Data dive

How well are English Language Learners doing in NYC schools? That depends on the stats you consider

PHOTO: Madeleine Cummings

When New York state released its latest round of high school graduation rates, the news was mostly good — but one troubling statistic stood out.

While graduation rates for all students continued a historic climb, English Language Learners experienced a dramatic drop in both New York City and the state.

The city was quick to defend itself, saying its graduation rate was flat if you consider the number of students who were classified as English learners the year they graduated along with those who learned the language well enough to test out.

Now, a timely new study lends support to the city’s stance.

Published by the Institute of Education Sciences, the report suggests that tracking the graduation outcomes of former English learners, as well as those who take slightly longer to earn diplomas, offers a clearer picture of how this vulnerable population is faring in school.

“We’ve had data on English learners, but it hasn’t always been interpreted carefully and it hasn’t always been used in a way that’s useful to schools,” said Michael Kieffer, an associate professor at New York University and lead author of the report. “We’re starting to have a conversation … about how are we going to use data better to serve English learners better?”

The report was based on New York City student data, and was released this week by an independent research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The researchers looked at graduation outcomes among New York City fifth- and sixth-grade students who entered school as English learners in the 2003-04 academic year.

It found 64 percent of students who were ever considered English learners earned diplomas, “higher than might be assumed,” according to the study.

Counting both groups of students only makes sense, said Caroline E. Parker, co-author of the report and principal research scientist at the nonprofit Education Development Center.

“You get a better sense of how English learners are doing across a whole system in K-12,” she said, adding that students who test out “have been served by the English learner programs and are successful.”

It’s also important to consider how many students graduate within five and six years, the study states. Learning a new language is hard enough, but learning high-level academic content in another language is even tougher. The researchers found that 15 percent of English learners didn’t graduate on time, but did earn a diploma within six years — bringing the graduation rate to about 79 percent. That is virtually on par with the six-year rate for native speakers.

The findings are particularly relevant now, as the latest round of state and city graduation data were released earlier this month. According to the state, 72.6 percent of all New York City students graduated. But for students who are still learning English, the graduation rate was 27 percent — a 9.6 point drop from the previous year.

That figure only includes students who were classified as English Language Learners during their last year of school, but still managed to graduate in four years — an important metric to help judge whether schools are serving recent immigrants well, Kieffer said.

However, if the graduation rate is adjusted to include both current English learners and those who learned the language well enough to test out of the program, it rises to about 51 percent.

Given the findings, schools might want to think about creating different pathways to graduation, according to the study, and city and state governments may want to consider using longer-term graduation rates within accountability systems under a new federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“The group of English learners is very complex,” Parker said. “One thing this research tries to do is unpack what does that group look like … and is it possible to create policies that account for that diversity of students and allow them to be successful?”

The city, which has been under state scrutiny for lagging in providing services for English learners, is working on ways to improve instruction. This week, officials announced the opening of 68 more bilingual programs. More than 12 percent of the city’s 1.1 million students are considered English learners.

“We are committed to ensuring all ELLs have the supports they need to succeed,” Yuridia Peña, a department spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “We’re encouraged by the improvements they’ve made.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”