chasing a diploma

Can you avoid conflict in the break room? It could now help you graduate from high school in New York

PHOTO: Seth McConnell, The Denver Post

What should you do if you’re throwing an office party but you can’t store food in the company refrigerator — cancel the party, hide the food and hope no one notices, or politely ask for permission?

What if your coworkers are grumbling about the new dress code mandating starched shirts? Should you refuse to follow the code, join their protests, or work together to suggest a change?

Students in New York state can now earn a high school diploma, in part, by answering questions like those.

Students still need to pass the famously rigorous Regents exams in order to graduate, too. But recent changes, sparked by growing criticism about students trapped by tougher graduation requirements, mean that instead of passing five, they only need to pass four. A work-readiness credential can now replace the fifth.

Among the ways students can earn that credential: passing a multiple-choice test designed to assess broad entry-level work skills. The tests emphasize real-life situations and peg questions to middle school-level reading and math skills.

State officials say new option will help more students get to graduation — and allow students to show they have what it takes to succeed in the workplace. But some are now worried that it could be simple enough to allow any student to circumvent higher-level work.

”I think you’re creating an opportunity which is more or less a universal opportunity” to check off a graduation requirement, James Tallon, a member of New York’s Board of Regents, said about the credential last month.

The idea was that students would spend hundreds of hours on vocational coursework and job shadowing. One option for earning the credential — designed in 2013 for students with disabilities — has students spend 216 hours on a combination of coursework and work-based learning.

But the regulation also allows students to forgo that path for one of four approved work-readiness tests — potentially a more attractive option for schools under pressure to get more students over the finish line.

State officials defended the exams, saying that they require preparation and noting that schools must also offer work experience. The rules do not say students have to participate, though. And with graduation just months away, some schools are exploring the test option for this year’s seniors.

“There is no way to get kids, at this point, [option] number one for this year,” said Erin Stark, director of special education at New Visions for Public Schools, which operates seven charter high schools in the city. “There isn’t enough time.”

Last year, New York began allowing students to swap in another test for one of their five required Regents exams. Some of the new options require career training in subjects such as accounting and welding, and officials say they are meant to help students who are unlikely to go to college gain valuable skills that they can deploy immediately after graduation.

The new work-readiness option has also raised eyebrows among some involved with career and technical programs, who see a double standard emerging.

Over the past few years, the state convened a “blue ribbon” commission complete with a study by researchers from Harvard and Cornell to ensure that the technical exams approved to take the place of Regents exams were comparable and rigorous.

Connie Costley, the president of the New York State Association for Career and Technical Education and a teacher in Kingston, New York, fears students will use the new pathway to avoid more challenging — and useful — courses.

“We question whether it has the rigor that the Regents exams does,” Costley said. “A lot of time and energy and money went into saying, if you pass this [CTE] exam, it has to be equal.”

The work-readiness exams do not aspire to test the same skills as Regents or CTE exams, and state officials said making direct comparisons between the two was unfair.

It is unclear how many students could end up graduating because of the credential. About 1,800 students earned the CDOS credential last year, when it was available only for students with disabilities and didn’t help students earn a traditional diploma.

Some high schools have someone like Stark calling their attention to the testing option, but others are just starting to investigate what the credential could mean for their students.

At Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School, principal Ari Hoogenboom is hopeful that the new pathway will be a big boost for those on the edge of graduating. While discussing the option requiring work-based experience, Hoogenboom said it might allow up to 30 additional students to graduate high school.

“I don’t just want to graduate kids for the sake of graduating them, but at the same time, at a certain point, [failing students] almost seems abusive,” Hoogenboom said.

That was the logic used by Regents as they approved the new option, which was passed as an emergency regulation that the board must vote to make permanent in June. Back in March, some Regents raised concerns about the credential’s rigor. But those were eventually outweighed by a desire to help students graduate this year.

“If I’m going to err,” Regent Beverly Ouderkirk said before the vote, “I want to err on the side of kids.”

Update: This story was updated to reflect that Erin Stark, the director of special education at New Visions for Public Schools, works with seven charter high schools in the city.


Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.