getting to graduation

New York City’s graduation rate continues climb, but a larger share of English learners are dropping out

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students from The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology walked to a graduation ceremony.

New York City’s four-year graduation rate hit 72.6 percent last school year, the highest rate in city history and a two-point increase over 2015.

That continues an upward trajectory for the city, which has seen a 26-point increase in its graduation rate since 2005. It also mirrors statewide and nationwide trends of rising graduation rates: across New York state, the graduation rate increased to 81.4 percent, from 80.3 percent last year.

But the numbers raise questions about whether the increases represent more student learning, or reflect a number of recent policy changes that have made it easier for New York’s students to cross the finish line. Only 51 percent of the city’s graduates were also deemed ready for college, or whether they would qualify to avoid remedial classes at CUNY.

Significant racial disparities also persist: Black and Hispanic students graduated at far lower rates than their white and Asian peers. And while the graduation rate for students with disabilities increased, the rate for English language learners saw a dramatic drop.

Still, the graduation rates are good news for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is up for re-election this year and has set a goal of a 80 percent graduation rate by 2026. De Blasio called the new numbers evidence that the city’s schools “are unquestionably the strongest they’ve ever been.”

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia also touted the gains, but pointed to several trends, including a large racial achievement gap and a the drop in graduation rates for English language learners, as cause for concern. In New York City, just 27 percent of current English learners graduated, a 9.6 percent decrease over the previous year.

“These findings are disturbing and much more work needs to be done to ensure that ELLs are getting the services they need to stay in school and to graduate,” Elia said.

The city said that was because its group of English learners was smaller and needier than in years past. A spokeswoman said the graduation rate for a combined group of English learners and students who had once been English learners was flat.

Another possible reason graduation rates for English learners fell was that more of them dropped out. The dropout rate for that group in city schools increased from 21.6 percent to 27 percent.

The state made several changes last year that allowed students to earn diplomas in new ways. One allows students to substitute a skills certificate for a final Regents exam, and the other lets certain students with disabilities graduate with after passing just two Regents exams. (Most students must pass five.) More students were also eligible to appeal a failed Regents exam this year.

Elia said that 418 students statewide benefited from that new graduation option for students with disabilities. The state did not provide information about how many students took advantage of the more generous appeals process.

As in previous years, rates differed significantly for black and Hispanic students and those with disabilities compared with their peers. Though 82 percent of white students and almost 86 percent of Asian students graduated, only 68 percent of black students and 67 percent of Hispanic students did.

Black and Hispanic students saw a larger uptick in graduation rates compared with their white and Asian peers. The city saw a jump in graduation rates for students with disabilities from 37.6 to 41.3 percent.

De Blasio seized on the news as evidence that his “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which includes initiatives to increase counseling and algebra instruction, is paying off. The city also used the graduation numbers to tout its Renewal program, which is designed to turn around 86 of the city’s lowest-performing schools by flooding them with extra social services and academic support.

Of the 31 Renewal high schools, graduation rates increased at 20 of them; 11 saw decreases.

“We know that there is a lot more work to do,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and we are laser-focused on continuing to improve student achievement at our Renewal Schools.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.