New grades for schools for students on brink of dropping out

For the first time, the city is assigning grades to a set of schools for students who have fallen behind and are well into their late-teens, but still hope to get their high school diplomas.

All but two of these 23 schools, known as young adult borough centers, were opened during the early years of former Chancellor Joel Klein’s tenure, when the city was searching for ways to help overage, under-credited students graduate. With afternoon and evening classes and more individualized attention, the centers are the city’s last effort to give students diplomas before they age out of the school system.

They’re also among the last schools in the city to get progress reports — the signature element of the city’s accountability system — which are created annually for elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as transfer schools.

Because YABCs only admit students older than 17 who have enough credits to be a high school sophomore, their progress reports are slightly different from the average high school’s.

The reports were developed by the Department of Education’s former director of school performance, Phil Vaccaro, who left recently to work for The Parthenon Group. Vaccaro explained that because there are only 23 YABCs, they aren’t measured against peer groups like other high school are.

They are judged on their graduation rates, but the city uses a 6-year graduation rate instead of a 4-year one. The reports also judge students’ progress not simply by how many credits they’ve accumulated, but by how many they earn in relation to how many they arrived with.

“It’s a proxy for how far they have to go,” Vaccaro said.

This year, the city gave A and B grades to 14 of these schools. Six schools got C’s, two got D’s, and only one school, the Stevenson YABC, got an F. As with typical public schools, the progress report grades will come with consequences for the borough centers. One bad grade won’t be enough to get a YABC on next year’s closure list, but if a school racks up another D or F next year, it could be in jeopardy.

One YABC principal, who asked to remain unnamed, said he was concerned that YABC administrators will now feel pressured to boost their schools’ graduation and Regents passage rates by admitting fewer high-needs students.

“It all depends on who you take into the program,” he said. “And then you’ll see some schools with low enrollment, some already have that this year. It helps them get better grades because they’re only taking the top 100 kids that come to them and they turn away 100 others.”

Though most YABCs enroll around 250 students, some deviate. The borough center in the Truman High School campus, which got an A this year, currently has 108 students, and the Brandeis YABC has 105 students. It got a C this year.

Another YABC administrator said he didn’t think the new accountability measure would pose a problem

“As far as progress reports are concerned, I think this is an important tool to make sure that what we’re doing is actually serving the needs of our students,” said Andy Siu Hei Szeto, the assistant principal of the YABC at Flushing High School. With 326 students enrolled, his center is the largest in the city.

Gisela Alvarez, a senior project director with Advocates for Children, said the YABCs have generally done well by their students, but it’s been difficult to get seats for some of AFC’s clients. By 2004, when the city first presented the YABCs as an option for overage, under-credited students, most of them were full, Alvarez said.

She said the new progress reports could become a concern if they dissuade principals from taking in students that could take years to graduate.

“I think that anything that provides a disincentive to serve students who are further away from graduation is definitely of concern,” she said. “Their mission is to help students who are at risk and that puts them at risk for closure.”