the long view

Study: Students who slip before they succeed still at risk later on

A chart from the report showing how students with very different high school trajectories can end up in the same place academically—at least on paper.

Not all high school graduates are created equally: Some had to make up ground after falling behind along the path to graduation day. Identifying those future graduates early could be key to getting them to succeed in college later, according to a new report.

The report, authored by researchers with the education nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools, tracked students in 75 New Visions-supported city schools through high school and into college. The report finds that students who graduate with a Regents diploma after years of struggling are much less likely to succeed in college than those students who have a history of good performance.

Schools tend to pay special attention to students with obvious obstacles to overcome, such as a disability or status as an English language learner. But students who have a couple of bad semesters in tenth grade and then earn passing grades in their junior year don’t always register as being “at risk” to their schools, the report concludes.

The report advocates for schools to expand the definition of an “at-risk” student to include any student who has experienced ups and downs—which are marked and reviewed according to a metric system detailed in the study that New Visions schools will continue to use. It also argues that school districts like New York City are pushing schools in this direction by emphasizing schools’ graduation rate as the main benchmark of success.

“We’re trying to take the conversation and say, every kid, whether high or low performing, is vulnerable but in a different way,” said Susan Fairchild, one of the report’s lead authors. “Our accountability structures don’t necessarily support schools. We’re moving in those direction, but our systems are really based on accumulation, not flow, not how kids actually come into the system.”

The system categorizes students into four groups—those “on track to college readiness,” “on track to graduation,” “almost on track,” and “off track”— and re-categorizes them at the end of each semester of high school. By senior year, a student could have scored highly early on, but later fallen to “almost on track.” His data would therefore look different than a student who has been “almost on track,” for the past three years.

Tracking students over time and cataloguing when and where they are on track and off track, as the study does, can help predict a student’s risk of dropping out of college, Fairchild said.

Kirsten Larson, the principal of Marble Hill School for International Studies, a small high school opened in the Bronx in 2002, said she has been tracking student performance over time from early on. Marble Hill is one of the New Visions schools now using this methodology.

Larson said she offers teachers professional development at least once a week to give them tools to address struggling students’ needs, particularly for those not certified to teach English as a second language. Close to a third of her students are English language learners. She also expects teachers to meet with each student to go over grades every quarter.

“We have students coming in without a lick of English, students who may be fluent but haven’t passed the NYSESLAT. We have every issue imaginable here. We have to really make sure that we individualize a program for them.”

For example, Marble Hill teachers assess each student’s math performance during a summer “bridge” orientation program, and will sometimes recommend a student who has already passed algebra in eighth grade take it again in ninth. And at the end of each grading period, the school holds “town hall” style meetings with each grade level to review grades and course requirements.

“We go over exactly what they need from freshman year on,” she said. “Even if they heard it once, we know they didn’t hear everything. Being able to ask questions and see examples and look at their own data makes it that much more relevant to them.”

The study’s recommendations join a growing fervor in policy circles over how to boost college readiness rates across the school system, which were dismally low when the city released the results of its first citywide metric system last year. Fairchild said more schools should adopt these strategies after taking a closer look at how their students perform over time.

“For every single student we look at their grades, and we know which students we need to target right away,” she said, referring to the state test that students take to show English proficiency. “They might have five people coming to talk to them, as opposed to be ignored or no one noticed.”

back to the future

On display at Automotive High School: A plan to revitalize technical education

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At vocational education panel at Automotive High School

Brooklyn’s Automotive High School has long offered students the chance to learn how to fix a car’s engine or replace its brakes. But a different type of “vocational ed” was on display Thursday, when a neuroscientist, theoretical physicist and artificial intelligence engineer were among those gathered to talk about the future of career and technical education.

They were invited by Kate Yourke, founder of a program called Make: STEAM, which attempts to inspire learning by connecting students with hands-on activities in the sciences and arts.

Yourke says she has seen the demographics of Williamsburg and Greenpoint change and, at the same time, watched Automotive High School transition from a well-respected community hub to one of the lowest-performing schools in the city.

Yourke wants to help the school, in part by offering students the kind of technical education that will energize them. While she hopes to work with several schools in the neighborhood, Automotive is at the top of her list.

“I’ve always had this school in my heart because it’s incredible,” she said. “It’s an incredible place.”

Nationally, there has been a push to redefine vocational education and include career paths like computer science that, unlike traditional vocational ed, require more than a high school degree. (These newer programs, however, are often to difficult start in New York City.)

Yourke hopes that high-quality, hands-on learning will give students a deeper understanding of the world around them, crucial preparation for any career path.

Even complicated topics like theoretical physics can be broken down for students, she added. “There’s no reason why you can’t access this information in a way that they’re going to make meaning out of it,” she said.

To that end, Yourke is running a “Festival of Curiosity” on Saturday at Automotive High School, where students can participate in activities like making hot air balloons or learning to sew.

“I think the school needs to serve the community that it’s in,” Yourke said. “It needs to be a resource for our children.”

College-bound

How one Memphis charter school’s ACT scores jumped 2.6 points in one year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A graduating senior speaks during an Academic Signing Day ceremony for Freedom Preparatory Academy, a Memphis charter school whose entire first graduating class is headed to college. Banners were on display to represent the schools they'll attend.

When Roblin Webb launched Freedom Preparatory Academy in 2009 with a class of sixth-graders, she made a promise to their parents: College would be a reality for their children.

Now, as those students and others make up the Memphis charter network’s first graduating class, all 50 are heading to college.

Helping the students get there was a remarkable 2.6-point boost in the group’s average ACT composite score — from 16.7 to 19.3 in one year. That’s considered below college-ready, but the score is higher than average for Shelby County Schools and other high schools in the low-income neighborhood served by Freedom Prep.

“Our results tell us that although we still have work to do to ensure our students are highly competitive nationwide, our success locally and statewide lets us know that we are on the right track,” said Webb, a former lawyer and a graduate of Rhodes College. “We expect this success to continue next year and beyond!”

Chief Academic Officer Lars Nelson traces the boost to integration of ACT prep last fall into classes for English and math; three required practice tests throughout the year; and adding a third counselor for the school of 315 students.

The school’s small size helped, too. Most Memphis schools have more seniors and fewer counselors.

But Nelson also emphasizes the foundational learning that happened in the charter network’s elementary and middle schools, as well as an emphasis on teacher development and being an early adopter of the Common Core academic standards, which began in Tennessee in 2012.

“The way to truly prepare students is to see them through 12th grade,” Nelson said. “It’s not just one year of phenomenal teaching. It’s year after year, and then kids are ready for college.”

Like other Memphis schools, Freedom Prep has to manage a high student mobility rate. Freedom Prep had 96 students in its first sixth-grade class, 70 by 11th grade and 50 in their senior year. A spokeswoman said the network does not recruit students to its senior class.

The four schools in the Memphis-based network are considered some of the most successful in the city. Among charter schools overseen by Shelby County Schools, Freedom Prep is the top performer in English and Algebra I and the second highest in biology, according to the district’s latest charter report.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Elijah Tyler speaks at the school’s academic signing day.

But it’s Freedom Prep’s culture that attracted students like Elijah Tyler, a senior who has attended since sixth grade and earned a 27 on his ACT.

“You know for a fact if you need something, you can go to a teacher; not just academics but social issues,” said Elijah, who got a full scholarship to Rhodes College. “Everyone knows coming into Freedom Prep that the goal is to get into college and get that 4-year degree.”

The high school culture is grounded in a three-week teacher orientation every summer. During the school year, it’s not unusual for Principal Kristle Hodges-Johnson to pop in a classroom up to 10 times a week to give teachers quick pointers that “help them hone their craft at a greater rate,” Nelson said.

Vivek Ramakrishnan, a first-year high school teacher, said the overlap between ACT math and Bridge Math curriculum made integrating ACT prep a natural fit.

“Our leadership recognized how integral writing is to college academic success and prioritized writing in all content areas. Our history and (language arts) teams have pushed kids to writing college-length research papers,” he said. “…We also shifted towards making students interpret and justify their mathematical solutions in writing.”

Though Common Core isn’t perfectly aligned with the ACT, findings from the test company’s national survey helped inform its development in 2009. So, Freedom Prep leaders set out to adapt their classroom instruction early and provided time in the school day for students to prepare, especially since many don’t have access to the internet at home.

“This is a really hard shift for adults to make; it’s hard for students too,” Nelson said of Common Core, which is the basis for the state’s newly revised academic standards that will reach Tennessee classroom this fall.

The charter network focused on bite-size changes over time to help teachers teach differently and ask students more evidence-based questions. When it got hard, teachers reminded students that perseverance is key to the ultimate educational goal: graduating from college.

“We don’t try to insulate kids from that frustration and that’s an important lesson to have,” Nelson said. “We connect the transition with what they came here to do… (which) matters so much more than a standard.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about student mobility.