEROA: I was once one of those young people. I didn’t see light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn’t until I came across a great mentor that said, you can achieve these things, you can do great things that I started — it started clicking. And I started realizing, wow, yes, I can, because someone else believes in me.

JEFFREY BROWN: If further proof was needed about how hard this will be, it came just a week after our visit, when one I-LEAD student was killed in a nearby neighborhood, and in a separate incident, Malik Jalal, the young man who was so optimistic that his life had changed, was arrested for a hit-and-run accident and possession of a handgun.

When we had spoken to Figueroa, he knew his school still had to prove it could get results, but he believed it has the advantage of small size. It’s also creating partnerships with local companies like carpenter tech, a steel manufacturer still in the area.

MAN: Cartech is basically saying, how can you get us kids to pass our math and science assessment exam? Can you work with us as an employer? So, fortunately, as a charter school, we have that flexibility to work with employers to look at ways that we could integrate our curriculum with their needs as it relates to performance and skills.

BONNIE SPAYD, Reading Area Community College: Well, this is our computer integrated manufacturing stations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bonnie Spayd directs a high-tech training program at Reading Area Community College, its goal, to tailor learning to the needs of local companies, even ones you might not think of as high-tech, like Hershey’s.

BONNIE SPAYD: This is just a small example of the sophistication that’s going on in manufacturing right now. It is amazing when you actually get to see how products are made as simple as a Hershey Kiss nowadays.

JEFFREY BROWN: Huge sophistication in technology all for a little Hershey Kiss.

BONNIE SPAYD: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: The key, says Spayd — and this was the most optimistic thing we heard in our time in Reading — is that there are decent-paying jobs available, and there could be more.

BONNIE SPAYD: A lot of the folks that have worked in an industrial discipline or a manufacturing discipline are aging, baby boomers. So we’re seeing a fair number of retirees. The pipeline that we’re hoping to emerge into these technical positions, we need to ramp that up. We need more young people to want to work with their hands, to want to be smart, to have really, really great math aptitude.

JEFFREY BROWN: Spayd’s new plan is to connect businesses directly with area high schools.

BONNIE SPAYD: I can go out there and I can talk to high school kids and parents about the degree or the programming that I offer. And I can tell them about the great jobs that are out there. But it goes a whole lot better if I have got the Hershey people, the Carpenter people, the Pepperidge Farm people that are right behind me going, and guess what? This is the job you’re going to get to do. This is where you can go with this. This is the career pathway that we have.

If you want these types of people and you want to get these kids engaged, you need to get a little bit of skin in the game. And I think manufacturing is starting to listen to that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Until and unless that happens, manufacturers make clear their needs, schools motivate their students and together they show young people a path forward, the vicious cycle that is part of Reading’s new and unwanted status as the nation’s poorest city is likely to continue.

RAY SUAREZ: American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.