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.

opening a path

College in high school: More Denver schools offer students affordable head start on a degree

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students at a press conference to announce the designation of five more early college high schools.

Five more Denver high schools this year were designated as “early colleges,” bringing to seven the number of city schools at which students can stay additional years to take free college courses with the aim of earning significant credit, an associate’s degree or industry certificate.

“Many of our students are first-generation college students and this designation offers them resources to not only access college credit but to receive the support needed to ensure success,” Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College principal Kimberly Grayson said Wednesday.

Grayson spoke in the atrium of the far northeast Denver school beneath a striking black-and-white mural of its namesake and the words, “Your future starts today!” She said when she started as principal five years ago, the school offered three college courses, also referred to as concurrent enrollment courses. This year, she said, MLK will offer 20 college courses.

While the school previously participated in a state program called ASCENT that allows students who meet certain academic criteria to remain in their local school districts for a fifth year and use state per-pupil education funding to pay for college courses, Grayson said the early college designation allows MLK to offer that opportunity to all of its students.

“Our students know early on they have a path to college,” Grayson said.

Manual High School, High Tech Early College, the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, and West Early College were designated along with MLK by the Colorado State Board of Education as early college high schools this past spring. West Early College last year narrowly staved off a district recommendation to close the school for low performance.

Two other Denver high schools were previously designated as early colleges: CEC Early College, in 2015, and Southwest Early College, a charter school, in 2009.

Early colleges are part of an effort in Colorado and nationwide to make postsecondary education more accessible and affordable, especially for historically underserved students. They were created by state lawmakers and are defined as high schools that offer a curriculum designed so students graduate with an associate’s degree or 60 college credits.

Students also can earn industry certificates in fields such as graphic design or accounting.

Many high schools offer free concurrent enrollment classes, but giving all students the opportunity to stay until they earn 60 credits or an associate’s degree is what sets early colleges apart. According to Misti Ruthven, the Colorado Department of Education executive director of student pathways, students can stay enrolled in early college high schools until they’re 21.

The Colorado Department of Education website lists a total of 20 early colleges statewide, including the seven in Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district.

Alondra Gil-Gonzalez is a sophomore at CEC Early College. She said she was nervous when she took her first college class, a computer keyboarding course, as a freshman. But Gil-Gonzalez, who wants to be a surgeon or a lawyer, said she got over her apprehension.

“You just have to apply yourself,” she said.

Keilo “Kenny” Xayavong is taking his first college class, in math, this year as a sophomore at High Tech Early College. A fan of criminal justice shows, Xayavong also hopes to practice law.

“I am interested in college courses because it’ll help me prepare for college when I transfer and understand what professors will expect of me,” said Xayavong, who added that so far, his class is “pretty easy.” “My parents won’t have to pay so much money for me to go to college, as well.”

funding dance

City plans to slash funding from Young Adult Borough Centers — a last resort option for students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School has a Young Adult Borough Center in the building.

Evening programs that offer students who struggled in high school another chance to graduate may soon face steep funding cuts from the city’s education department.

Education officials plan to reduce funding directed to the city’s 23 Young Adult Borough Centers by an average of $254,000 each, and will shift the money to transfer schools, which also help students who have fallen behind in traditional schools.

The funding in question is used to hire counselors who help keep students engaged in school, offering career and academic support, and to pay students to complete internships. City officials are planning to shift funding so that more transfer schools — serving more students — can get those benefits.

But the move could leave schools that serve some of the city’s most vulnerable students with fewer resources to get them to graduation, some observers said, all while Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to increase the city’s graduation rate to 80 percent. Several agencies that provide those services in schools argue the funding shift will have dire consequences for YABCs.

The cuts will be “devastating [and] would fundamentally change the program,” said Michelle Yanche, director of government and external relations at Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit organization that helps run the program in a dozen YABCs. “It shouldn’t be taken from Peter to pay Paul.”

Young Adult Borough Centers, which serve about 4,800 students citywide, are night programs rather than standalone schools. Transfer schools, meanwhile, are actual schools that run classes during the day, serving about 13,000 students. In both, students who have fallen behind in high school work toward high school diplomas.

The funding stream the city plans to shift from YABCs to transfer schools is dedicated to a program called Learning to Work. Education officials are actually increasing the amount of money on that program by $3.7 million. But because the city is planning to expand it to 18 more transfer schools, the average transfer school will see about a $7,000 bump, while YABCs each lose roughly $250,000.

City officials said the exact changes in funding will depend on student enrollment and need, and stressed that the funding changes are estimates. Overall, the changes are a positive, they said, since they provide more funding and will reach more students.

“Expanding Learning to Work to all eligible transfer schools is what’s best for students and families, and will support approximately 5,000 more high-needs students on their path to college and careers,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Helene Spadaccini, principal of a transfer school in the South Bronx, said her school has used the program to place students in internships in fields like retail and construction.

“It’s been extremely powerful in working with our students, which is why I’m really glad it’s spreading,” Spadaccini said.

But the shift will mean YABCs lose about a third of their current funding, and will result in staffing reductions. The staff-to-student ratio at YABCs is expected to balloon from one staff member per 34 students to one per 55, according to a Department of Education document obtained by Chalkbeat.

The change in staffing levels could have a major effect on the program’s quality, multiple providers said. “What makes the difference for our students is if they have individual adults who are like clams holding on to them, who know if they are going to school every day, and reach out if they don’t,” Good Shepherd’s Yanche said. “That relationship is the most pivotal factor.”

Sheila Powell, who has two children who graduated with the help of YABCs, has seen that firsthand. In the YABCs, unlike in larger high schools, teachers ensured her children didn’t slip through the cracks, Powell said. They also called her multiple times each week to check in.

“They loved my daughter, they loved my son,” Powell said. “They were really concerned, genuinely concerned, about my kids and they didn’t give up on them.”

Several providers and advocates said they supported the expansion of Learning to Work into more transfer schools — just not at the expense of other programs that serve the city’s most vulnerable students.

“New York City continues to see increased graduation rates, and the range of programs [for over-age and under-credited students] are a big reason why,” said Lazar Treschan, director of youth policy at the Community Service Society. “Moving any funding out of YABCs seems very short-sighted.”