a tricky path

New rules to help New York students graduate offer ‘false promise,’ school leaders say

At South Brooklyn Community High School, teachers work to help struggling students earn the credits they need to graduate. But students at the transfer school in Red Hook often stumble over a final hurdle: passing all five of New York’s high school exit exams.

The difficulty “really punches you in the face,” said Jonathan Murphy, the school’s director.

A recent change to the graduation rules should be great news for Murphy and his students. Saying that some deserving students were getting trapped without a diploma by that fifth Regents exam, New York officials agreed to allow students to ditch it for an alternative test in science, art, or a technical subject.

But those new options are little more than an illusion for students at South Brooklyn Community. Of about 70 newly approved exams, the school offers courses to prepare students for just two.

“It’s kind of a false promise for our students who desperately need additional pathways and are being left behind,” Murphy said.

South Brooklyn’s bind speaks to a larger mismatch. High schools that serve struggling students tend to offer few courses beyond the basics — potentially preventing the state’s new rules from helping the students who could most benefit.

State education officials say they never expected the policy change to pay off everywhere right away.

“Right now those are the choices we have, and we’re just going to do the best we can,” Regent Roger Tilles said.

Some of the 70 newly approved options are within reach for many city students. According to a 2013 report, 85 percent of city high schools offered earth science, which culminates in an exam that can now count toward graduation. The city is also expanding access to Advanced Placement courses, whose exams can now be swapped in, although students taking them are likely to be on track to graduate already.

All together, the city says 97 percent of schools offered two non-required math or science Regents courses to at least 15 students. (The city did not explain which Regents courses the schools offered, or whether the students who took them were otherwise on track to graduate.)

But many schools — especially those serving students who have fallen behind before getting to high school — offer only a minimal set of non-essential offerings, limiting students’ options for how to cross the last hurdle before graduation. Small high schools can’t easily adjust their lean staffs and budgets to create new courses, and transfer high schools in particular have zoomed in on preparing students for the exams required for graduation.

At Wildcat Academy, which serves students who have repeated grades, students can take a geometry class. But principal Ron Tabano said it covers less material than will appear on a Regents exam in the subject, taking that option off the table for students struggling to graduate.

Introducing new technical training for students who struggle on academic exams is even harder. Schools often have limited space and staff to launch those programs — and getting a new course approved is a time-consuming process.

In other parts of the state, districts with larger high schools and, in some cases, fewer high-needs students might already have expanded course offerings. But the only way many New York City schools can make the alternative options real for students is with more money, school leaders say.

“In theory, these additional pathways are amazing and honor the different experiences and learning encounters that show mastery,” said Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, principal of the Bronx Academy Of Letters. “Still, they will only work if there are funding streams.”

But so far, the state hasn’t offered any additional funds. But Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown and other members of the Board of Regents said they know that expanding graduation options, particularly in the arts and career and technical education, will require them to ask the legislature for more school funding.

“You don’t change a program from a mandatory 5 to a 4+1 and have everybody fall in line immediately,” Brown said. “It is something that needs to be funded.”

The tension is in part why principals are paying such close attention to another new graduation option — a work-skills credential used until recently only for students with disabilities. Students can earn that by passing a work-readiness exam or by completing a program that includes practical experience.

State officials say they aren’t finished approving new ways for students to earn their diplomas. As they do so, Brown said they want to make sure that all students have access to the new graduation options.

“There’s a lot of students in our most vulnerable districts that are perhaps struggling the most,” Brown said. “If they are not able to take advantage of 4+1 but other school districts are … then we will have missed out on a tremendous opportunity.”

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.”