Making the grade

New grades for schools for students on brink of dropping out

For the first time, the city is assigning grades to a set of schools for students who have fallen behind and are well into their late-teens, but still hope to get their high school diplomas.

All but two of these 23 schools, known as young adult borough centers, were opened during the early years of former Chancellor Joel Klein’s tenure, when the city was searching for ways to help overage, under-credited students graduate. With afternoon and evening classes and more individualized attention, the centers are the city’s last effort to give students diplomas before they age out of the school system.

They’re also among the last schools in the city to get progress reports — the signature element of the city’s accountability system — which are created annually for elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as transfer schools.

Because YABCs only admit students older than 17 who have enough credits to be a high school sophomore, their progress reports are slightly different from the average high school’s.

The reports were developed by the Department of Education’s former director of school performance, Phil Vaccaro, who left recently to work for The Parthenon Group. Vaccaro explained that because there are only 23 YABCs, they aren’t measured against peer groups like other high school are.

They are judged on their graduation rates, but the city uses a 6-year graduation rate instead of a 4-year one. The reports also judge students’ progress not simply by how many credits they’ve accumulated, but by how many they earn in relation to how many they arrived with.

“It’s a proxy for how far they have to go,” Vaccaro said.

This year, the city gave A and B grades to 14 of these schools. Six schools got C’s, two got D’s, and only one school, the Stevenson YABC, got an F. As with typical public schools, the progress report grades will come with consequences for the borough centers. One bad grade won’t be enough to get a YABC on next year’s closure list, but if a school racks up another D or F next year, it could be in jeopardy.

One YABC principal, who asked to remain unnamed, said he was concerned that YABC administrators will now feel pressured to boost their schools’ graduation and Regents passage rates by admitting fewer high-needs students.

“It all depends on who you take into the program,” he said. “And then you’ll see some schools with low enrollment, some already have that this year. It helps them get better grades because they’re only taking the top 100 kids that come to them and they turn away 100 others.”

Though most YABCs enroll around 250 students, some deviate. The borough center in the Truman High School campus, which got an A this year, currently has 108 students, and the Brandeis YABC has 105 students. It got a C this year.

Another YABC administrator said he didn’t think the new accountability measure would pose a problem

“As far as progress reports are concerned, I think this is an important tool to make sure that what we’re doing is actually serving the needs of our students,” said Andy Siu Hei Szeto, the assistant principal of the YABC at Flushing High School. With 326 students enrolled, his center is the largest in the city.

Gisela Alvarez, a senior project director with Advocates for Children, said the YABCs have generally done well by their students, but it’s been difficult to get seats for some of AFC’s clients. By 2004, when the city first presented the YABCs as an option for overage, under-credited students, most of them were full, Alvarez said.

She said the new progress reports could become a concern if they dissuade principals from taking in students that could take years to graduate.

“I think that anything that provides a disincentive to serve students who are further away from graduation is definitely of concern,” she said. “Their mission is to help students who are at risk and that puts them at risk for closure.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”