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.

By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.

iZone lite

How Memphis is taking lessons from its Innovation Zone to other struggling schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Sharon Griffin, now chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, confers with Laquita Tate, principal of Ford Road Elementary, part of the Innovation Zone during a 2016 visit.

One of the few qualms that Memphians have with Shelby County’s heralded school turnaround initiative is that more schools aren’t in it.

The district’s Innovation Zone has garnered national attention for its test score gains, but it’s expensive. Each iZone school requires an extra $600,000 annually to pay for interventions such as an extra hour in the school day, teacher signing and retention bonuses, and additional specialists for literacy, math and behavior.

But instead of just replicating the whole iZone model, the district is trying a few components on some of its other struggling schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to employ lessons learned from the iZone.

Last year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson launched the Empowerment Zone, a scaled-down version of the iZone for five Whitehaven-area schools in danger of slipping to the lowest rankings in the state. The iZone’s most expensive part — one hour added to the school day — was excluded, but the district kept teacher pay incentives and principal freedoms. And teachers across the five schools meet regularly to share what’s working in their classrooms.

This year, district leaders are seeking to inject iZone lessons in 11 struggling schools that Hopson would rather transform than close. His team has been meeting with the principals of those “critical focus schools” to come up with customized plans to propel them out of the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

As part of that effort, Hopson’s budget plan calls for providing $5.9 million in supports, including $600,000 for retention bonuses for top-ranked teachers at those schools. Spread across the 11 schools, that investment would shake out to about $100,000 less per school than what the iZone spends.

“We’re trying to provide targeted academic support based on the individual school needs. And that can include a lot of our learnings from the iZone as well as a host of other suggestions,” Hopson told school board members last month.

The iZone launched in 2012 and now has 21 schools in some of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative was thrust into the national spotlight after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study found the turnaround effort had outpaced test gains of similarly poor-performing Memphis schools in a state-run turnaround district.

Overseeing the iZone has been Sharon Griffin, the former principal who has become Hopson’s chief catalyst and ambassador on school improvements happening in Tennessee’s largest district. In January, he promoted Griffin from chief of the iZone to chief of schools for the entire district.

Griffin has long touted good leadership as the key to the iZone’s successes. The turnaround model relies on placing top principals in struggling schools and giving them the autonomy to recruit effective teachers to put in front of students. Academic supports and daily collaboration across iZone schools are also important tenets.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools has branded its Innovation Zone to showcase one of its most successful initiatives.

In her new role, Griffin is trying to equip principals across the school system to carry out the district’s academic strategies and spread the iZone culture of leadership and collaboration districtwide.

The latest “critical focus” initiative represents the most significant investment so far to magnify the iZone model. It also shows the level of confidence that Hopson has in Griffin, her team, and their strategies.

“We recognize that if we truly want to turn around our schools, it can’t be just one teacher at a time. It has to be one team at a time,” Griffin said Monday. “And we know if we hire the most effective leader, they hire the most effective teachers, and we’re building a team and a cadre of greatness. … Human capital is going to be our secret weapon.”

As for which iZone components will be culled this spring for each of the 11 critical-focus areas schools, that’s under review. In keeping with the iZone model, those schools are being assessed to create a “school profile” that will determine the course for interventions. Among the possibilities: Adding staff, lengthening the school day, and ramping up after-school programs.

“We’re looking at all our schools and making sure that we’re not duplicating our resources. Then we’re taking additional resources and aligning them to one mission,” Griffin said. “ … We want to give our schools an opportunity to put their own spin on an aligned curriculum and professional development.”