Q&A: Michael Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia

Michael Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia
Michael Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia

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From the bully pulpit of the Mayor's office, Michael Nutter preaches and pushes for educational attainment as a path to prosperity for the city of Philadelphia. As Mayor, he has promised to double Philadelphia's college attainment rate by 2018 and increase the city's high school graduation rate to 80 percent by 2015. And the strategies he's implemented to fulfill those promises have made Philadelphia a model city for municipal commitment to education.
On April 8-9, Mayor Nutter will welcome leaders from across the country to Philadelphia for the annual CEOs for Cities National Talent Dividend meeting. We spoke with Mayor Michael Nutter about why education is such a priority for his administration, the difference he hopes it will make to Philadelphia's future, and what he's learned along the way.
Talent Dividend Network: Why is improving college degree attainment a strategic priority for Philadelphia, and for your administration?
Mayor Michael Nutter: It is my very strongly held belief that education is at the center of what makes a city great, what makes a city attractive to employers. When you have more people working, you have a broader tax base and a more business-friendly climate. 
I talk about the importance of education on a daily basis, no matter what audience I'm talking to. If we improve the education attainment level across the city, that will help us reduce our numbers in terms of poverty and crime and [increase] literacy and the ability of people to be self-sustaining.
And it takes a lot of work, and a lot of effort and attention, every day.
TDN: Philadelphia has become a model for improving educational attainment in cities and building partnerships that work. What are you doing in Philadelphia that works?
MN: We laid out very early on -- literally on my first day in office, five years ago -- some very straightforward goals and the reasons for those goals, focused on the issue of high school diploma rates as well as college degree attainment rates. 
The first step was creating the Mayor's Office of Education and empowering them to become actively engaged in both secondary and post-secondary systems. 
We created Philly Goes to College, which has helped 25,000 Philadelphians of all ages, and the website has been accessed by over 150,000 people. These could be 18-year-olds, or they could be 38-year-olds. It's been a one-stop shop for citizens who are trying to improve their personal growth.
Through our Graduation Coach Campaign, we've trained 4300 coaches through over 300+ workshops. Many of us, whether we have kids or not, have young people in our lives. We give coaches the tools that help make students successful - What do you need to talk to them about? What do you need to make sure they know about? - whether it's the importance of homework, taking the SATs, filling out the FAFSA. It's modeled after professional coaching in the adult world. We thought it important that young people have a graduation coach to help them through challenges, from middle school through high school. Life takes a lot of twists and turns - having someone you can talk to, someone who can recognize signs of student struggling, that's critically important.
I've encouraged people to go back to school, but my philosophy is that we can't ask citizens to do things that we're not doing ourselves. So with the Mayor's Returning to Learning Partnership, we've partnered with a dozen colleges and universities that give public employees a discount  for returning to school. Some students also receive full or partial scholarships, plus a discount for spouses or children attending school.
The Mayor's Office of Education is working closely with the public school system, the Archdiocese, charter schools, and private schools to create more high-quality education options. Our job is to make sure there are as many high-quality seats as possible, and we work with our Council for College and Career Success to make sure we're laying out as coordinated an approach as possible so students realize there's a college or career for them when they graduate from high school. 
TDN: How is Philadelphia doing today in terms of college degree attainment? What will the talent pipeline in Philadelphia look like for graduates when you leave office? 
We have 101 colleges and universities in the tri-state area -- Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Our present rate of residents over the age of 25 with a four-year degree is nearly 24 percent -- it was about 18 percent when I came into office. Our goal is to get it into the mid-30s by 2018. 
We've made some progress, but we're not satisfied with where we are, and we continue to push very, very hard. The reason college attainment is so important is that more and more jobs today require more than a high school diploma. The mismatch between educational attainment versus employer requirements -- we need to shrink that gap. We have a diverse economy here in the city, and many of the large economic sectors do have entry-level positions. Education and medicine represent 30 percent of jobs here, and medical technology, pharmaceuticals, biotech, and life sciences are all vibrant aspects of Philadelphia's economy. You need a higher skill level to get jobs in those growth sectors. We want to make sure people are prepared not just to get a job, but to embark on a career -- that they can take the training they've acquired and apply it in a variety of areas. If there's a downturn, they might lose a job or get downsized -- they need to be able to move into another area. 
I've also pledged to boost literacy levels at a significant rate of increase and improve the high school graduation rate to 80 percent by 2015 -- the current rate is 64 percent and was in the mid-50s when I came into office. We're pushing hard to accelerate those rates because it has a positive impact on the individual as well as the economy and the vitality of Philadelphia.
TDN: What advice do you have for cities that are competing for the Talent Dividend Prize?
MN: We're always ready to share ideas, but we're constantly in learning mode ourselves. It's a two-way exchange. We get ideas from different cities as well - we're all dealing with the same challenge. If you find a good idea, figure out a way to adapt it to your own locale - it's never one-size fits all. Stay focused, constantly hammer home the message, and use the bully pulpit of the Mayor's office -- my goal is not only to make sure Philadelphia continues to grow, but I want every city in America to attain the same goals. Cities are where the talent is, where the action is, and where 90 percent of the country's GDP is. We're ready to encourage other mayors to be creative, aggressive, and persistent in their efforts. 
Don't be afraid to experiment -- some things may work, some may not. people just want to know that you're out there working hard for them every day.
People really do care -- they care about their communities, they want the best for the kids and their families. If you ask people to get involved, more often than not they're going to say yes, and that's one more person making a positive effort. 

Amy Elliott Bragg is the editor of Talent Dividend Network. 
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