getting to graduation

City’s June graduation rate jumps nearly three points, outpacing state

Updated, 5:15 p.m. — New York City’s four-year June graduation rate jumped nearly three points to 64.2 percent this year — the largest uptick in several years — while its share of dropouts fell and the achievement gap between different student groups narrowed.

This year, 9.7 percent of students quit high school, down nearly one point from last year. At the same time, the share of black and Hispanic students who earned diplomas in 2014 grew by about 2.5 points each, shrinking the still-sizable graduation divide between them and white students. Students with disabilities made the most gains, with their graduation rate rising by 3.4 points.

The latest figures continue a decade-long upward march for the city: Since 2005, the graduation rate has increased by nearly 18 points. Despite those long-term gains, both state and city officials emphasized that more work is needed and pointed out that most high school graduates are still ill-prepared for college.

“We must make progress and increase graduation rates further, and make sure students stay in college and are equipped to have meaningful careers,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

Only 32 percent of city graduates earned high enough test scores this year to avoid remedial math and English classes at the City University of New York, the city announced last month — a one-point improvement from the year before. Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College, said officials must be cautious about touting the gains since the college-readiness rates remain so low.

“Graduation rates in this state continue to have a kind of cloud over them,” he said. “We’re really not that confident they represent a level of performance they should for students who are going to enter the job market or go onto higher education.”

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While all student groups saw their graduation rates rise this year, large gaps remain.

For example, while 80.7 percent of the city’s white students earned diplomas this year, just 61.4 percent of Hispanic students and 63.8 percent of black students managed to do so. Meanwhile, the share of students still learning English who graduated by June barely budged, from 32.3 percent in 2013 to 32.5 percent this year. (The rate for students with disabilities is 36.6 percent.)

State policymakers toughened the requirements to earn a diploma two years ago. While the change did not pull down the overall graduation rate, English learners struggled to keep up, with their rate tumbling by nearly 7 points since 2011.

Recently, city and state officials have vowed to do more to help English learners. The city agreed last month to enroll more students in bilingual classes and to make sure their teachers are well trained, while the state Board of Regents proposed doubling the part of the state budget devoted to such students to $86 million next year.

The state is also considering a policy change that would let students substitute a different exam for one of the five they must currently pass to graduate, and another that would let English learners appeal low scores on their English exams. Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children, said the proposals must be coupled with more classroom support.

“We definitely welcome the recent increase in attention to English-language learners,” she said. “But we definitely will be keeping an eye on what instructional supports are provided and how they play out.”

The graduation figures arrived months earlier than in past years (something the state attributed to an improved data system), and during a transitional moment for the state and city school systems.

State Education Commissioner John King announced last week that he was stepping down to join the federal education department, after guiding the state through a rocky transition to tough new learning standards. But even as the new Common Core standards caused state test scores to plunge, the statewide graduation rate has inched up during King’s tenure, with the latest figures offering King some clear progress to cite as he leaves office.

While King called the increase “encouraging” in a statement, he noted that nearly a quarter of students still fail to graduate in four years, which he argued is reason for the state to continue its support for the higher standards. A few of the Regents exams were tied to the new standards for the first time this year, but students will not need to pass a full set of Common Core tests in order to graduate until 2022.

“Students must be given every opportunity to meet those increased expectations,” King said in his statement.

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.