new rules

New York City’s transfer high schools getting new admissions rules, extra oversight

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A class at Brooklyn Frontiers High School, a transfer school

New York City is beefing up oversight of its alternative high schools, issuing new admissions policies in an effort to make sure off-track students aren’t turned away.

The new rules apply to the city’s 52 transfer schools, which work to quickly catch up students who have dropped out or fallen behind at traditional high schools. Transfer schools admit students directly and typically require an in-person interview to enroll — though some have also required reading tests, letters of recommendation, or a “probationary” period.

A new set of policies quietly issued this spring appear designed to curtail some of those practices. Transfer schools, which enrolled about 13,000 students last year, will not be allowed to test students before they’re admitted, look at attendance or suspension records, and may not admit students for a probationary period, city officials confirmed.

Transfer school leaders have said that some screening mechanisms are essential to ensure students — most of whom have become disengaged with school at some point — are committed to giving school another try before they enroll. But the new policies suggest the education department is also concerned about giving schools too much autonomy to choose among some of the city’s most vulnerable students.

“The goal is to make the process more transparent, easier, and effective for students and families, and to ensure better tracking and accountability within the process,” education department spokesman Will Mantell wrote in an email. Transfer schools will also have to submit more data to the city on which students are rejected or admitted, Mantell said.

City officials said transfer schools have not been allowed to use reading tests, attendance records, and a handful of other criteria in admissions decisions. But last year’s transfer school directory, individual school websites, and interviews with transfer school leaders indicate that some violate those rules or don’t make clear how records or test results will be used.

The schools are also getting new oversight. A new “coordinator of enrollment” will report to Paul Rotondo, the superintendent responsible for transfer schools. He is also now empowered to place students directly into those schools, specifically when a student has been denied admission to three transfer schools. (Officials stressed that all placement decisions will be made in consultation with schools.)

The city could not immediately say how many students have been denied admission three times.

Rotondo, who previously served as a transfer school principal, said the new policies are not designed to limit transfer schools’ ability to make decisions at the school level.

“From the moment [a student] enters the school building, there’s that human touch, that interview, where the school is looking for the student to be reflective and give a hard look at what got in the way in prior years,” Rotondo said.

Michael Rothman is the executive director of Eskolta, a nonprofit that works with about 20 transfer schools, and a former education department official. He said the policy appeared to be an effort to address “the frustration of what seems like a black box” of transfer school admissions, while preserving schools’ ability to interview students.

“There’s a perception when you’re on the outside of it that [transfer schools are] just looking for students who can graduate,” Rothman said. “But it’s much more that we’re looking for students who can reengage.”

The new policies came a few months before city officials announced plans to eliminate the “limited unscreened” admissions method for high schools, which give preference to students who attend an open house or citywide high school fair. Still, one-third of the city’s traditional district high schools have screened admissions policies.

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.”

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”