First Person

Graduation Time Bomb

Mayoral candidates Thompson and Bloomberg have so far avoided the most important failing of New York City’s public schools: Under new state standards, a third of today’s high school graduates will soon be ineligible for diplomas. The so-called Local Diploma, requiring a 55 on Regents exams, is being phased out and only Regents-endorsed diplomas, requiring a score of 65 or better, will be issued to the Class of 2012.

The graduation time bomb brings two issues into stark relief. The first, difficult enough to absorb, is that every year over 10,000 more New York City residents will enter the job market (college largely off-limits to them) without even the entry-level requirement accorded by a high school diploma. The second is the diminished meaning of current Regents standards and the political pressure for further decline in order to accommodate this explosion of almost-grads.

Increased Regents standards have been on the state agenda for many years, as documented by the February 2009 New York City Coalition for Educational Justice report, “Looming Crisis or Historic Opportunity?” That study and State Education Department data reveal that not only are about a third of 4-year diplomas “Local” (excluding IEP and GED diplomas which are not exit degrees) but that the percentage rises to almost 40% for students graduating in 6 years. None of those students would graduate under the new standard.

These dire numbers mask a greater tragedy about to befall Latino and Black students. The New York City Department of Education states that currently Black students have a 55% graduation rate and that 40% of these students earn only a Local Diploma. The graduation rate for Latinos is slightly lower, with the ratios similar to Black students’. By comparison, graduation rates for White and Asian students, while still inadequate, approximate 75% with Local Diplomas amounting to 12% for Asians and 15% for Whites. Since these data record 4-year rates and Black and Latino students disproportionately take 5 or 6 years to graduate, when Local Diploma rates are highest, the final cohort figures are likely to be even gloomier. Overlapping rates for English language learners (40% overall, over 50% of these Local Diplomas) and students in special education (25% graduation, 70% Local) are even more dismal.

This impending disaster is dispiriting enough. But it merely reveals the more dire problem: that our children are graduating without the subject mastery necessary for college and careers. Regents diplomas are subject to the same strong suspicion that they, like other state tests, are subject to substantial score inflation. Erik W. Robelen recently reported in Education Week about “Questions Raised on New York Test System’s Reliability,” citing GothamSchools’ Aaron Pallas and researchers Daniel Koretz and Diane Ravitch. Steve Koss, a former New York City math teacher, has published telling critiques of the key Regents Math A and Algebra exams. All of the critiques echo widespread dissatisfaction with the exams’ scaled scores, in-school grading, and “unraveling” of specific test administrations.

This has left John Garvey, a former City University dean, to conclude that “there is no clear standard for high school student achievement on the Regents exams that could even be compared with a standard for college readiness.” His Annenberg Institute study, “Are New York City’s Public Schools Preparing Students for Success in College,” found that only 7.5% of high school graduates had taken all the recommended high school courses considered necessary for college preparation and that 70% of students entering CUNY’s community colleges require remedial courses since they fail placement exams in reading, writing, or math.

Look around. The bomb has already exploded. For all the talk of accountability, we are living in a city without honest educational standards. Even those with diplomas are often hard-pressed to function according to commonly accepted levels of college and career readiness. With appropriate elimination of the Local Diploma and pressure on new Education Commissioner David Steiner to end the politicized upward drift of test scores, the reality of this devastation should become clearer.

Picking up the pieces and rebuilding will be the number one education job of the next mayoral term.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.