getting to graduation

New York City’s English learners often struggle to graduate, but here’s how some schools buck that trend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students in AP Chemistry at High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies are taught in English and Mandarin.

As students settle into their AP chemistry class, the teacher gets through some housekeeping announcements in English and then switches to Mandarin to begin the day’s lesson.

The class is taught in both languages, to a group of students made up mostly of current or former English Language Learners — as is their school, High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies on the Lower East Side.

Principal Li Yan says that challenging courses like this college-level class are one of the key reasons students at his school do so well. Less than 51 percent of current and former English Language Learners graduated citywide last year, far below the city average of about 73 percent. At Dual Language high school, where roughly 80 percent of students are current or former English learners, almost every senior earned a diploma last year.

“You can’t automatically assume they can’t do things. They can,” Yan said. “You have to have high expectations.”

About 13 percent of New York City’s 1.1 million students are considered English learners — a group of students that can be among the toughest to serve. Last year, while the dropout rate for the city overall declined, the dropout rate among English learners jumped to 27 percent — an increase of more than 5 percentage points from the year before.

But Dual Language high school and a handful of other schools across the city manage to buck that trend, providing valuable lessons for how to better serve these students.

For instance, Dual Language high school tries to enroll a healthy mix of native English and Chinese speakers to make the dual-language model work. Dual-language schools split instruction into two languages, so math class may be taught in English one day and in Mandarin the next.

Asian students in New York City are already more likely to graduate than their peers. But Dual Language high school pays special attention to make sure English learners don’t get caught in red tape that could keep them from earning a diploma. The school’s program is set up so students can move easily to higher-level English courses, even mid-year, rather than getting stuck in classes their language skills have outgrown. Schedules are constantly monitored and changed to meet students’ needs.

“This is important,” Yan said. “You can’t get to senior year and say, ‘This kid needs five English classes.’”

In research circles, dual-language programs are often singled out as a highly effective way to teach English while also allowing students to maintain their native language.
In New York City, however, a group of schools has shown remarkable success using a different approach.

The Internationals Network for Public Schools is a nonprofit that helps run more than a dozen schools in New York City, catering exclusively to recently arrived immigrant students. Last year, its schools’ average graduation rate was 74 percent, according to Director Joe Luft. That’s higher than the citywide rate for all students.

Students at Internationals schools learn both subject content and English in the same classes in what’s called an “integrated” model. The teachers work together across subjects to make sure students learn the vocabulary they need before conducting a science experiment or taking on a new math concept.

“Language and content are inseparable,” Luft said. “You need to teach them real high school content. You can’t wait until they know enough English to do that. You have to do both simultaneously.”

Group work and projects are also core to the network’s teaching strategy. Students are deliberately mixed based on grade level and individual strengths, ensuring they have as many opportunities as possible to practice their language skills and learn from each other.

They are encouraged to communicate the best way they can — even if that means speaking in their native language. Though it might seem counterintuitive, letting students draw on their existing language to express themselves and understand classroom commands or content is actually an effective strategy, said Miriam Eisenstein Ebsworth, a director in New York University Steinhardt’s division of Multilingual Multicultural Studies.

“If you stick somebody in a total immersion situation, how would you know what’s going on?” she asked. “It’s traumatic, it’s unhelpful and it really slows them down.”

Internationals Network schools focus only on the needs of English learners. But Robert F. Kennedy Community High School in Queens is proof that a typical high school can also serve these students well.

Robert F. Kennedy is an “educational option” school, meaning it intentionally admits students across a range of academic abilities. As a result, the student body is closely aligned with the demographics of the city as a whole. Eleven percent of the students are English learners, and among them are Spanish, Chinese and Arabic speakers. Eighty-six percent of its current or former English learners graduated last year.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Robert F. Kennedy Community High School Principal Anthony Barbetta and Assistant Prinicpal Maria Toskos

Like Internationals schools, Robert F. Kennedy uses integrated instruction, where English language and content are taught side by side. The school puts an emphasis on including English learners in sports, clubs and school celebrations.

“They need to feel part of the community,” said Maria Toskos, an assistant principal who helps oversee services for English learners at the school.

Robert F. Kennedy has been able to avoid problems that plague other schools statewide. State rules, enacted last year, require that teachers in integrated settings either be certified in language instruction, or work as a co-teacher with a colleague who has the credential.

But there are consistently language teacher shortages. Co-teaching is costly and requires teachers to work together closely — and well.

But Robert F. Kennedy has a stable of dual-certified teachers. In co-teaching cases, before teaching assignments are made, Barbetta said he asks teachers for their placement preferences — and the school makes an effort to honor those requests.

“There’s really buy-in,” said Principal Anthony Barbetta. “We’re fortunate.”

New York City has come under scrutiny for how well it serves English learners, and recently announced it will open 68 new language programs. The city hopes to have every English learner in a bilingual program by 2018.

Still, people who work with English learners or study their progress say better data is needed to help more students make it to graduation. Some advocates objected recently when Chancellor Carmen Fariña seemed to downplay the city’s role in that process.

Ebsworth, the NYU professor, said it’s hard to predict who will earn a diploma and who won’t. Each English learner is unique: Some come from their countries with a solid academic foundation, others come with little or no formal schooling. They may have some experience with the English language, or none at all.

To better understand how to serve them, experts want to learn more about those who don’t graduate. Are they stumbling on specific exams? Are students with less formal schooling more likely to drop out? What role does a family’s economic needs play?

“We can’t tell what the outcomes are being influenced by,” she said. “There’s a big problem with the data.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new era

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”