Penn, Pipelines, and Privatization: Exploiting West Philly High Schools

Judas Lee

A high school pipeline program offered by Penn Medicine draws students from West Philadelphia schools with promises of opportunity. Predictably, Penn is looking after its own interests rather than trying to improve lives in the communities it claims to care about.

Imagine my surprise this September when I showed up to my assigned English classes at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) to find teenaged high school students in the classroom! These youth, I learned, were part of a program administered by the University of Pennsylvania Health System (UPHS) to create a “pipeline” of low-income students from three West Philly schools into the health care field. In addition to finishing high school and working part-time jobs, they were taking community college classes for dual enrollment credit.

As the weeks went by, I witnessed serious problems with the program. My students were perpetually stressed out and frustrated by the intense demands placed upon them. Their schedules made it impossible to meet all their responsibilities, and they didn't have the support they needed. Most importantly, many students seemed to resent having been misled about the program and its objectives. From what I've experienced and observed, the program seems highly exploitative, taking advantage of young African American residents in impoverished neighborhoods in order to bolster Penn's image of philanthropic generosity.

Pipeline programs have a positive reputation for creating much needed opportunities for low-income and disadvantaged students. But critical attention to these programs is desperately needed. They are, in fact, a form of privatization: private industries sponsor and/or administer these pipeline programs in public schools, usually in conjunction with public institutions such as community colleges. Their damaging effects need to be documented and analyzed.

Selling a Dream

UPHS's High School Pipeline Program sounds wonderful on paper. Now operating in its fourth year, it pays for students to take community college classes while they are also completing their last two years of high school. They are given part-time jobs in various departments within UPHS, receiving a minimum wage paycheck and professional development training and mentoring. The program is marketed directly to students, who must meet a few minimum requirements to apply. Promotional materials place a strong emphasis on students being “highly motivated” and having a “positive attitude.”

The daily realities of life in this program aren't what one might expect. Several students claim they were misled into believing they will have a wider range of career opportunities than they actually will. Repeating the word “opportunity” five times, the program's brochure is clearly designed to make students believe that many doors will be opened for them. One student recalled being told that she could become a “doctor or nurse.” In practice, however, the program has a strong vocational bent that is aimed at training students to become Certified Nursing Assistants, which does not require a college degree. Some students suggested to me that both they and their parents did not fully understand aspects of the program until they started it. As a result, they were surprised to find themselves being herded into very narrow directions for their careers and futures.

Heavy workloads cause most students to do poorly in the many required activities. One day during class, a student announced in anguish that she often feels like crying because she spends more time attending high school, going to community college classes, working her part-time job, and doing homework assignments than she does with her family. While the program makes tutors available, students have found them poorly suited to their specific needs and backgrounds.

The students are also held to a special standard in our Developmental English class that runs contrary to the spirit of developmental education at community college. At CCP, Developmental English classes are usually graded in a way that allows students to re-take them without penalty if they tried their best but did not reach the required level of competency. This system is crucial to helping people gradually catch up, but my pipeline students are required to pass in a single shot or be dropped from the program. Contrary to the ideals of developmental education, my classes are actually being used as a tool to weed out students. Program administrators have told me to “just teach the class,” as if working with teenagers was no different than working with students typically a full decade older. This is calculated ignorance: one administrator admitted that Penn only wanted “the best” of the students to pass and remain, but this competitive aspect is not mentioned in the program's promotional materials, nor are students told their cohort is deliberately being thinned out.

What's most distressing to students are the severe consequences of failing or dropping out. Under dual enrollment, failing Developmental English means they also don't receive credit for senior year high school English. For the seniors, this means summer school or an additional year of high school in order to graduate. In other words, failing out of the pipeline program puts students in a much worse position than when they started, with no support to help them transition back to simply finishing high school.

Some students caught on. They left the program quickly and chose to focus on graduating high school and improving their SAT scores. The many remaining students have voiced their frustrations to program administrators to little or no effect. Faculty have also objected to how the pipeline program works with CCP, but they have received only bureaucratic replies that suggest the administration's willing subservience to Penn.

Students are often told that they are getting a rare and valuable “opportunity.” If they can't handle it, they shouldn't be in the program. But what kind of opportunity is this, exactly, when we consider the bigger picture?

Privatization: Redefining “Opportunity”

Since they are funded and/or administered by private institutions, pipeline programs are a type of privatization, a trend that includes chartered high schools and corporate research funding at public universities. In public schools, pipeline programs are significantly redefining “opportunity” in a climate where economic crises mean few other options for disadvantaged students.

With severe budget cuts everywhere, many public schools are failing to provide a basic level of education that includes preparing students for college. As a result, private institutions are stepping in and claiming to provide “opportunities” in the form of pipeline programs. Instead of getting a well-rounded education that provides many options, students are herded into narrowly defined paths determined by how private industry wants to see its future labor supply produced. The vocational essence of pipeline programs becomes obvious when one considers the business codewords used, such as “professional development training.”

It's a mistake to imagine a golden age of public education to which we should return. It never existed: state-sponsored public schools have always had a role in reproducing a highly unequal class system. Even so, privatization is clearly changing education for the worse. The focus is placed upon “outcomes” rather than what individual students need in order to learn. Those who perform poorly are cast aside with the justification that they simply didn't have the drive or the intelligence to succeed. The criteria for the “best” students are determined by what private industry desires in its ideal workers. Most importantly, there is little that can be done to hold these programs accountable or to demand transparency.

No wonder that the UPHS High School Pipeline Program is partially funded by a grant from the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN), whose philosophy of helping youth is centered on workforce development. The board of this nonprofit consists entirely of executives from private sector industries, including a Vice President of the insurance company HealthAmerica. The nonprofit connection helps the UPHS pipeline program appear philanthropic in spirit, even as health industry interests are clearly at work. Under this arrangement, funding can suddenly disappear without anyone being held accountable for the reasons why. Among students, PYN seems to have a reputation for pulling the plug on projects with little regard for what happens to those involved.

No wonder, also, that the pipeline program issues regular press releases showing off images of the African American youth it is supposedly helping to improve their lot in life. These so-called “outreach” efforts are an obvious form of public relations management. For half a century, Penn's gentrification of West Philadelphia has displaced thousands of Black residents and destroyed vibrant working class communities. The pipeline program is a token gesture of amelioration whose rhetoric of “opportunity” preys upon the hopes of youth and their families.

Putting Pressure on Pipeline Programs

Interest in pipeline programs is rapidly growing, especially in the medical and legal professions. Government agency reports and articles in Academic Medicine and the Journal of the National Medical Association tend to regard these programs as successful. Their measures of success, however, are defined by the “pipeline” paradigm: experts dictate the desirable percentage of disadvantaged students who should make it through the various stages from high school to college to vocational or pre-professional programs and finally into the careers where they are underrepresented. Critical analysis of pipeline programs is sorely lacking when compared to other types of privatization that have received much more attention.

Critics should ask questions excluded from the pipeline paradigm by design. Do these programs undermine the kind of broad-based education that many impoverished individuals and families want to see in a public school system? Are a limited number of participants expected to succeed and is that information disguised by other language? What kinds of ethical concerns are taken into account when marketing these programs to disadvantaged youth who have little knowledge of either higher education or the industry sector sponsoring them? How transparent and accountable are the private institutions that fund and/or administer these programs?

While it is difficult to criticize such programs in such bad economic times, the alternative of selling out our kids to the whims of private industry is much, much worse.

Thinking About A High School Pipeline Program?

Pipeline programs for low-income or disadvantaged high school students seem great, especially in a bad economy, but are they really good choices for you? If you answer “no” to any these questions, that might be a sign that the program could be more damaging than helpful.

Know what you want to get out of it. In spite of all their problems, pipeline programs may still offer some genuine opportunities for you. Do you know what you want out of the program, aside from what they emphasize they are offering to you?

Ask about requirements, workload, and support. Disadvantaged students are often told they have to work much harder than privileged students to get up to speed. This is true, but if programs don't provide needed support, such as funds, books, computer access, tutoring, and other resources, then it's not a real opportunity at all. Do the time and work commitments seem reasonable? Does the program really give you what you need to succeed?

Be aware of the consequences of dropping out or failing. Pipeline programs can be quick to blame students for failing, leaving them with no support when they return to high school. If you leave the program, will you still be in a good position to finish high school and/or continue higher education?

Think about alternatives. If you are doing well in high school, it might actually be better to graduate on your own and look for options that give you more control over your future, such as merit-based or need-based scholarships. Is the pipeline program really your best option when you consider all the other alternatives?