No Late Arrivals

To stabilize two struggling schools, city will not send them new students mid-year

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

The city will not send any latecomer students, who often pose extra challenges, to at least two long-struggling high schools this year, officials said. The shift marks an acknowledgement that some schools have been overburdened by students who arrive mid-year, and suggests that the city will consider adjusting enrollment policies as it tries to prop up troubled schools.

Late enrollees are often assigned to struggling schools with many unfilled (and often unwanted) seats, which can hasten a school’s decline as it strains to meet the needs of students who may have just arrived in the country or been released from jail.

The city has acknowledged the problem before and taken steps to direct fewer of these late arrivals — known as “over-the-counter” students — to low-performing schools. But observers said they had not heard of a complete freeze on latecomer placements at particular schools before.

The new strategy makes sense, advocates said, but they questioned how widely it could be implemented since latecomers have to be assigned somewhere.

“Clearly, you shouldn’t send over-the-counter students to struggling schools,” since it can derail both the student and the school, said Norm Fruchter, a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. “But the question for the Department of Education is, systematically, where are you going to put these kids?”

Enrollment officers will not send students who enter the system after the normal high-school admissions process to two Brooklyn high schools this year, Boys and Girls and Automotive, according to city and state officials.

The city was forced to take drastic steps to improve those schools because they meet the state’s definition of “out of time” — they have been low-performing for several years without making progress and have failed to enact turnaround plans.

The city has also started to intervene at other struggling schools, including with the quiet rollout last month of an intensive coaching and oversight program for about two-dozen schools. But some principals of low-performing schools have said they have heard little from the city about how it plans to support them, whether by enrollment changes or other means.

There has long been concern that troubled schools wind up with more over-the-counter students than other schools, and that this can send those struggling schools over the edge.

For instance, about 20 percent of the students at large struggling high schools in 2011 were sent there outside of the normal enrollment process, compared to just 12 percent at better-performing schools, according to an Annenberg report last year. One large closing high school had 37 percent over-the-counter students in 2011, compared to the citywide average of 16 percent, the report found.

About 36,000 students per year do not go through the high-school admissions process but still need a seat, according to the Annenberg report. Students have different reasons for missing the enrollment process, but many of these latecomers are recent immigrants, have been previously incarcerated, or are homeless. Such students place high demands on any school, but especially ones that are already floundering.

State officials have warned the city about enrollment policies that saddle low-performing schools with disproportionate numbers of high-needs students, including those with disabilities, ones who are below grade level, and English language learners.

“I worry about the over-concentration of high-needs students in particular buildings without adequate supports to ensure success,” State Education Commissioner John King said in 2012.

Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, said that the over-the-counter freeze could drive down his enrollment even further.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, said that the over-the-counter freeze could drive down his enrollment even further.

To address the issue, the state required districts applying for federal school-improvement grants to show how they avoid clustering high-needs students in certain schools. In turn, the city began what it called “over-the-counter reform,” requiring every school to take more latecomers so that they are more evenly spread throughout the system.

But it is unclear if the city has ever spared a particular school from taking any late enrollees as a way to lessen its burden and help it improve. The Annenberg report recommended that as an improvement strategy for struggling schools, but Fruchter said he had never heard of it being done until now.

A city education department spokeswoman would not say whether this strategy had been used before or whether it would be applied to other schools. She only said it is intended as a “supportive intervention” for these two schools for this school year.

Even though advocates have called for an end to overburdening schools with high-needs students, they questioned how this sort of out-the-counter moratorium would work.

“I think it’s a great idea, but I don’t know where all these kids are going to go,” said Mary Conway-Spiegel, an advocate who has worked with closing schools.

She noted that higher-performing schools tend to get more applicants and so have fewer seats available for students who arrive after the regular admissions process. Some of those schools also try to limit the number of over-the-counter students they receive, she added.

The only citywide solution to this problem is to set up a “controlled-choice” admissions system, said Fruchter, who is an appointed member of the Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide school policymaking group. Students would still choose where to apply, but every high school would have to reserve a certain share of its seats for different student groups, such as over-the-counter students and those still learning English, he said.

A potential problem with this over-the-counter freeze is that it could drive down enrollment at already under-enrolled struggling schools, whose budgets are tied to their number of students. Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, raised that concern in a letter to the schools chancellor, calling the plan “tantamount to phasing out BGHS.”

But the moratorium should actually help the schools, said Geraldine Maione, a former principal who helped turn around William Grady Career & Technical High School in Brooklyn. It will free the school leaders from having to devote attention to late-arriving students, she said, so they can focus on revamping their schools.

“Let’s see what happens,” she said. “Now that they’ll have more time and resources, that will be the test.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.