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.”

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.”