getting to graduation

How one diverse New York City high school got 100 percent of its students to graduation

PHOTO: Alex Federov / NYC Outward Bound Schools
MELS students marched last December to celebrate their college acceptances.

As graduation approached this year, Principal Damon McCord had to do something he didn’t expect: limit the number of guests that students in his school’s first graduating class were allowed to invite.

That’s because every single senior at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School graduated this year, threatening to overflow the school’s auditorium with their family members.

The school’s graduation rate is almost without precedent: It is one of just two “unscreened” schools over the past decade to graduate its entire senior class without an admissions process that takes students’ academic records into account.

Launched six years ago, the Forest Hills, Queens school also stands out as a relatively diverse island within one of the most segregated school systems in the country. The school, which serves middle and high school students, is 39 percent Hispanic, 18 percent black, 17 percent Asian and 20 percent white. Sixty-two percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 25 percent have special needs. Still, 98 percent of its graduating class was accepted to college.

The school is part of the city’s network of NYC Outward Bound schools, and McCord said the school’s unusual focus on hands-on learning paired with dedicated advisors who track student progress have contributed to its success.

McCord, who runs the school along with co-principal Pat Finley, spoke with Chalkbeat about how the pair managed to graduate all of the school’s 115 seniors. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the secret to getting all of your students to graduation?

As a New York City Outward Bound school [there are 11 citywide], there’s an intense amount of focus on school culture, character and getting students to and through college. And so when you combine that kind of emphasis on educating the whole child, making sure that we’re not screening kids out or tracking kids or anything like that, and making sure that every kid has access to a high-quality education … it increases the amount of student engagement in their own education.

And so, as a result, we have over 90 percent attendance in our high school. For a school that doesn’t screen their students to have a four-year June graduation rate of 100 percent just really speaks to kids feeling bought into school.

What are the sorts of experiences that students are having that you think are drawing them into school?

One of the biggest pieces is “crew.” Crew is like an advisory program — it’s a group of no more than 16 students that meet every morning first period with their crew advisor. Every morning, the crew advisor is the first point of contact for a student, so [they] right away know if a student is having a good day or a bad day or might need some support throughout the day.

That crew advisor also works with the student to focus on their academic goals, to plan their student-led conferences, which is what we do instead of parent-teacher conferences. Students present their learning to their parents and their crew advisor, so there’s just an incredible amount of responsibility that the students take on to kind of talk through what they’ve been learning.

Are there specific things you can point to that really excite students and make them want to be there?

I think having a curriculum that focuses on relevance for teenagers and getting them to realize that they can make an impact on their world and that their choices do matter – we don’t take a cynical view of teenagers as not caring about things. So when we get students involved with different social activists in eighth grade and they write activist profiles, when they go out on the street and interview people in immigrant-rich communities about the immigrant experience and then write a book about that – a lot of these things resonate with kids. They realize it’s not just words on a page I’m looking at, I can have an impact on the experience that an immigrant family has if that’s what I want to pursue in college. I can make healthier choices about the food I eat that will impact my global environment.

What obstacles do your students face on the way to graduation?

I think the obstacles for a lot of our students is, I think, in a very test-focused society like we are right now, this is the kind of education people are looking for, especially colleges. A lot of those old systems have not necessarily changed yet. We offer some AP courses, but do we offer 20 different AP courses? No. Because an AP course is more about breadth rather than depth in a particular topic. It’s really hard to reconcile some of those curricular beliefs with some of the things our kids need for college.

Were there any close calls this year with students who might not graduate?

I think we had a couple kids that were really close, and because of the team of adults that were working with kids and making sure they had what they needed, we were able to get everybody over the finish line. It’s something we may never do again.

Your student body is relatively diverse, but it’s also slightly whiter and less economically disadvantaged than the city’s student population overall.

When we first opened the school, Pat and I were really committed to the idea that we were a District 28 middle school and that we would recruit and have a student body that was reflective of the district. We watch our numbers really closely in terms of our socioeconomic breakdown, our ethnic breakdown.

We don’t do any quota-ing or anything like that, but if we see that our numbers of applicants from a particular elementary school are low year after year, we may do a little extra reach out to those schools just to make sure they’re getting the word out to the parents of their fifth graders to make sure they’re aware that we’re an option for them, and that we’re not just a school that is for a local neighborhood.

Ninety-eight percent of your students are headed to college. How do you help so many of them navigate what is a really, really complicated process?

I think crew goes a long way with that, so our college counselor worked a lot with our crew advisors, as well as our twelfth-grade team leader and our academic dean, to make sure that we were getting college information in the hands of students and their families early on. But we also made sure that the 2 percent that were not accepted to college had a plan in place. One is doing a gap year with his parents … and then the two others are going to culinary school.

What’s next year’s college acceptance and graduation goal?

[Laughs] I think the goal is always 100 percent. Is it likely we’ll hit 100 percent? I don’t know. But we’re going to work like hell to make sure we try.

We set out to prove that you could be a fully public unscreened school with 20 percent special needs students, and an incredibly diverse student body that didn’t track kids in honors classes, and still be successful and still provide a good experience for kids. And this first graduating class has shown that it is possible, … that a public school can do this if they value certain things like knowing kids well, engaging curriculum, working with families. It can be done.

Struggling Detroit schools

The story of Detroit’s schools is much more nuanced than many people realize. Here’s how we can cover it together.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Ever since my husband and I announced to friends and family three years ago that we’d made the somewhat-impulsive decision to sell our apartment in Brooklyn and move with our two small children to downtown Detroit, we’ve been confronted with the same persistent questions:

Erin Einhorn
Erin Einhorn

“You live in Detroit” we’re asked, with a tone of skepticism and, frankly, judgement. “And you have kids?”

The questions are rooted in the perception that the schools in Detroit are so awful that no decent parent with other options would reasonably choose to live in this city. It’s a perception I know is grounded in some deeply concerning conditions in Detroit schools, including many of the issues I’ve covered as a reporter for Chalkbeat. I’ve written about the Detroit teachers and families who alleged in a federal lawsuit last year that the conditions in Detroit schools are so deplorable that they violate children’s right to literacy. I’ve spent time in classrooms where a teaching shortage has meant 37 first-graders packed together all day without a break for music, art or gym. And I’ve seen the heartbreak on the faces of students and parents who’ve learned that the charter school they’d chosen would be closing, leaving them to scramble for another school in a city where choice is abundant, but quality is rare.  

I appreciate the concern from friends and family who are worried about my children, but the truth is that my kids are going to be completely fine. My husband and I have a car and accommodating jobs that enable us to enroll our kids in any school in any neighborhood  — options that poor transportation and the uneven distribution of schools have put out of reach for far too many kids. And, as it happens, we found a great public school right in our own neighborhood where our oldest child now walks every day to kindergarten.

The truth is that the story of Detroit’s school is much more nuanced than most people realize. There are serious challenges — no doubt about that — but we’re not going to be able to address them until we stop asking each other what we’re going to do about educating our own children. We need to start asking what we can do to make sure that families in every neighborhood have a shot at a decent education. That’s what we try to do at Chalkbeat. We aim to tell the stories of teachers and students and parents, to put a human face on challenges that would otherwise be difficult to understand. We look at what’s working in our schools and what urgently needs to change.

This school year marks the first full year that Detroit’s main school district will be led by a new school board and superintendent. And it will be Chalkbeat’s first full school year since we formally launched in Detroit last winter. We hope to grow this year, adding another reporter to help us expand our coverage of early childhood education, special education and other matters crucial to the city’s future. And we’ll continue to cover the important issues affecting Detroit children and the way they learn.

We can’t tell these stories without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback or making a financial contribution. Contact us at [email protected], follow us on Facebook and at @ChalkbeatDET. And, please, keep reading!


now hiring

With a new school year underway, hundreds of teaching positions remain unfilled in New York City

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Hundreds of schools are missing teachers and support staff two weeks into the school year, with many of the openings in high-poverty districts and struggling schools that are typically the hardest to staff, according to postings on a city database in mid-September.

There were almost 1,700 job postings as of Sept. 19, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat. The listings offer a snapshot of the jobs advertised that day — not an official tally of the total citywide staff openings.

Still, they indicate a critical need for special-education teachers and paraprofessionals, teaching assistants who tend to work with young students and those with disabilities. Many of the unfilled positions were in low-income districts in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and dozens were in schools in the city’s Renewal program for low-performing schools.

The vacancies were posted in the city’s Excessed Staff Selection System, which lists jobs available to teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve — a pool of teachers who lack permanent positions because they face disciplinary or legal issues, or their schools were closed or downsized. The listings hint at where teachers in the ATR pool may land this year, since the city recently announced it will place such teachers in schools that still have vacancies after Oct. 15.

Education department officials said the data “doesn’t provide accurate or precise information on school vacancies.” In particular, they said there could be a lag in updating the postings, or that schools could post positions that are expected to become available but are currently filled.

In addition, schools may list the same job more than once in order to advertise the position to teachers with different certifications, officials said. For example, a posting for a computer science teacher could also appear as openings for math and science teachers.

Still, the postings suggest where the need for teachers may be greatest — and where ATR teachers could likely end up.

Four out of the five districts with the most postings were in the Bronx. They include Districts 7 and 9 in the South Bronx, along with Districts 10 and 12. District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York, also had dozens of listings.

In District 7, where more than 90 percent of students are poor, there were 60 postings for teachers in subjects ranging from Spanish to physical education and music. That includes 26 listings for paraprofessionals, who are often mandated by students’ special-education plans.

Overall, there were more than 600 listings for paraprofessionals, about half of which were needed to work with students who have disabilities. Almost 400 of the postings were for special-education teachers, who are often in short supply.

Devon Eisenberg knows these staffing challenges well. She is co-principal of The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx in District 9. Despite boasting a staff-retention rate of about 90 percent, the school started the year short one teacher. To plug the hole, Eisenberg relied on substitutes and other teachers to cover the class. She was able to find a permanent hire this week, though the pool of qualified candidates was slim.

“This is definitely not fair for our students as they are not receiving consistent and coherent instruction,” she wrote in an email. “It is also stressful for the teachers covering these holes.”

Starting the school year with a substitute teacher can become a barrier to learning. Research has shown that staff turnover leads to lower test scores, even for students who weren’t in the class that lost its teacher.

Turnover tends to be highest in struggling schools, which often serve the neediest students.

Schools in the Renewal program — which includes 78 low-performing schools — posted about 70 openings, according to the data analyzed by Chalkbeat. The greatest shortage was for special-education teachers, for which there were 16 postings. That was followed by math teachers, with nine openings.

At M.S. 391 The Angelo Patri Middle School, a Renewal school in the Bronx, there were two postings for math teachers. Last year, only 8 percent of students passed state math exams at the school, which has a new principal.

Carmen Marrero teaches special education at M.S. 391 and has worked in other Bronx schools that struggle with staffing.

“We tend to deal with a lot of behavior challenges,” she said, referring to schools in the Bronx. “I guess that keeps some of the aspiring teachers or some of the teachers who are already in the field away from this side of town.”

This year, the openings come with an additional consequence: Schools with vacancies could be prime candidates to receive teachers in the ATR.

Though officials say they will work closely with principals, the department could place teachers even over the objections of school leaders. Some principals have threatened to game the hiring system by simply not posting openings in order to avoid having a teacher from the ATR placed at their school.

Meanwhile, some teachers in the pool dread being assigned to schools whose openings could signal poor leadership or a tough work environment.

Teachers who are in the ATR will not be placed in positions outside of their license areas, which may limit how many of the openings the education department can fill after mid-October.

Critics say the policy will place the least effective teachers in the neediest schools. Education department figures show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16 — compared to 93 percent of all city teachers.

Education department officials said the city has worked with schools to fill their vacancies well before the start of the school year.

Maria Herrera, principal of Renaissance High School for Musical Theater in the Bronx, said she tries to have all her hires in place by June. That way, she can involve future teachers in end-of-the-year activities that help build a sense of community, and provide training over the summer.

This year, she was able to start school fully staffed. The education department allowed schools to fill positions earlier this year and held numerous job fairs, she said.

“I feel really supported,” she said.