Special Report:
NEW YORK CITY

Big gains in the Big Apple.

By Sarah Garland

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 ast fall, the New York City public schools granted Justin Skeete, a twenty-year-old dropout from a crime-ridden section of Coney Island, a third and last chance to graduate from high school. Once he turned twenty-one, he would be too old. His new school, Liberation Diploma Plus High School, was taking a risk: Justin arrived with a bad attitude. He cursed out teachers and fellow students. He didn’t care about homework. His odds of finishing looked bleak, but Liberation, with a tiny student population of fewer than 200, was prepared for students like Justin.

One of several new last-chance high schools opened by the city in recent years, the school had a striking track record in graduating students that other schools had given up on. Justin’s original high school was Lincoln, a traditional school in Coney Island with more than 2,500 students. Although he came in with high test scores on eighth-grade exams, after a few months at Lincoln he lost interest. He showed up every day, but slept through classes or wandered the halls. He failed ninth grade and returned for more of the same the next year. During his third year, he moved into an alternative school housed in the Lincoln building where he took evening classes. He earned five credits, but he didn’t like the teachers. He started cutting and soon dropped out.

Justin was working two jobs, at McDonald’s and Home Depot, when a cousin told him about Liberation. Justin was skeptical, but he liked the sound of the place. His cousin described the school as “just like a family”—the opposite of his former school.

After an intensive joint effort by counselors, teachers, and the school’s principal, April Leong, to reach him, Justin settled in at Liberation. The teachers wrote lesson plans that incorporated the diverse cultures of their students and connected classwork to careers. The administrators balanced strict discipline with an open-door policy that allowed students from rough neighborhoods like Justin’s to stay late at school and off the streets and away from potential trouble. Within a few months, Justin’s grades had risen to As and Bs.

Leong says the school’s philosophy is discovering “who the kid is, and what they need.” Justin began meeting once a week with counselors from a nonprofit connected to the school. Soon, he was behaving better and, in June, he graduated. “Before I got here, I can’t really say I tried,” Justin says. “I felt like nobody cared.”

Justin’s turnaround is part of a bigger transformation in New York City, the largest school district in the nation. In 2009, the city pushed its four-year graduation rate to 63 percent, up from 47 percent in 2005, according to the state. By the city’s calculations, which count GEDs as diplomas, the graduation rate rose from 51 percent in 2002 to 68 percent last year.

More students are also hanging on after four years: more than 65 percent of the students who remain for five or six years eventually graduate, according to state figures. White students are much more likely to graduate than blacks and Hispanics, but everyone is graduating at higher rates. Students are learning more as well. The percentage of graduates earning the more demanding state Regents diploma grew significantly.

New York’s schools have all the challenges that we associate with urban schools, only more so: almost 80 percent of the city’s 1.1 million students are poor enough to qualify for a reduced-price lunch. Roughly the same percentage are black and Hispanic. A tenth are special education students, and close to 15 percent are still learning English. All of those groups have an elevated risk of dropping out.

Some critics have questioned New York’s improvement numbers, but even the most conservative calculations show unprecedented progress after decades of stagnation. The New York rate is especially dramatic considering that, on average, only about half the students graduate in large cities. In Los Angeles and Las Vegas, graduation rates have fallen. The city has made many missteps, but education reformers, including those in the Obama administration, have looked to New York as a model for addressing the dropout crisis. It seems that New York, the nation’s largest city and school district, offers potential solutions to an intractable problem that has primarily plagued big cities.


 n July 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stunned New York City with his choice for the new schools chancellor. Joel Klein was an antitrust lawyer, an old hand at breaking up monopolies. Bloomberg, who had recently wrested control of the city schools from the board of education, wanted someone willing to remake the dysfunctional school district.

A day after he was appointed, Klein phoned the woman who would lead the transformation. Michele Cahill was a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and, at the time, she was running an experiment in New York City funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to replace large, struggling schools with small, more intimate schools. Klein told her he had a job for her in his reorganized education department as his senior counsel. The job came with a monumental assignment: raise New York’s four-year graduation rate by 20 percentage points. His goal was 70 percent—the same as the national average. Klein gave her one main instruction: “Be bold.”

Shortly after, Cahill discovered that not a lot was known about the city’s dropout challenge. Which of the city’s 230 high schools were getting their at-risk students on the right track? Which were failing at that task? Which students were falling through the cracks? She found some useful data stored in an outdated computer system. Often, though, no one could answer her questions.

That fall, Cahill visited schools. At Evander Childs, a 3,000-student behemoth of a school in the northern Bronx, the graduation rate had recently been tallied at 31 percent. When Cahill showed up a month into the school year, there were still nineteen teacher vacancies. The hallways were so chaotic it took students more than fifteen minutes to change classes. “This was the kind of thing where you said this doesn’t need a Band-Aid,” she says. “This was really, really broken.”

She decided on a two-pronged assault. The department would compile data to find out which students were dropping out, and why. At the same time, the district would close schools such as Evander Childs that had chronically low graduation rates. Inside these same buildings, they would open small schools with fewer than 500 students, replicating the experiment that Cahill had been working on at Carnegie.

The small schools strategy was not new: Klein and Cahill borrowed the idea from a decades-old progressive education movement in the city that had become a national model with the support of foundations, including Gates. Some of the older small schools were successful, but others floundered just as much as large schools. In 2002, the city’s existing small schools had a four-year graduation rate that was only marginally higher than the city average. But small schools potentially offered advantages over large schools. Teachers could get to know a smaller number of students better, and the more manageable size created an opportunity to experiment with teaching methods, curriculum, and course schedules.

The district, the administration believed, could increase its graduation rate by opening up more small schools modeled on the ones that worked. Cahill came up with a list of qualities that characterized the best schools: strong leadership, a strong shared mission, activities that excited teenagers, high expectations, good teaching, mechanisms for tracking student progress, and opportunities for the students to give back to the community. In October 2002, Klein announced that the city would open 200 small schools starting the following year.

The plan was massively ambitious, but the district wouldn’t be opening the schools by itself. The Gates Foundation put $150 million toward the new schools. The district would operate the new schools, but they would be connected to private groups, including New Visions for Public Schools, which worked on the Carnegie Corporation’s small schools experiment. The organizations ranged from Outward Bound to universities such as Johns Hopkins, to civil rights groups such as the National Council of La Raza. The connections provided more than extra support, says New Visions President Robert Hughes. Having outsiders with a variety of perspectives as partners “created a richer education experience.”

As the new schools were rolled out, Cahill got to work on the second piece of the plan—identifying and understanding the students who were most likely to drop out. To analyze the numbers, Cahill hired outsiders to help, including Parthenon Group, Boston-based private equity consultants who specialize in education. Cahill, with the help of Parthenon, gathered data on the cohort of students who had entered high school in 1999—almost a quarter of a million students. Each student had been given a code in the outdated computer system: still enrolled, graduated, or discharged—which meant they had either dropped out or transferred to another district. They sorted through the discharge data to find which students had dropped out. For the students who were still enrolled, they looked at their age and how many credits they had earned toward graduation.

In 2005, the numbers were ready, and they were shocking. Nearly 140,000 high school–age youth in the city were at least two years behind where they needed to be to graduate on time. They had failed one or more grades in elementary or middle school and were way behind in accumulating the forty-four high school credits they needed to graduate. Half of the overage and undercredited students had already dropped out. Those still in school made up almost a third of the city’s 247,000 high school students.

Some research had suggested that middle schools were the problem—that once future dropouts reached high school, they were already behind and doomed. But the New York numbers showed that nearly a third of eventual dropouts entered high school with their class, with proficient reading skills. This meant that for many students, high school was the problem, not middle school. The revelation was encouraging: it wasn’t too late to help students once they reached ninth grade. Redesigning the high school experience with new small schools, curriculum interventions, and improved teaching and leadership had the potential to make a major difference.

The data uncovered other bright spots. Three characteristics predicted which schools would have the best graduation rates: gender, school size, and incoming student performance on standardized tests. That is, schools with fewer low performers had significantly higher graduation rates. The researchers also found that reducing by 100 the number of students in the freshman class of a school with a high concentration of low performers produced a 2.7 percent increase in its graduation rate. Dispersing low-performing students among schools also helped.

More encouraging was a finding that alternative schools for at-risk students worked wonders with struggling students. Regular high schools graduated 19 percent of overage, undercredited students. At alternative schools, the graduation rates were 56 percent—right at the city average. Once students switched to an alternative school, they came to school more often and began earning credits more quickly. The solution was obvious: open more alternative schools.

Since the 1980s, Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit organization in New York, ran a particularly successful alternative school for students at risk of dropping out. The group had opened in 1857 as a home for troubled girls. But its foray into coed public education was impressive. Cahill had already hired one of Good Shepherd’s leaders, JoEllen Lynch, to help as a part-time consultant; she decided to hire her full-time.

Not all potential dropouts were the same, however. The Parthenon report revealed a wide range of achievement and experience among the students who were most likely to drop out, those who were already older than their classmates and were not earning enough credits to graduate on time. Studies done around the same time in Chicago and Philadelphia found the same thing. New York needed to create different options for different types of students.

In 2005, Klein and Cahill created an Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation with $6.6 million from Gates and appointed Lynch director. She was charged with opening forty-five new schools. For older students closer to graduation, the district opened six new Young Adult Borough Centers, alternative schools located inside large high schools that continued to operate—such as the one that Justin attended at Lincoln. The YABCs held classes in the evening to accommodate work schedules and offered a diploma from the student’s original school. In addition, Lynch opened thirty new transfer schools modeled on the Good Shepherd alternative school. Liberation Diploma Plus was one of the new schools. The transfer schools would be open to the hard cases: younger students who had spent less time in school and had earned fewer credits, or students like Justin, for whom the YABCs didn’t work. Not long after opening, waiting lists formed at several of the transfer schools.

At the new alternative schools, attendance was the obsession, since getting potential dropouts into the classroom was half the battle. At a YABC opened in John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, monitoring attendance was part of the job description of nine people. At some transfer schools, administrators visited the homes of students who missed class.

The data also pointed toward a less drastic option than closing down schools. Two-thirds of potential dropouts with poor literacy skills quickly fell further behind in high school, and officials believed a new focus on helping them become better readers could keep more students in school. In 2003, 200 schools introduced Ramp Up, a remedial literacy program for ninth graders designed by America’s Choice, a national for-profit education company that several states have since hired to help reform high schools.

Another reform was imposed by a judge in 2003. Local education advocates, worried the district was pushing out its lowest-performing students, won a lawsuit that forced schools to hold “exit interviews” with dropouts. Guidance counselors urged students to stay, or pointed them to alternative programs such as the YABCs. The department soon attributed a plummeting dropout rate, at least in part, to this simple new procedure. “These were very strategic decisions to move all the levers at the same time,” says Lynch. “To close low-performing high schools, to open new small schools, to drive innovation around curriculum, and to create recuperative options.”

By 2006, all of the pieces were lurching to life. The next step was to wait and see what worked. There were good signs early on. That year, the first round of seniors graduated from fifteen small schools that had opened in 2002. The average graduation rate at the new schools was above 70 percent. At some of the schools, the graduation rate was above 90 percent.

It didn’t take long for problems to appear, however. At Lincoln, the school where Justin began his high school career, the student population had grown from 2,500 to 2,800 the previous decade. The same phenomenon was happening citywide. As the city replaced large schools with small ones, the remaining big schools—which still held more than half of the city’s students—got even more crowded. A 2009 report by researchers at the New School found that the neediest students from the closed schools tended to be channeled into the remaining large schools. Many of these students demanded services that small schools didn’t necessarily offer—including special education—or were ill-equipped to make informed choices about the new school offerings.

Lincoln was able to keep up its graduation rate, but many of the ballooning schools struggled, creating a domino effect. In the New School report, researchers pointed out that several “barely functioning” large schools “soon became failing schools.” The administration responded by closing them, too. By 2010, thirty-five high schools were in the process of being closed or had already been shuttered.

A New York University professor who has studied New York’s dropout problem, Pedro Noguera, worries about the administration’s attitude that “schools will fix themselves or they’ll be shut down.”

“We shouldn’t allow schools to flounder,” he says.

Some of the new small schools have faltered, too. A handful made the state’s failing-schools list. When the schools did well, critics accused the administration of allowing small schools to “cream” the best students, pointing out that during their first two years of operating they were not required to admit special education students and those who were still learning to speak English. (The policy was later changed.) And while small schools are good at focusing interventions on struggling students, they don’t have the resources of larger schools. Often they can’t provide challenging courses for high-achieving students, exacerbating inequities between New York City schools.

Another problem has been the unintended consequences of pressure on principals to raise graduation rates or face closure. A few principals were caught cheating—raising grades and giving out unearned credits. More pervasive was an unmonitored system of credit recovery, which let students make up a failed class, sometimes by simply completing a few hours of homework. Although the state had required students to put in “seat time”—meaning hours spent in a classroom—to earn course credits, at many schools students were passing classes even though they didn’t have to show up. In April, the state responded to the lax standards by implementing new guidelines. The city is collecting data to see how prevalent the practice is.

The missteps have disillusioned at least one former booster of Klein’s methods—Diane Ravitch, the education historian and former assistant secretary of education. She has pointed to the large numbers of New York City public school graduates who must take remedial classes at the city’s community colleges—75 percent—as evidence that the reforms are superficial. She has also accused the administration of manipulating the graduation numbers, noting that the city excludes about a fifth of the students in each cohort from its graduation rate calculations. The students are labeled discharges, and the Bloomberg administration maintains that many of these students move to other districts. Ravitch argues that under federal guidelines, many would be considered dropouts. While the high percentage of discharges is problematic, it can’t explain the rise in the graduation rate: discharges have stayed steady at about 20 percent for the past eight years.

Cahill acknowledges that in the rush of the reforms, everything wasn’t “perfectly done,” particularly when it came to helping the large schools cope. “We were not putting sufficient supports in those schools,” she says. “But the overarching direction was to get more kids out of these dropout factories.”

In that, they were successful. By 2008, the percentage of students in small high schools had more than tripled. About the same number of students were attending small schools as had attended the large schools that had been closed, according to a report released in February by the national research group MDRC. MDRC also found that the complaints that small schools serve less-challenging students were unfounded. Actually, small schools tend to serve more poor, minority, immigrant, and low-performing students than their larger counterparts.

Last year, the district’s 234 new schools (most of them small) graduated 73 percent of their students. The graduation rate for black, Hispanic, English as a second language, and special education students was also higher at the new schools.

The results from the small schools are hopeful, but New York City still faces huge hurdles. Klein has become one of the city’s longer-serving chancellors, giving much needed consistency to the system, but many of the deputies who orchestrated the reforms have left, including Cahill and Lynch. Many more students are earning the more competitive Regents diploma than before, but 26 percent of graduates do not. In 2012, all students will have to earn a Regents diploma to graduate, meaning New York’s graduation rate will likely drop. Last year, a state comptroller audit raised concerns about the quality of the Regents diploma system itself, which is based on exams graded by teachers who, according to the audit, tend to inflate the scores.

At the same time, recent changes to state law have made it more difficult for the city to close large failing schools. The new law may not be a significant blow to the city’s reforms, however. Size mattered, but by itself, making schools smaller was not sufficient to raise graduation rates. What mattered was how the smaller size of schools allowed educators to focus on, and be more flexible toward, student needs. It allowed not for bold change, but for incremental progress—student by student, day by day.

A department official who oversees academics, Josh Thomases, says the structural changes were really just laying the groundwork for a new phase of reform: improving teaching inside schools, both large and small, by encouraging more collaboration, helping teachers make better use of data about their students, and creating “fewer, clearer, higher standards” for schools and students.

One promising idea is teacher-led “inquiry teams.” Small groups of teachers meet regularly to discuss struggling students and collectively figure out ways to help them. New Visions, which has now opened 133 schools in New York City, first implemented the program as an experiment in its small schools. New Visions also created versions in two large, traditional schools. Graduation rates climbed from 54 percent to more than 68 percent at both schools, even as their student populations grew. The success spurred the department to require the program citywide.

The graduation rate has not yet made the 70 percent goal that Klein and Cahill set, and Bloomberg has since set a new goal: 75 percent by the end of his current four-year term. To meet it, the city plans to expand its reforms to new frontiers such as special education. Yet city officials—along with their critics—have also come to believe that the Regents diploma is no longer enough. In the next phase, they plan to attack graduation standards and set a higher bar, the same one set by the Obama administration this year: making sure every student who graduates is also ready for college and a career. “The hardest work is still ahead of us,” says Thomases.

New York’s ideas for reforming high school may become more than just an interesting case study. That’s what happened a decade ago when New York’s innovations in community policing, under the David Dinkins administration, and its use of fine-grain data on crime, under Rudy Giuliani, got national attention as the country was battling violence and drugs. The Clinton administration institutionalized the city’s ideas in the federal COPS program, and transformed how the country fought crime. If New York succeeds this time, it could once again be the leader in nationwide reform. 


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Sarah Garland is a staff writer at the Hechinger Report and a Spencer Fellow in education reporting at Columbia University School of Journalism.  
 
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