Shuffling the Deck: Centering New York City High School’s (non) Graduates
Note: The final regulations provide that for a school or district to make AYP (fn1) it must meet or exceed the New York State’s graduation rate goal or demonstrate continuous and substantial improvement from the prior year toward meeting that goal. (fn2)
Nicole Hill (all names herein are pseudonyms) was the first of my students to leave school. She would be followed by countless more. Yet, they are not countless. And that’s part of the problem – we stopped naming and started counting. Nicole was followed by Naisha Diaz, then Eboni Moore. I wish I didn’t remember Eboni’s final parent conference. I sat next to Jane Newman (pseudonym), my supportive principal who taught me that it was okay to demonstrate care for students and share some of yourself in the process. When she told Eboni’s father that they should look into a GED program I sat quietly, feeling impotent to the decision. Jane explained to him that Eboni could stay in our school, but at 17 years old and repeating 10th grade, it was unlikely she would finish. Her father grew increasingly angry, grabbed her papers, letting us know that black lives matter, 15 years before Black Lives Matter.
“C’mon Eboni, let’s go. I know what this is about. They’re trying to send another Black kid to a GED program.”
This was the first time I had met him. I had always communicated with Eboni’s mother. When she missed homework, I called her mother. School trips and after school tutoring: mom. In fact, I rarely met fathers and with the small percentage of Black students in my Lower East Side school, he may have been the first Black father I met. As a second-year African American teacher, I was looking for a connection and validation from another Black man. Maybe a, “Thank you for doing the good work, my brother.” Or a, “We really appreciate the work you’ve put in with Eboni.” Not accusations of racism.
I wasn’t dealing with Other People’s Children3 – or so I thought. I shared with my class that my mother grew up in the LES in the 1950’s and was usually the only Black girl in her classes and was the first Black kid at University Settlement House. My light skin and passable Spanish placed a question mark over me? Black, Puerto Rican? Mixed? Yeah, but different. Further, the double helix of race and class meant that my mixed race, middle-class upbringing distanced me from my students in ways that I was reminded of from time to time. (Like when I foolishly humiliated Naisha, Eboni’s best friend, by publicly scolding her in front of the class and she quickly retaliated by telling me to, “Shut up, you white mothafuka!” Naisha may have struggled to read the written word, but she read right through me.)
Eboni always lightened the load of teaching – one of those students who could make everyone laugh at you, but with you. Like when she made fun of my size 15 feet running down the street chasing her and Naisha to bring them to after school tutoring. Or when my class came over for the annual Thanksgiving meal and Eboni cracked everybody up while inspecting my record collection, “C’mon Daniel, why you got this old man music? Pull out that Erykah Badu or something.”
I’m not supposed to have favorites, but she was one of them. She was bright. Reading wasn’t a problem for her. Neither was math. But here we were in the principal’s office unable to identify and support this child’s brilliance and being indicted for continuing our country’s history of institutional/structural/internalized racism. And while my white principal/mentor could let it roll off her back – she had probably been called worse – for me, this one still stings – 23 years later.
At a time when a high school diploma is the minimum credential needed for success in the labor force, high schools and districts with low rates of graduation should be held accountable for improving their graduation rates. States must set aggressive goals and annual targets in order to hold districts and schools accountable for graduating more of their students each year.4
In September of 2015, 91 students entered my small school in the Bronx as 9th graders. Four years later, in June 2019, 58 students walked across a stage at Fordham University and received their high school diploma to the adoration of family, friends, teachers and school staff. Sadly, 33 students were not there to celebrate with their peers. Six of these students received their diploma two months later after a dose of reality called 12th grade summer school. Seven students graduated from our school six months to a year later, leaving 19, who either dropped out from or transferred to one of New York’s alternative “transfer” schools – a set of over 50 schools designed to support primarily over aged and under credited students in graduate high school. (We do not know the fate of these students. Once a student transfers from a school, they are no longer on the school’s roster and their graduation status remains unknown to the original school.) Drawing on informal conversations with former students, friends who are teachers and support staff, this paper examines the role of transfer schools for New York City’s most vulnerable students, and discuss the students’ experiences in these schools. To understand the role of our transfer schools, I discuss alternative educational centers5 in the context of the country’s stated goals to increase graduation rates for all students, and seek to answer whether our transfer schools do indeed adequately support some of our neediest youth in “walking across the stage.”
Students are expected to graduate in four years in American high schools and most do. But many don’t. Understanding and analyzing why some students don’t finish school on time or at all is the subject of much discourse in academia, the media, in school buildings and in city halls. Educational journals have called our nation’s graduation rate a crisis; it has been identified as an obstacle to America’s competitive advantage; and even described as an epidemic by former President, Jimmy Carter. Historic legislation has been passed to address this issue. Schools have been closed due to low graduation rates and principals and superintendents are sometimes fired or hired in response. Both sides of the political aisle became comfortable with the term “drop out” factories to describe high schools with low graduation rates.
Complicating matters are the many ways in which graduation rates are referenced and defined. Conflicting numbers and percentages can leave the average reader bewildered. Do Students with GED’s count as a graduate? What about students who finish in their fifth year? In general, graduation rates are currently defined by the number of students who completed high school by the end of June in their fourth year of high school. (It is worth noting that the status dropout rate is determined by the number of students between 16 and 24 who do not have a GED or high school diploma.) Despite the perception that high school graduation rates are abysmal, the rates continue to rise across the country, averaging 88% in 2019 and the status dropout rate has dipped from 9.7 percent in 2006 to 5.3 percent in 2018.
New York City’s graduation rate climbed an astonishing 30 percentage points in 15 years from 46.5% in 2005 to 76.9% in 2020. The five-year and six-year rates climbed even higher. The disparity between Black and Latino/a students in comparison to white students remains stark, but has decreased over time.
Graduation rate 2005
Graduation rate 2020
The dramatic growth in New York City’s graduation rate is impressive, however the country, as a whole, moved in the same direction, moving from 71% in 2001 to the above-mentioned rate of 88% in 2019.
There are many theories regarding the graduation rate increase: Educational technocrats present arguments that that data driven instruction is responsible; the right leaning Bookings Institute claims that greater accountability since the passage of NCLB is the cause; The Fordham Institute praises the effects of charter schools; and of course mayors are always eager to take responsibility, from Bloomberg to DeBlasio. Detractors are quick to point out that NAEP scores have shown little or no improvement over the past ten years and that school districts easily game the system, designing easier exit exams or norming test scores to ensure higher graduation rates. Others contend that districts lowered the bar through credit recovery and online classes or by moving data and numbers around to make a school system appear more successful than it is. One of the most egregious examples of data manipulation occurred in the Atlanta School District.
Four years after being named the 2009 Superintendent of the Year for improving Atlanta schools – largely based on high test scores – Beverly Hall and more than 30 educators were indicted for changing test scores. 11 teachers were eventually found guilty, including one who was sentenced to seven years in prison. (Hall died before the trial began,)
Ten years earlier, Governor George H Bush campaigned for President of the United States on the dramatic improvement of state test scores and graduation rates in his home state of Texas. During this “Texas Miracle,” Houston’s dropout rate fell to 1.5%. Sharpstown High School’s Assistant Principal Robert Kimball noticed something fishy when, “We go from 1,000 freshmen to 300 seniors with no dropouts.6” After reporting this to the media, Kimball was demoted, sent to work in a primary school housed in a Buddhist temple with a converted closet for an office, without a phone or computer. Rod Paige, the Superintendent of Houston Schools at the time, eventually went on to become our nation’s first African American Secretary of Education under George Bush.7
Much of the pressure to quickly reach higher graduation rates came directly from the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Under the law, states were required to set graduation targets for districts to hit. Penalties for schools that failed to meet those targets included the firing of principal, rehiring part or all of the teaching staff, or closing the school down altogether. Obama, continuing to embrace operant conditioning on a national level, supplemented the punishments of NCLB with monetary rewards through the $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant program. The dollars attached to this initiative in 2009, during the great recession, encouraged schools to, among other things, utilize data to increase graduation rates of underperforming schools. In some cases districts became too creative, as was the case in Alabama where the Superintendent of Education admitted to, “misstated student records … resulting in diplomas that were not honestly earned,” explaining the astonishing 17+ percentage point rise in graduation rates in four years.) The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 took some of the teeth out of NCLB, which it replaced, but set a graduation bar of 67% for all schools for schools to avoid sanctions or interventions from the state. Daniel Koretz, a leading expert on testing data, described these initiatives as a “barely unmitigated disaster” in his book, The Testing Charade.
This pressure to reach graduation benchmarks encouraged not only “creative accounting” in low performing districts, as done in Houston and Atlanta, but increased anxiety on superintendents, principals, teachers and ultimately students. (The Brookings Institute’s 2020 report argues that in spite of the high profile examples of cheating and data manipulation, increased accountability was responsible for greater graduation rates. Whether this correlated to greater teaching and learning is debatable.) Another outcome of these accountability systems was the growth of alternative pathways to graduation including alternative educational campuses.
The definition of alternative schools is inconsistent from state to state, but are loosely defined by the National Center for Educational Statistics as,”…schools that address the needs of students that typically cannot be met at regular schools, provide a nontraditional education, serve as adjuncts to a regular school, or fall outside the category of regular, special education or vocational education.” In 2013, the last year for which data is available, alternative schools served more than 575,000 students or of all high school students or 6% of all high school students. In 1973 when there were 464 “alternative programs. These programs grew incrementally then saw a more dramatic rise after the passage of NCLB, growing 25% from 2001 to 2007. Many of these schools have been celebrated for supporting “at-risk students” through innovative programs that address gang-violence, alienated youth, and students who struggled to succeed in traditional schools. These schools, sometimes termed “last chance schools,8” are often staffed by caring teachers with smaller classes using creative means to engage students. Classes may be offered in the evening, flexible curriculum, internships and increased counseling is often available for students.
But these schools have also come under criticism for “warehousing” students with IEP’s, low attendance, overaged students, or those deemed disruptive as a means of raising graduation rates for traditional schools. Working under the pressure of NCLB, school and district leaders played the game to their statistical benefit. The NCLB guidelines state, “To remove a student from a cohort, a school or district must confirm in writing that the student has transferred out, emigrated to another country, or is deceased9”
A ProPublica investigation in 2017 highlighted multiple school districts in which students were involuntarily transferred to alternative schools or had been pushed to transfer to these schools. In some cases, this occurred in lieu of an expulsion or suspension and in other cases for “bad grades.” Many of these schools do not offer progressive pedagogical practices or wrap around services, but rely on remote learning, substandard buildings or non-certified teachers. In Orange County, Florida, Accelerated Learning Solutions, a for-profit charter network, tripled enrollment in their alternative schools, “graduated” students by enrolling them in GED programs, (taking advantage of a Florida education law), helping to increase the district’s graduation rate by more than 10 percentage points between 2011 and 2014.
My first teaching job was for a non-profit in San Francisco that ran a small school for students with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. I was fresh out of college and I, nor any of my colleagues, had a teaching degree. While the hourly pay was significantly more than what I made as a short order cook, we received no benefits, holiday pay or sick days. I did not realize it at the time, but the most marginalized and needy students received the lowest paid, least experienced, and least qualified teachers.
Susan Glasset Farrelly, Professor of Education at Cal State Fullerton, argues that alternative schools are increasingly used for the benefit of traditional schools, and while providing caring and supportive environments, having a positive effect on self-esteem, fail to provide a rigorous curriculum. Her research points to “generous credits and easy grades.” Barbara Fedders, law professor at the University of North Carolina, goes further drawing parallels between alternative schools and Brown vs Board of Education in her research paper, “Schooling at Risk”. She highlights that students who attend alternative schools are largely students of color, mostly African American, from low income communities and/or students with disabilities. These students are often denied some typical school elements such as lockers, yearbooks, sport teams, school dances and extracurricular activities.
New York City
In 2006, New York City created a new school progress report that assigned a letter grade from A to F to each school that became publicly available to the public. This transparent accountability system was intended to hold individual schools responsible for the progress of their students based on several measures, including state test scores, attendance, and graduation rates. Principals scrambled to adjust their funding and scheduling decisions, based on the metrics of the new accountability system – not necessarily what was in the best interest of the students.
At the same time a separate set of metrics was used to evaluate the progress of 23 small alternative learning centers, also known as transfer schools. These schools catered to over-aged, under-credited students who were seeking a faster track to graduation.
The small South Bronx school where I worked at the time had a fair share of students who fit that description. The principal was encouraged to “counsel out” many of those students to raise the school’s grade which was hovering between a C and a D. My principal chose to not aggressively push students out, but instead spent resources on academic intervention services, an innovative team-taught inquiry-based math/science curriculum and a restorative justice – back when the term was still unknown to most educators. These initiatives were often acknowledged, though not financially supportive, and did not translate into meeting the graduation rate benchmarks set by the city. At one school function, the CEO of a school partnering organization shared with me that he loved our school’s culture but quietly stated the principal needs to learn that he “can’t save every bird with a broken wing.”
Our grade remained low, and the principal was essentially removed. A first-year principal was hired and within two years over 80 percent of the staff left after the new leadership proved incompetent. The new principal was removed shortly after, followed by another first year principal who was also removed within three years. The school’s name was eventually changed for rebranding purposes.
Students in New York State are required to earn 44 credits in specific subject areas over four years and in most cases, pass five New York State administered subject based Regents exams. Over aged, under-credited students and/or students failing Regents exams multiple times are in danger of not graduating on time. Students who are on track for a delayed graduation have essentially four options:
1) Remain in the school (in which they often don’t feel successful)
2) Transfer to one of the city’s 60 transfer schools – small schools, designed to help students accumulate credits more quickly than traditional schools, often in partnership with a community-based organization.
3) Enroll in a Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC) program (formerly called the GED)
4) Drop Out
(Students with more severe disabilities are offered the option to enroll in a program offering a non-diploma credential such as the Skills and Assessment Commencement Credentials (SACC) or Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) credential)
In the 13 years since the release of NYC’s first progress report, NYC now boasts over 50 transfer schools, serving nearly 15,000 students. These schools have largely been identified as successful support structures for students who are struggling to graduate on time in traditional schools. Previous studies have identified these transfer schools as supportive and innovative environments that offer students small class sizes with additional counseling, community partnerships and internships while offering challenging coursework.
I originally considered interviewing former students who dropped out or transferred to identify what was missing from their educational experience and what might have helped them to be successful. Some initial dialogues led to long and illuminating conversations about the differences between their experiences in transfer schools and traditional schools. I followed up by talking with more of my community of former students, teachers, guidance counselors and administrators to identify what made transfer schools more successful for over aged/under credited students in New York City. While my informal conversations were limited, the initial findings highlight schools that are more flexible in programming, offer more emotional and academic supports, smaller class sizes, but also lower standards than traditional schools.
Life at Comprehensive High Schools
Under-credited students are sometimes “encouraged” and in some cases, even pressured or pushed out to enroll in a transfer school, NYC’s version of alternative educational centers. (On at least one occasion I was asked to contact a family and utilize my relationship to convince the family to find another setting. Teachers in other schools have shared similar stories.) Often couched in terms like, “we need to help you find an appropriate setting,” schools are incentivized to transfer the student in order to reach accountability benchmarks. These 53 small schools have close to 14,000 seats available for students who need/are encouraged to take an alternative path to graduation. Unlike some of the school districts highlighted in ProPublica’s investigative report, NYC students and their parents must agree to leave the traditional school and apply to one, or more of these transfer schools. Offering parents choice in determining their placement in transfer schools has been linked with greater academic success and satisfaction. However, the pressure that guidance counselors receive from administrators to “find an appropriate placement” for challenging students can be strong, even to the point of falsifying records.
“My last principal wanted us to say that kids who stopped showing up moved to DR (Dominican Republic). This would help with our attendance and graduation rate. The student wouldn’t count as a dropout.” (Bronx-based guidance counselor)
Many of these schools are designated for specific demographics: At least four schools are tailored for newly arrived and English Language Learners, one caters to older working students and The Harvey Milk School was designed to meet the needs of LGBTQ students. The states, “We are small, full-time, rigorous, caring and supportive schools. Our mission is to re-engage students who have fallen behind in high school credits or who have dropped out of school. We strive to help students complete high school requirements and graduate prepared for college and or a career.”
Many of the former students I talked to described the culture and climate of their original school as uncaring or chaotic, and in some cases illegally utilizing suspensions to address misbehavior. Some students became “invisible,” avoiding classes or school altogether, although in every case students shared that they could identify at least one adult in their previous school who expressed care and concern to them.
Referencing a Harlem charter school a student shared, “You could get kicked out of class for not putting a paper clip away. The teachers kicked me out for chewing gum, talking, or playing around. If you got kicked out of a class twice in the same day, they send you home.” (Current transfer school student). In some cases, the transfer schools become the intervention. “I’m feeling helpless because we don’t offer alternatives. We don’t have after school credit recovery or Saturday school for credit. It feels defeating. Every year the list gets bigger. There is a lack of academic interventions. (Our school) uses transfers as an academic intervention. It is not.” (Bronx based guidance counselor.)
Environment of Transfer Schools
In 2018 there were over 20,000 students who did not cross the stage with their peers to receive their high school diploma. About 2000 of those students would make up their missing credits and exams by August and graduate then. The others remained in their traditional school another year or more, some had dropped out and many attended transfer schools. Our high schools were well aware that these students were not on track to graduate and most likely needed academic, social or emotional support long before graduation day. Despite the testimonies of the students above, we must assume that some, if not most, of the traditional high schools attempted some interventions, even if unsuccessful, to support these under-credited students. (Identifying the failed interventions is not the topic of this paper, but we can identify the cultures and structures of transfer schools that make them more successful than comprehensive high schools.)
Quantifying how successful transfer schools are is difficult to compute. The graduation rates for transfer schools are much lower than traditional schools. These alternative schools are recruiting alienated and struggling students who may be on a five-year or six-year graduation plan. Some stopped attending school altogether before re enrolling. Many students entered with abysmal attendance records. In spite of these obstacles, transfer schools manage to increase the graduation rates of these alienated and disconnected youth. A seven year longitudinal study by the Eskota Network showed that under-credited students more than doubled their chances of graduating when they attended a transfer school. And a 2020 report by CUNY’s Public Science Project affirmed that study and attempted to identify what made transfer schools successful in helping previously unsuccessful students. Working with current transfer school students, this participatory action project utilized qualitative research to identify four attributes of successful transfer schools included in the study:
● opportunities and resources aligned with students’ needs
● building school cultures of care and compassion
● high expectations attuned to students’ needs and supports
● building an ecology of personal and collective responsibility
Conversations & Findings
The teachers (here) support you more. They stay on top of you and care. They will tell you, “Here’s what you can do in math to gain credit.” My old school didn’t care. Here, they go out of their way to help you .(D.L., transfer student.)
The care and support offered by transfer schools is clearly impactful and a major factor in students’ success. However, as Susan Glassett Farrelly has aptly titled her research, cited earlier in this paper, caring is not enough. It may be a prerequisite for successful schools, but classroom pedagogy, appropriate and rigorous content, extracurricular activities and other factors are also foundations of effective schools. Many of the students in transfer schools exhibit greater needs, on average, than students in comprehensive high schools. To assist students in catching up on credits, transfer schools use creative scheduling to offer more classes per year utilizing longer days, trimester system systems or internships. Transfer schools are also assigned the task of helping students who may have internalized a hatred of school,
What particular or exceptional teaching practices, if any, do transfer schools put in place to support their students? Are transfer schools able to offer truly challenging course work, as CUNY’s Public Science Project report stated? The friends I talked to described conflicting descriptions. Some teachers shared that they do, indeed, lower the bar. However, when considering the limited job opportunities and bleak outlook for high school dropouts, especially African Americans,10finding ways to help students finish school is more than understandable. Many of the students and adults described schools and classrooms where teachers modify assignments and offer individualized attention, which can sometimes be mistaken for “easy work.” Further, in New York State, all students must pass regents exams to graduate, regardless of how much teachers may “lower the bar.”
The assignments were too complicated at my old school. Here, they help you. They read the text with you and come up to you. They interact with you more. And they don’t give you homework.”
They explain everything better here and you get everything done in class and the work is more relevant to your life. Like the play we are reading, Pipeline. It’s more related to us. They also remind you what’s due when. They email you, give a text and remind you in class.
All students agreed that it was easier to get the work done at Downtown. “The assignments were too complicated at my old school. Here, they help you. They read the text with you and come up to you. They Interact with you more. And they don’t give you homework.” He continued, “This is the first school that didn’t give me any homework, as long as you finished your work in class.”
“I would say 60-70% of our students struggle emotionally with anxiety, depression or anger issues.” (Transfer school social worker)
Some of our students take classes online. In all honesty, we do dumb it down for students. Their skills range from 4th to 12th grade, according to one non-scientific study. How can you use the same text for everyone? We use a trimester system to offer kids more opportunities to accrue credits and catch up. So there’s no guarantee I will have a kid for half a year or a whole year and that makes it hard to support them.
YABC11 classes are easier. They’re not getting high level work and they’re not into failing kids… It’s not rigorous work. If they give him real work the kids won’t show up…But everyone understands that at YABC we need to help those kids graduate. These kids are most likely not going to college, so why are we holding them to that standard? They need a 65 so they can get their diploma and maybe get a government job. Some teachers think they need to teach a kid a lesson, even though they are a graduating senior, and insist on failing the kid for handing in work late or coming to class late. You can do that for college bound kids. But some or many of our kids aren’t ready for that standard. Bronx based guidance counselor
Our biggest issue is attendance. We don’t dumb it down. Our students succeed because we use project-based assessments and offer them multiple opportunities to complete assignments. (Transfer school teacher.)
Our kids sense that our teachers care and many develop personal relationships that they didn’t not find at other schools. It seems like our kids who struggle often come more consistently than kids who are more capable, possibly because our capable students realize how easy it is for them.
And who are the students who populate New York City’s 50+ transfer schools? Considering the abysmally low city-wide graduation rate of students with IEPs’ (SWD) the relatively low graduation rate of Black and Latino students, one would suspect that transfer schools would be disproportionately populated by these marginalized groups. I calculated the data, based on NYC websites and discovered that Black students and SWD’s are, in fact, accounted for at higher rates.
Advocates of racial equity often cite the disparity in seats offered to Black and Latino students at the city’s specialized high schools, our city’s premier school. Shouldn’t we also take notice of who attends our “last chance” schools in New York City.
When my own daughter struggled with mental health issues, she was accepted into Urban Academy, a hybrid transfer-traditional school, founded by iconic progressive educators Ann Cook and Herb Mack. This wonderfully innovative school was one of the most diverse I’ve seen in New York, almost replicating the DOE’s overall percentages, but has no English Language Learners, a lower economic need index than any other transfer school, only 13% of the students had IEP’s and 100% of the teachers have 3+ years of experience. On the other end of the spectrum sits Metropolitan Diploma Plus where 32% of the students have IEPs , 89% are Black and only 47% of the teachers have 3+ years of experience. (I have no knowledge about the strengths of Metropolitan Diploma Plus, but only highlighting the demographic differences of each school.)
Annum Khan, in Columbia University’s School for Journalism’s publication, School Stories, argues that transfer schools have vastly different results due to varying admissions criteria. Aspirations High School has a 30% graduation rate and City-As-School had a 61%graduation rate. However, “Aspirations (High School) requires that students have a minimum of 10 … credits…in accordance with NYC department of education minimum requirements…City-As High School requires 22 credits, half the number needed to…graduate. The best transfer schools like City-As tend to be closed to students with the largest hurdles to graduate.” Aspirations is 74% Black and 1% white. City As School is 37% Black.
These schools may truly be “…gems of New York City,” as Dr. David Kirkland, Executive Director of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, named them at the 2019 Transfer School Conference. Yet we must question why so many Black students and students with IEPs end up being transferred to these schools in such disproportionate numbers. In fact, in 16 of the schools more than 30% students have IEPs. Brooklyn Frontier High School has a SPED population of 51%. Only four schools are located in Queens and one school is located in Staten Island. Including Urban Academy, only three schools have white populations near 25%. 36 schools count 5% or fewer white students.
All our classes are ICT, even though about 33% of our children have IEPS. Most of our students are way below their academic level, even though they don’t have IEP’s. Because they are older, the DOE is reluctant to give them IEP’s. Many get rejected, so we get 504’s when we can….A lot of our families are undocumented and they are fearful about filling out forms for the government. (Transfer school guidance counselor)
Many of the kids I have to transfer have IEP’s. Probably 20-25 out of 30 have IEPs. It’s the same with the negative discharges. We need to find out what we can do to help these students and hold more effective staff training, (Bronx guidance counselor at a comprehensive school)
Most of our kids academically low but not so much they need a D7514 placement, but they’re not being served at a traditional school. Many of our kids are struggling with basic fundamentals and they can’t function in a high school environment with too many kids. Often, they had their IEPs altered to serve the school and are (later) counseled out. One student was counseled out of charter because he got lower than a 70 on a regents exam. Many students left their school because their sped needs were not being met. (transfer school teacher)
Based on the discussions I had with friends who are former students, teachers, and guidance from different schools, I drew the following conclusions:
1. Transfer schools offer supportive environments, meeting students, “where they are at,”
2. Transfer schools engage students with smaller classrooms, team teaching, more culturally relevant materials.
3. Transfer schools offer more social-emotional services, support structures and work-readiness training.
4. Teachers in transfer schools offer greater one-on-one assistance for students
5. Transfer schools often fail to offer rigorous or challenging curriculum.
6. NYCDOE fails to adequately support students with mental and emotional health challenges and students with disabilities and uses transfer schools as a stop gap measure.
The conversations I had with my community of educators and former students highlighted the many ways these small schools support students who were unsuccessful in their comprehensive school. Most of these schools have smaller class sizes, more social workers and guidance counselors and robust community partners. What is not highlighted on the website are the large numbers of students with IEP’s enrolled in transfer schools and the absence of white and Asian students in most of these schools. Students with IEP’s make up 14 percent of high school students (about 30,000 students) with a graduation rate of 55%. Transfer school staff are committed to working with students who feel unsuccessful, often with learning differences and/or suffer from mental or emotional health conditions. But if these schools become a last chance for students who were not properly served in their previous 11 or 12 years of schooling, teachers have no option but to lower the bar considerably to help these students get to the finish line and question whether our most needy students are truly receiving the education they deserve.
Susan Glassett Farrelly’s national research titled, “Caring is not Enough,” argued that alternative schools fail to provide a rigorous academic curriculum. If New York City’s transfer schools stand out and above the national norm, we must find evidence of challenging and engaging coursework that prepares students for post-secondary education or challenging careers.
My limited insights highlighted the tenacity and commitment of many over-aged, under-credited students and the tireless and committed work of transfer school teachers and counselors who use all means imaginable to reach and support students. Individual schools may be “gems” as Dr. Kirkland stated, but in no way is it an adequate solution to address our failure to adequately educate Black students and those with IEP’s. I suggest we heed the words of Barbara Fedders when she states, “Perhaps most troubling, the individual students at greatest risk of suspension and transfer to AEPs are from those groups once subject to de jure segregation and outright bans from classrooms: African-American students and students with disabilities.”
NYC, and our country in general, must not look for stopgap measures to address the academic, social, and emotional needs of our most marginalized youth. These schools have, in essence, become an escape valve for students who we fail to adequately educate. Instead, we must identify struggling students at a younger age and implement the necessary social support. As educators, we are often aware of the student’s academic, social or emotional struggles well before the student is in their late teens and becomes a candidate for a transfer school. We must also transform our traditional and comprehensive schools into caring and nurturing environments with enough trained guidance counselors, social workers and special education teachers to support all youth. Further we must ensure that our schools implement engaging curriculum that is not tied to high stakes tests that alienates and bores children. Of course, there will be some students who need transfer schools or alternative settings – and they should be good schools. But we should not be looking to expand these programs but reconfigure our educational system, so they are not needed.
Balfanz, Robert, et al. (2020), Building A Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates, Civic and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education
Cowen, Joshua M., Winters, Marcus, A. (2012), Grading New York: Accountability and Student Proficiency in America’s Largest School District, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis,
Farrelly, Susan Glassett, (2012, April 12-17), Caring Is Not Enough: A Critical Systematic Review of Research on Alternative Education [Paper presentation] Annual meeting of American Educational Research Association (AERA), Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Fresques, Hannah, et al. (2017, Feb 21) How We Analyzed Alternative Schools, ProPublica
Gross, Natalie (2017, July 5) Reimagining failure: ‘Last-chance’ schools are the future of American high schools, Hechinger Report
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1 Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) was the measure by which schools, districts, and states are held accountable for student performance under No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) The AYP status of schools and districts was determined by achieving a 95 percent participation on the state proficiency tests and meeting an ever increasing benchmark on specific state exams and graduation rates.
5 Alternative Educational Centers are used interchangeably with alternative schools. Transfer schools are one example of New York City’s transfer schools. Other examples are schools in the D79 superintendency, including hospital-based schools, alternative learning centers for students on long term suspensions, GED programs, credit recovery programs, schools for incarcerated youth, among others.
10 high school dropouts suffer from chronic disease at greater rates, have life expectancies 9 years lower than graduates , and the Brookings institute reported that an African American high school dropout has a 70% chance of ending up in prison at some point in his life.
11 Young Adult Borough Centers are essentially credit recovery programs. Students may attend YABC programs while attending their comprehensive school to make up credits. While not considered transfer schools, these programs serve many students of the same demographic. this conversation was included to represent the conflict that guidance counselors face in helping under credited students graduate,
12 These numbers were gathered from the NYCDOE’s 2017-2018 School Quality Report by adding the totals from all transfer schools. (The five charter-run transfer schools are excluded from the data set.) It is worth noting that a number of schools cater to specific demographics including English Language learners, newly arrived students and older working students. These schools have very low rates of students with IEP’s (0%,1%,4%, 5%, 6%, 8%) and the second number excludes them in the total.
13 These numbers were gathered from the NYCDOE’s 2017-2018 School Quality Report by adding the totals from all transfer schools. (The five charter-run transfer schools are excluded from the data set.) It is worth noting that a number of schools cater to specific demographics including English Language learners, newly arrived students and older working students. These schools have very low rates of students with IEP’s (0%,1%,4%, 5%, 6%, 8%) and the second number excludes them in the total.
15 Young Adult Learning Borough Centers – 30 sites around the city where students can make up missing classes in the afternoons and evenings. Students often enroll in YABC sites to make up missing credits or regents exams that will prevent them from graduating. Some students enroll in YABC programs full time or take a few missing classes in the afternoons or evenings in addition to their regularly scheduled classes.
17 Students with disabilities receive federally mandated Individual Evaluation Programs that are tailored to their specific needs, outlining individualized goals, and if needed, test accommodations, class size, number of teachers and or a paraprofessional. Schools sometimes change the students IEP if they do not have enough team-taught classes or a self-contained class (a smaller class, often a maximum of 12 students, to serve the needs of students with disabilities.)