graduation day

Statewide graduation rates tick up for most students, but not English learners

A slide from the state's report on annual graduation rates, which saw a continued drop for English language learners.

Fewer than one-quarter of the city’s 2013 high school graduates scored high enough on their Regents exams to be considered ready for college or a career, state education officials said today.

Across the state, nearly 75 percent of students who entered high school in 2009 graduated four years later, an improvement of almost one percentage point over last year. That improvement mirrored New York City’s, which saw its graduation rate increase from 60.4 percent to 61.3 percent—numbers that were first released by the Bloomberg administration last year.

Statewide, college and career readiness numbers also crept upward, but remained much lower. Just 37 percent of students across the state hit targets needed to be considered ready for college or a career. And while more students from almost every demographic group are graduating high school on time, a glaring exception is the state’s English language learners, who struggled for a second year to meet the state’s new graduation requirements.

Now required to pass five Regents exams with a score of 65 or higher, these students’ graduation rate dropped more than three percentage points since last year—from 34.3 percent to 31.4 percent—and nearly six percentage points since 2011. In New York City, where about one in seven students are classified as an English language learner, the two-year drop was even steeper, falling from 39.4 percent to 32.3 percent.

Advocates said they were disturbed by the downward trend for English learners, even if it was predictable. In 2011, the state did away with the less rigorous “local diploma,” which allowed students to graduate if they scored at least a 55 on the Regents exams.

“We feared that this was going to happen,” said Claire Sylvan, executive director of Internationals Network for Public Schools, which exclusively serves students who move to the United States with limited or no English language skills. Sylvan, who was in Albany for the Board of Regents meeting where the statistics were presented, said the results were “astounding” to see.

The presence of the local diploma, still available for students with disabilities, had helped prop up the city’s increased graduation rates for years.

“Raising standards and moving away from the local diploma was the right thing to do,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, noting the many groups of students who “rose to the challenge” of the higher standards.

Still, state education officials acknowledged the growing achievement gap, and said they were considering several changes to graduation requirements, include whether to give a different test to English language learners. The Regents were also planning to discuss ways give students more opportunities to graduate based on more than passing classes and standardized exams, including the creation of “pathways” that would put students on a career track starting in high school.

Officials also pointed out that once students progress past the English language learner classification, they graduate at a rate closer to the rest of the state, which State Education Commissioner John King said was proof that students could thrive if they’re given the right amount of academic support. Last year, “one-time ELL” students graduated at a 71 percent clip.

King used the announcement to rally support around the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards. Though some Regents exams were Common Core-aligned for the first time this year, students won’t need to pass those exams for graduation until the 2022 school year.

“Far too many students, even if they graduate from high school, still haven’t completed the advanced and rigorous course work to be ready for college or the workplace,” King said in a statement.

The state also announced that about 70 percent of about 2,200 students who entered a charter high school in 2009 graduated. That’s above the average graduation rate for New York City, where most of the state’s charter high schools are located.

New York City’s graduation rate isn’t news because former Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the city’s four-year graduation rates for 2013 in an unusually timed press conference last December. The city’s graduation rate represents a nearly 15-point jump since 2005.

City officials didn’t say much after the state’s announcement. Chancellor Carmen Fariña took the chance to tout the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion and push to improve middle schools.

“Graduation rates are moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go,” Fariña said. “But the most important thing is also to keep in mind that it’s not about just getting into college, it’s staying there all four years.”

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biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.