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.”

bargaining

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.