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.”

Funding the ATR

Absent Teacher Reserve cost New York City $151.6 million this past school year, far more than previously estimated

PHOTO: Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat

New York City spent $151.6 million in the 2016-17 school year on salary and fringe benefits for teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve, according to numbers recently obtained by Chalkbeat from the city’s Independent Budget Office.

That’s higher than previous estimates on the cost of the ATR — a pool of teachers without permanent positions — which have generally hovered around $100 million. The high cost is no doubt one reason the city is eager to reduce the pool, which included 822 teachers at the end of the school year. Earlier this month, it announced plans to halve that number by placing hundreds into open vacancies in classrooms as of Oct. 15, potentially despite principal’s objections.

The IBO says its numbers come directly from school budgets prepared and provided by the city’s education department, in which ATR costs are included in their own separate lines. Officials in the city’s education department did not dispute the numbers but said they did not know exactly what methodology or point in time the IBO was capturing. “The number, salary, and overall cost of teachers in the ATR pool naturally fluctuates from day to day throughout the school year,” they said.

Teachers are placed into the ATR when their jobs are eliminated or for disciplinary reasons. As of October 2016, there were 1,304 teachers in the ATR pool, according to numbers released by the city last fall. Using the IBO’s estimate, on average each ATR teacher received a total of $116,258 in salary and fringe benefits for the past school year. (By comparison, the base salary for a city teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000). The IBO did not break down salary versus fringe benefits.

David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, said he was not shocked to learn that the actual cost of the ATR pool was higher than previously estimated. “It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “I think the administration has tried to lowball the figure to avoid criticism.”

He noted that the ATR is a problem inherited by Mayor Bill de Blasio from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg — and not an easy one to solve. Still, he added, if the city is already paying as much as $151.6 million, it should consider instead passing a buyout plan with higher incentives for teachers than the $50,000 in severance pay the city is currently offering.

Instead, the city plans to place these teachers in classroom vacancies, where the schools will have to grapple with their salaries instead. While the city provided subsidies to schools hiring from the ATR in the past, under the new policy schools would have to bear the full cost of the new hires.

According to Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president of the city’s principals’ union, if an ATR hire causes a “budgetary restriction” for a principal, the city will work with principals to resolve the issue. He did not provide more details.

The city has vowed to work with schools to find the right fit. “We are reducing the size of the ATR pool with a number of common-sense reforms that drive resources back to schools and ensure qualified teachers are deployed effectively,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said. “These reforms will support the work our schools are doing every day, while also significantly lowering costs.”

technical education

Trio of top NY education officials shows support for career and technical education — and a desire to fix roadblocks

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School

Top city and state education officials descended on Thomas Edison High School in Queens Tuesday afternoon to show support for career-focused education — and discuss roadblocks to its expansion.

Proponents of career and technical education say it helps engage students, encourages graduation and provides a skill that will be useful after high school. But the state’s long and stringent approval process can often be difficult for schools to navigate.

In particular, schools have had trouble in the past finding certified teachers, creating new and emerging programs and taking advantage of a new graduation option that involves career education.

State and city officials on Tuesday indicated they have made some changes to ease the process and are interested in looking for more.

“We [can] try to make sure that we take away those issues that might be stoppers and make it much more feasible for school districts across the state to move [in] this direction,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

In broad strokes, school officials sometimes find the state’s process doesn’t always align with the programs they want to run. In some cases, even nationally recognized programs are not on the state’s radar, said Moses Ojeda, principal of Thomas Edison High School. (Elia indicated that is something the state would look into.)

The desire to spread CTE programs was boosted by a new rule that lets students substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in career and technical education. The problem is, some schools say, the state’s approved exams don’t always match the specific career training schools are offering.

Historically, it has also been difficult for schools to find CTE teachers, though the state has recently made it easier for those with specific career expertise to become teachers.

In sum, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she would like all CTE programs across the city to become official, state-certified programs, but the rules and regulations can make it difficult.

“That’s why we need more help,” Fariña said. A report released Monday also found that English learners were underrepresented in the city’s CTE programs.

If anyone could make the process smoother, it was the group assembled on Tuesday. In addition to the commissioner and the chancellor of New York City schools, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents and several Regents attended the school visit.

“It’s always exciting to be able to walk a building with both the commissioner and the Board of Regents because together we can make things happen,” Fariña said.