By: Lisa DiGaudio, Policy Fellow with the New York Educator Voice Fellowship
Re: Providing Quality Alternative Pathways for At Risk Youth
Students like the students at New Dawn Charter High School, where the average “ninth” grader (having less than 10 credits) is 19 years of age, are not receiving equitable opportunities to complete their high school diplomas due to the imposition of the four year graduation rate. These students, known as being “over-aged and under-credited,” are often pushed out of their traditional schools because they will not complete their requirements to graduate “on time”, that is, in four years. Students who will not complete their high school degree in four years are considered “dropouts”, failures of the system and left with inequitable options as compared to their on-time graduating peers. These inequities include limited school options and an easier means to drop out of school altogether, undetected (accountability for alternative evening programs, for example, are considered adult education, where monitoring is different).
We have the opportunity to influence the policies in ESSA for this cohort of students. Accountability measures must be differentiated for schools that take the risk to work with these at-risk youth. A school that specializes in providing equitable educational opportunity should not be punished for allowing students to attempt Regents exams multiple times or needing more time to graduate. Alternative measures for schools that specialize in this population include having a six, and in special cases, a seven year graduation rate and providing credit, rather than penalty, for allowing students who attempt regents exams more than once.
When New Dawn Charter High School first opened, we received regular phone calls from a female student, “Christina”, about enrolling in the school. She was worried that we wouldn’t “take her”, because she was 17 years old, and just gave birth to her son. She had 4 credits accrued toward graduation. This made Christina a 17 year old ninth grader, and already considered a dropout. Christina persevered. It took her four years with us to graduate, and during that time she overcame issues with child care, along with her son’s physical health, and learning disabilities. Right before her 21st birthday, she earned her diploma, with her son sitting in the audience. It was such a pivotal moment in her life, and she was thankful that we stuck with her through her personal trials. Christina is just one of thousands of students in New York City that find themselves without hope of graduating because of these external factors, and with limited options in earning a high school diploma. Providing students that are off-track towards graduation with new opportunities to learn and succeed has been a major component of the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), however, these satellite schools impose requirements in order to enroll- so students like Christina would not have been eligible to attend those schools. Transfer schools, satellites where students who are off-track can come and complete their studies, have been an integral part of the offerings that the NYCDOE provide in order to support this student body, but they require students to have 17 credits toward graduation and in some cases as many as 2 regents exams passed. In schools outside of NYC, evening programs and alternative programs that are offered through BOCES provide opportunities for off-track students, but the requirements to remain in the program, and the measure of where these students go if they don’t finish, is unclear.
These measures still lead to hundreds of thousands of students slipping through the cracks because they cannot finish their degree in the time specified. This is especially true of students who have accrued less than 17 credits towards graduation-students like, Christina, who felt like she didn’t have a hope in the world when she found New Dawn. Students like Christina are the most likely to drop out and not return to school. Even though New Dawn outperforms the schools in their cohort according to latest NYC School Quality Snapshot, our four year graduation rate places our school on the Focus School List from New York State. This repeatedly puts New Dawn at risk of closure, while we are highly successful with our students. This is also the case for other schools that do not impose such limits on their students (John V. Lindsey Wildcat, Urban Dove Team Charter, Newburgh Prep).
Other states, such as Colorado, use a series of criterion to make determinations on schools being an “Alternative Education Campus.” Schools with 95% of their population meeting these criterion have the ability to serve students and have the extra time to graduate. In fact, in 2013, Colorado reported an 82.3% 6 year graduation rate. Policies and accountability measures like in Colorado provide opportunity for students to remain in a quality school that provides college and career ready opportunities.
At-risk students need equity and access to help them graduate. Giving schools differentiated accountability measures, such as a six, and in even in some special cases, a seven year graduation rate, multiple chances to pass a regents exam without calling the school “failing” and resources to provide additional college and career readiness training will give students like Christina a fighting chance for success in life after high school. At-risk students in particular are the most needy in terms of emotional and academic support. Schools who serve this group of students work hard to recruit and retain staff that will provide emotional support to these students. In order to support the work these schools do, accountability measures must be put in place that recognize that the body of students attending these schools is different. New York State has recently given schools the opportunity to be recognized as transfer schools, but this is not enough. Schools serve different groups of at-risk students, and these distinctions must be accounted for in order to appropriately be held accountable for student success. This includes identifying a school as an alternative school, much like the method in Colorado. In Colorado, schools with this distinction can have more time to work with at-risk students. This means students can have up to six, and in special cases, seven years to graduate, but, it also means that schools should meet the state graduation rate (NYS is 80%) by year six. An accountability measure that provides schools with more time to work with these students will create:
Expanded opportunities for all students in NYS to be college and career ready
Little additional resources as compared to the cost of funding unemployment, Medicaid, WICA and/or incarceration alternatives
Equitable access to a quality education for all students
Empowerment for schools to take on at-risk students and not push them out to inferior programs
Giving transfer high schools room to work with at-risk students is vital to the health of the school, and to the continued success of the students they serve. Schools that do not impose enrollment requirements, such as the instructional program at New Dawn, allow students like Christina the opportunity to attempt Regents exams numerous times, overcome life obstacles with the support of the school, and time to graduate. School that serve this group should not operate in fear of negative repercussions because accountability measures imposed on them are not appropriate to the group they serve (as in adherence to the four year graduation rate). With the state’s opportunity to inform ESSA legislation, now is the time to bring to light the needs of the at-risk student. They deserve a chance for a quality education, and should not be further penalized because life circumstances prevent them from performing like their peers. Differentiating accountability plans, that hold schools accountable for student success will address the diverse needs of the over-aged, under-credited student and provide support for the schools who are willing to serve them.
For more information, contact the New York Educator Voice Fellowship or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Colorado Department of Education. (2016). Accountability Guidance for Alternative
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