Turnaround Tactics

At Boys and Girls HS, struggling students urged to transfer, sources say

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Calvin Brown, Jr., 17, was the junior class president and debate team captain at Boys and Girls HS. But after a new principal arrived, he said he was pressured to transfer out.

Calvin Brown, Jr. enrolled at Boys and Girls High School midway through his sophomore year after falling behind at a nearby charter school. Though the Bedford-Stuyvesant high school is considered one of the city’s worst, Brown thrived there.

He became the junior class president last year and the captain of the debate team, which is set to travel to South Africa next month for a competition. He had entered the school with just seven credits, but as he started his senior year this September he had three times that amount — still half as many as he needs to graduate, but he was catching up.

Then, after the school’s outspoken principal resigned last month, the city installed a new leader to turn around the troubled school. Under new principal Michael Wiltshire, students who are missing many credits or otherwise unlikely to graduate this year have been encouraged to transfer out, according to Brown and staffers at the school. Brown was one of the students urged to leave.

“They made me transfer,” said Brown, 17. “They don’t want me on the Boys and Girls roster.”

Leaders ordered to overhaul struggling high schools like Boys and Girls have limited options. They may try to retrain teachers or add tutoring time, but city regulations and the teachers union contract can stop them from taking more drastic steps. But one significant change they can make is to quietly adjust the school’s student population by advising underachieving students to transfer out.

Principals who have done that argue it is in the students’ best interest, since the alternative high schools where they land are designed to help students who are chronically absent and missing credits to graduate. But struggling high schools under intense pressure to improve also benefit by nudging out those students, since the schools are judged partly by their graduation rates.

Whether principals should treat student transfers as a turnaround strategy may come up for debate as the leaders of more than 90 low-performing schools try to make improvements under a new city program launched this week. The program gives schools extra support, but does not allow for immediate staffing changes or restructuring.

People at Boys and Girls High School say that about 30 students have transferred out since Wiltshire took over three weeks ago. Many of the students moved to Research and Service High School, an alternative school in the same building, according to an employee there.

“Since the administration change took place,” the employee said, “it seems like there’s some sort of mass exodus going on.”

Roughly 30 students have transferred out of Boys and Girls High School since Michael Wiltshire became principal three weeks ago, sources say.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters
Roughly 30 students have transferred out of Boys and Girls High School since Michael Wiltshire became principal three weeks ago, sources said.

One of Wiltshire’s first moves was to summon to the auditorium all the older students who were behind academically and let them know their odds of graduating could improve if they switched schools, according to Brown and other sources at Boys and Girls. He also said that students would now be expected to earn diplomas in four years, otherwise the school would help them find new placements, Brown said. (Last year, just 44 percent of Boys and Girls students hit the four-year graduation target.)

After the talk, a guidance counselor asked to meet with Brown and his father last week. In the past, Brown and the counselor had discussed ways he could make up his missing credits and still graduate from Boys and Girls, Brown said. But at this meeting, the counselor said Brown had too few credits and should transfer to an alternative school, Brown said. Convinced that he had to leave, Brown and his father reluctantly agreed to the move.

“Why don’t you take the kids who have problems and deal with them instead of pushing them out?” said Mary Saxon, Brown’s grandmother, who also spoke with the counselor. She said she told the counselor that her grandson wanted to remain at Boys and Girls, but the counselor said, “He has to go.”

A staffer said the school had occasionally advised off-track students to switch schools in the past, but never this “aggressively.” Because of Boys and Girls’ chronic low performance, the state has designated it as “out of time” and ordered it to show signs of improvement this year. Removing students who are far behind in school appears to be part of Wiltshire’s plan to produce a higher graduation rate, according to the staffer and Caster Hall, the school’s parent association president.

“The new principal is trying to kick out all the students who don’t have enough credits to get his graduation rate up,” said Hall, who is the brother of the principal who resigned. “It’s all about the numbers.”

Wiltshire did not respond to emails or phone messages, and school guidance counselors referred questions to the education department.

Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye would not comment on the situation at Boys and Girls. But she said that students should be in schools that best meet their needs, which can include transfer schools, the small alternative high schools designed for dropouts and students struggling to graduate.

“The DOE would never tolerate a student being forced out of any school,” she added.

The matter is especially delicate at Boys and Girls, which was the subject of a class action lawsuit a decade ago alleging that the school warehoused troublesome students in the auditorium as a way to push them out.

Brown’s claim — that he was pressured to transfer to another school— differs from the 2005 lawsuit, which alleged that the school’s actions drove students to drop out of school completely, said Rebecca Shore, director of litigation at Advocates for Children, the nonprofit that helped file the lawsuit. (As part of a 2008 settlement, the city agreed to put Boys and Girls under the oversight of a monitor for several years and make sure the school got approval before transferring students.)

Still, Brown’s situation highlights a common problem, Shore said. Students have the right to remain in school until the end of the year they turn 21, and administrators must follow strict protocols to make students switch schools against their will. But administrators sometimes work around those rules by convincing students that they will not graduate from their current school, and so should transfer to an alternative school, Shore said.

“It comes off in theory as the student wanting this and consenting,” she said. “But really, it’s more of the school pushing the student out.”

Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, where the principal advised many students who were far behind to consider transferring to a special program.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, where the principal advised many students who were far behind to consider transferring to a special program.

If Wiltshire’s plan to improve Boys and Girls involves convincing some challenging students to transfer out, he would not be the first turnaround principal to try that approach.

Evan Schwartz was sent to Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx two years ago with orders from the city to make drastic changes. One of his first actions was to encourage older students who regularly skipped class and were far behind in credits to switch schools.

“I moved 100 kids in my first four months,” he said.

Schwartz notes that the city created alternative schools to serve so-called overage, under-credited students like the ones who left his school. Transfer schools, for example, tend to have smaller classes, extra social workers, and accelerated programs that let such students earn credits quickly in order to graduate. Other programs offer evening classes and paid internships.

Schwartz emphasized that he never forced lagging students to leave. Rather, he explained to the students that other schools were designed to help them catch up but, if they decided to stay at Smith, they could no longer cut class and ignore the rules.

Still, Schwartz said that it was crucial to get those students into a different school if he was going to improve Smith. Many of them were 19 years old, far behind academically, and only interested in wandering the halls and lunchroom, he said.

“You don’t want kids like that in the school,” Schwartz said. “It makes it hard to change the culture.”

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.