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.”

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”

chancellor chat

Chancellor Betty Rosa hits back on criticism that New York is abandoning education reform

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York has moved sharply away from innovative education reforms with “bewildering and humbling speed.” That’s what Robert Pondiscio of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute wrote in an op-ed posted earlier this month on the organization’s website.

Here in New York City, he writes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is ushering in the “bad old days” by pumping money into struggling schools and relaxing school discipline.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials, after trying to pack too many reforms into a short period of time, have largely backed away from education reform. That coupled with the growing opt-out movement and the departure of New York State Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Pondiscio wrote, spurred the end of an “era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them—an era that never entirely gained traction in New York.”

New York State Chancellor Betty Rosa hit back Thursday with her own piece for the Fordham Institute, saying that she “could not disagree more.” She argues that focusing on high-stakes testing is not synonymous with having high standards — and that while her standards take a different form, they are no less rigorous.

For example, she cites the Board’s decision to jettison the controversial Academic Literacy Skills Test as part of teacher certification. While Pondiscio blasts the move, Rosa says New York’s certification process remains among the country’s most stringent. “We simply eliminated a costly and unnecessary testing requirement that created an unfair obstacle for too many applicants,” she writes.

Her op-ed is part of a broader push by the Board of Regents to articulate a new vision of accountability that moves away from a strong focus on New York state’s much-maligned 3-8 math and English tests. She and the Regents seem eager to convince critics that those changes do not, in the end, represent a watering down of the goals the state sets for its students.

“We need an opposite narrative,” Rosa said in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat. She sees her job as not simply setting high bars, she said, but more importantly, “building the steps” to help students succeed.