Insights, News

Surfacing Priority Issue Areas in Philadelphia

Jun 15, 2015


GreenLight Philadelphia’s annual process – called the GreenLight Method – begins each year with a discovery phase to identify opportunities for transformation: issues that are currently not being directly addressed, and where smart, effective interventions would make a substantial difference in the lives of low-income families. To do this, GreenLight staff reviews the latest data and research from local institutions and conducts a wide range of conversations with key stakeholders in the nonprofit sector, business community, local government and academia. Through our research and these early-stage conversations, we have surfaced three priority issue areas for our 2015 diligence process: early literacy development, middle school student success, and social determinants of health. Below, we discuss each issue by describing the demonstrated local needs and potential opportunities for partnerships with proven national programs.

Early Literacy Development

Research has shown that early literacy proficiency is the foundation of nearly all future student learning. Third grade reading levels are highly predictive of eighth  and ninth grade reading performance, high school graduation and college attendance. Third grade is critical because this is the year students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” In fact, students who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade are four-to-six times more likely to drop out of high school without earning a diploma – a life path that has huge social costs to students and their communities. According to School District Data, only 40% of Philadelphia School District third graders were reading on grade level in 2014. Moreover, reading tests show large racial gaps – in 2014, Black and Latino students showed a 29-point gap in reading proficiency rates compared to White and Asian students.

Reading Proficiency


Early literacy development is a Philadelphia School District priority, and it is the foundation for the citywide “READ! By 4th” Campaign, which brings together more than 50 public and private partners to double the number of fourth graders reading on grade level by 2020. By convening roundtable discussions with early literacy experts from the district, the campaign, and the city, GreenLight Philadelphia has identified two clear opportunities for impact within early literacy development: parent engagement and in-school literacy support. In order for students to gain the literacy skills necessary to read on grade level by fourth grade, both teachers and parents must work in collaboration to provide a comprehensive education in and out of the classroom.

Middle School Student Success

The middle grades, broadly defined as fifth through eighth grade, play a pivotal role in long-term student attachment to school, high school graduation rates and access to college or advanced career training. Attendance, behavior and classroom achievement in the middle school years are key predictors of success in high school – particularly in lower income neighborhoods. In Philadelphia, a Philadelphia Education Fund study shows that sixth graders who failed courses, attended school less than 80% of the time, or received an unsatisfactory behavior grade have only a 10-20% chance of graduating on time. Moreover, a CLASP report showed that the largest proportion of Philadelphia students (40.6%) drop out of high school in ninth grade – a direct result of the challenges associated with the transition from middle to high school.

Youth Drop Out

One of the goals of Philadelphia’s tiered system of neighborhood, citywide and special admission high schools – many with special curricular programs – is that students find the right “fit” to complement their academic record, skills, and interests during the transition from middle to high school. This system of lotteries and special admission requires students to understand the characteristics of different high schools. In addition, it is crucial that students have the appropriate information and guidance to submit applications and take relevant exams. The only support the district currently offers for middle school students are school counselors. Middle school counselors, however, are overburdened with caseloads that can exceed 500 students per counselor. An analysis of school district data by Research for Action shows that nearly 80% of district eighth graders apply to attend a school other than their assigned neighborhood school – yet more than 58% of District high school students end up enrolled in schools that they did not choose. With the lack of adequate counselor support at the middle school level, students do not receive the education or information necessary to make the right choices in their high school selection process.

To address middle school student success, GreenLight Philadelphia is looking for proven national models that provide student counseling and expanded learning opportunities. By integrating middle school academics with a defined support system and expanded learning opportunities, students would be more prepared to make appropriate choices in their high school selection – easing the transition to high school and lessening the chance that they will drop out before graduation.

Social Determinants of Health and Access to Community Resources

Philadelphia is currently the lowest-ranked county in Pennsylvania in many health factors (such as clinical care and behavioral, social and economic factors) and health outcomes (such as mortality and morbidity). In studies of the healthiest cities in the United States, Philadelphia often ranks far behind our peer cities such as Boston, Washington D.C., New York City and Pittsburgh. The 2014 Philadelphia Community Health Assessment (CHA) shows that child asthma, diabetes, hospitalizations, and the forgoing of care due to cost are all health indicators that are worsening over time. GreenLight Philadelphia is focusing our diligence on health interventions addressing key social determinants such as access to healthy foods, encouraging physical activity and remediating unhealthy housing conditions.

Social determinants of health are the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes. Within Philadelphia, living environments and related health factors vary widely from neighborhood to neighborhood. These disparities in access to resources have wide-ranging impacts on long-term health. We are particularly interested in health outcomes related to geographic disparities in access to resources such as fresh and healthy foods and recreational facilities, two major social determinants of health. For example, city data shows that 26% of families in North Philadelphia do not have access to fresh food and over 70% do not have access to recreational facilities, which may be linked to the extremely high levels of adult and child obesity.

GreenLight Philadelphia is looking for national models that address the social determinants of health as a critical component of a comprehensive healthcare system. In order to address the resource needs of low-income residents in Philadelphia, our community health centers and hospitals need to expand their capacity to connect patients to important community resources and assist them in utilizing those resources.


Each of these issues present complex, persistent problems facing Philadelphia’s children, youth and families. Our city has struggled with low literacy rates among our young students for decades – a problem that has long-term social costs related to high school graduation, college completion and career success. Our middle school students haven’t received the support they need during the difficult years leading up to the transition to high school –  a make-or-break time as they begin to plan for their futures and make critical decisions that affect their life paths. Futhermore, our world-class health system been unable to meet the broad, complex needs of low-income patients to keep families in Philadelphia active and healthy. GreenLight Philadelphia has begun early-stage conversations with multiple organizations to discuss their growth plans and potential local fit in Philadelphia. We are excited about the growing momentum around bringing one of these exciting, proven models into our city to address one of these important issues.