getting to graduation

How one diverse New York City high school got 100 percent of its students to graduation

PHOTO: Alex Federov / NYC Outward Bound Schools
MELS students marched last December to celebrate their college acceptances.

As graduation approached this year, Principal Damon McCord had to do something he didn’t expect: limit the number of guests that students in his school’s first graduating class were allowed to invite.

That’s because every single senior at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School graduated this year, threatening to overflow the school’s auditorium with their family members.

The school’s graduation rate is almost without precedent: It is one of just two “unscreened” schools over the past decade to graduate its entire senior class without an admissions process that takes students’ academic records into account.

Launched six years ago, the Forest Hills, Queens school also stands out as a relatively diverse island within one of the most segregated school systems in the country. The school, which serves middle and high school students, is 39 percent Hispanic, 18 percent black, 17 percent Asian and 20 percent white. Sixty-two percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 25 percent have special needs. Still, 98 percent of its graduating class was accepted to college.

The school is part of the city’s network of NYC Outward Bound schools, and McCord said the school’s unusual focus on hands-on learning paired with dedicated advisors who track student progress have contributed to its success.

McCord, who runs the school along with co-principal Pat Finley, spoke with Chalkbeat about how the pair managed to graduate all of the school’s 115 seniors. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the secret to getting all of your students to graduation?

As a New York City Outward Bound school [there are 11 citywide], there’s an intense amount of focus on school culture, character and getting students to and through college. And so when you combine that kind of emphasis on educating the whole child, making sure that we’re not screening kids out or tracking kids or anything like that, and making sure that every kid has access to a high-quality education … it increases the amount of student engagement in their own education.

And so, as a result, we have over 90 percent attendance in our high school. For a school that doesn’t screen their students to have a four-year June graduation rate of 100 percent just really speaks to kids feeling bought into school.

What are the sorts of experiences that students are having that you think are drawing them into school?

One of the biggest pieces is “crew.” Crew is like an advisory program — it’s a group of no more than 16 students that meet every morning first period with their crew advisor. Every morning, the crew advisor is the first point of contact for a student, so [they] right away know if a student is having a good day or a bad day or might need some support throughout the day.

That crew advisor also works with the student to focus on their academic goals, to plan their student-led conferences, which is what we do instead of parent-teacher conferences. Students present their learning to their parents and their crew advisor, so there’s just an incredible amount of responsibility that the students take on to kind of talk through what they’ve been learning.

Are there specific things you can point to that really excite students and make them want to be there?

I think having a curriculum that focuses on relevance for teenagers and getting them to realize that they can make an impact on their world and that their choices do matter – we don’t take a cynical view of teenagers as not caring about things. So when we get students involved with different social activists in eighth grade and they write activist profiles, when they go out on the street and interview people in immigrant-rich communities about the immigrant experience and then write a book about that – a lot of these things resonate with kids. They realize it’s not just words on a page I’m looking at, I can have an impact on the experience that an immigrant family has if that’s what I want to pursue in college. I can make healthier choices about the food I eat that will impact my global environment.

What obstacles do your students face on the way to graduation?

I think the obstacles for a lot of our students is, I think, in a very test-focused society like we are right now, this is the kind of education people are looking for, especially colleges. A lot of those old systems have not necessarily changed yet. We offer some AP courses, but do we offer 20 different AP courses? No. Because an AP course is more about breadth rather than depth in a particular topic. It’s really hard to reconcile some of those curricular beliefs with some of the things our kids need for college.

Were there any close calls this year with students who might not graduate?

I think we had a couple kids that were really close, and because of the team of adults that were working with kids and making sure they had what they needed, we were able to get everybody over the finish line. It’s something we may never do again.

Your student body is relatively diverse, but it’s also slightly whiter and less economically disadvantaged than the city’s student population overall.

When we first opened the school, Pat and I were really committed to the idea that we were a District 28 middle school and that we would recruit and have a student body that was reflective of the district. We watch our numbers really closely in terms of our socioeconomic breakdown, our ethnic breakdown.

We don’t do any quota-ing or anything like that, but if we see that our numbers of applicants from a particular elementary school are low year after year, we may do a little extra reach out to those schools just to make sure they’re getting the word out to the parents of their fifth graders to make sure they’re aware that we’re an option for them, and that we’re not just a school that is for a local neighborhood.

Ninety-eight percent of your students are headed to college. How do you help so many of them navigate what is a really, really complicated process?

I think crew goes a long way with that, so our college counselor worked a lot with our crew advisors, as well as our twelfth-grade team leader and our academic dean, to make sure that we were getting college information in the hands of students and their families early on. But we also made sure that the 2 percent that were not accepted to college had a plan in place. One is doing a gap year with his parents … and then the two others are going to culinary school.

What’s next year’s college acceptance and graduation goal?

[Laughs] I think the goal is always 100 percent. Is it likely we’ll hit 100 percent? I don’t know. But we’re going to work like hell to make sure we try.

We set out to prove that you could be a fully public unscreened school with 20 percent special needs students, and an incredibly diverse student body that didn’t track kids in honors classes, and still be successful and still provide a good experience for kids. And this first graduating class has shown that it is possible, … that a public school can do this if they value certain things like knowing kids well, engaging curriculum, working with families. It can be done.

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new era

Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”