Behind the scenes, New York City schools that serve students who have fallen behind are undergoing a ‘systemic’ transformation

Stretched across New York City is a web of alternative high schools that helps thousands of students who have fallen off track. Now, it’s undergoing several big shifts.

The “transfer” high school system — which includes more than 50 schools and roughly 13,000 students — has gotten new admissions rules, had some schools close or merge with others, and has seen their funding increase as other programs absorbed tough cuts. The moves have taken a collection of widely varying schools, each operating with different admissions criteria and philosophies, and nudged them toward more standardized policies.

At the center is a question New York City has been grappling with for decades: How should the school system help students at greatest risk of dropping out?

Chalkbeat recently spoke with Paul Rotondo, the city’s superintendent of transfer schools, and Ailish Brady, senior advisor in the Chancellor’s Office. They explain how they’re thinking about the transfer school system and what its schools should expect in the near future.

The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Chalkbeat: Can you tell us about the broader redesign you’re thinking about? Is there a more systemic effort underway to rethink the transfer school system?

Rotondo: A broader, systemic idea is exactly what we’re looking for.

One of the missions that I had was to take the transfer schools from where they are now — which for many years have been schools that have been performing very well but have been performing rather independently — and try to build a more formidable structure to be able to help support them. My goal, ultimately, is to leave the portfolio of transfer schools in a place where we’ve got small, individually focused, academically rigorous schools with very strong social and emotional support mechanisms.

We work with at-risk students, and have been doing so since we called them alternative schools back in the 1970s. I think we’ve built our schools in waves throughout the years, depending on what student needs were identified. Unfortunately, I don’t think each of us have been able to obtain all of the resources and supports that we deserved over the years.

We began to look at the portfolio of schools, in the way that they focus, where they started, and the missions that they’ve had in working with students. We’ve identified some large areas of schools and began to categorize them.

The largest of the group is — obviously we call them the recuperative. These are schools that provide individualized instruction and attention for students who are over-aged and under-credited or two or more years behind. But we also have other schools that provide service and education to students based on their needs. Another example of that would be overage, newcomer schools. So once we had that portfolio in place, we then could start to look at what are the resources and supports that we provide.

Rotondo also explained some changes Chalkbeat has covered in the past. They include shifting more Learning to Work funds to transfer schools, which helps schools offer academic and career services, including internship support. In order to make the shift, the city cut funding to another program that helps serve off-track students, angering some officials who work at those programs. One transfer school has been closed and two have been consolidated along the way.

Rotondo: I’d love to be able to tell you that we have an infinite amount of resources. We don’t.

My vision [is that] every transfer school, every transfer student, has the opportunity to participate with a community-based organization in a Learning to Work program. But to do that, I need to either build the capacity of the school or be able to take a sensible look at which schools could share those resources and how could we best do that in a least disruptive way to provide those supports for students.

So we took a look at some schools and we looked at where we think some consolidations and mergers would make good sense — ultimately hoping that what we have at the end of these consolidations are schools that are less in competition with one another and filled with the resources that we wanted each of these schools to have.

To support that, we also started to take a look at and provide better guidance around admissions … Making those admissions criteria a bit clearer and providing some parameters didn’t change any of the admissions practices that we’ve had in the past. But I’ve been able to have more detailed conversations with guidance counselors at traditional high schools so that we’re making better referrals, rather than just making a referral based on a geographic area or ease of travel for a student.

The city has also added more central oversight to the transfer school admissions process and, along with the state, has been working on a new process for evaluating transfer schools and intervening in those that need help. The latter change was prompted by a federal law that requires schools to be measured by a standard graduation rate metric, and places schools graduating less than 67 percent of their students on a list of struggling schools. New York City’s transfer schools often report graduation rates below that threshold.

Some transfer school principals say they like operating individually and might be frustrated by a more streamlined system. What do you have to say to that concern?

Rotondo: I was a transfer school high school principal for 12 years. I certainly can understand and respect the feeling. Each school is individual and unique, and in that sense I think we need to be respectful of their mission and their work. But I also think that … by clarifying the structure better, we’re actually helping that school provide better collaboration and better resources for students.

Transfer schools don’t often fit into the normal boxes or metrics that people like to use to measure schools. How will you know if this is working?

Brady: Transfer schools are high schools, and they are held to all the same data points that any of our traditional schools are held to. They are held to graduation, credit accumulation, Regents pass rates, college enrollment and persistence. The difference is, or the sort of added element, is that we look at how the students came in in a deep way, and we compare.

If we see students entering in their second of third year of high school with the credits of a freshman, we don’t expect them to graduate in a year … It’s all of the same metrics, it’s just that we hold them to a six-year accountability rate and compare them with other students who are as behind as those students.

Even holding these schools to a six-year graduation rate, it’s often under the 67 percent. Should schools be worried about the state’s ESSA plan?

Rotondo: I don’t necessarily look at it as being worried. I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t say that any type of label on a school whose mission is to work with at-risk students needs to be something that you keep in the forefront of your decision-making process. But I think it’s about messaging. I think it’s about communication. But I also think it’s about good, sound advocacy, when we can show how well our schools perform with our at-risk students.

We may not be able to get around the letter of the law when it comes to identifying schools based on that 67 percent minimum, as State Commissioner Elia said. But where we do have the flexibility [is in intervention], and I’m happy, again, to say that we’ve been working with New York State ed department, they’ve been listening to us a great deal over the last two months. So if those schools are identified under ESSA, what does real, supportive intervention look like?

Does your greater plan include a rethinking of which students ought to be sent to transfer schools?

Rotondo: Just so that we’re clear, the great majority of students who are over-age and under-credited are still in the traditional high school settings. The mission here is that we provide our best thinking and our best supports around all of our schools so that those traditional high schools put those in place — early intervention, early identification of students who have needs.

We’d rather not have students need transfer schools. We’d rather have all of our schools be able to provide everything that transfer schools do.

Given that there are more over-age and under-credited students than the transfer school system can serve, do you think that there should be more transfer schools?

Rotondo: I would say that, at this point in time, we’re not looking to add seats right at the moment. But we are looking to get a good handle on what it is we have; how we best support that.

Could that be a future conversation? I certainly would love to engage in that.