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.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”