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Sizing up NYC's
d r o p o u t c h a l l e n g e
Last spring, Mayor Michael
Bloomberg and schools
Chancellor Joel Klein had good
news to report: New York City's
high school graduation rate had
improved. The bad news: Forty
percent of students still failed
to graduate on time. Thousands
dropped out. Thousands more
remained in school, their future
uncertain. As the mayor's school
reforms roll on, their success
will ultimately be judged by the
graduation rate. But inside that
statistic, inside the city's 300-0dd
high schools, the effort to get
students to the finish line is a
complex story of success and failure,
change and consequence. At its
heart are 140,000young adults at
risk of losing out, and being lost.
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Dear Editor,
We are pleased that the Criminal
Justice Agency's research was fea-
tured so prominently throughout
"Prisoners Dilemma: How NYC's
Bail System Puts Justice On Hold"
(City limits Investigates, Vol. 31,
No.3, Fall 2007), and that you used
such care to present our data and
research findings accurately. In the
interest of even more complete ac-
curacy, however, we would like to provide some clarification for a
few items. Further details are available on our website at www.nycja.
You mentioned that the CJA release recommendation is based on
information that is correlated with risk of failure to appear, which
is true. One example is whether the defendant expects a friend
or family member to come to the arraignment. Yet you stated that
two defendants could have "about the same odds of showing up for
court" even if one were expecting someone at arraignment and the
other was not. Actually, the research shows that the odds are not the
same. All else being equal, the defendant who is expecting someone
at arraignment has significantly better odds of showing up for court.
That's why the item is used in calculating the score upon which the
recommendation is based.
Another statement that might be misunderstood was a reference
to comparisons of individual judges' release rates at arraignment
in Brooklyn and Manhattan, based on a small sample of observed
arraignments. Statistics cited for a Brooklyn judge who released
less than 50 percent and a Manhattan judge who released 100 per-
cent of the defendants coming before them at arraignment refer
to nonfelony cases only. No judge in the study sample released
100 percent of felony cases. However, your point is well taken that
defendants' chances for release depend to a great extent on which
judge they see.
Finally, it was not always clear that data from the CJA Annual Re-
port for 2005 pertaining to bail making and failure to appear were
based on cases disposed in Criminal Court, and thus excluded felo-
ny-level cases that were transferred to Supreme Court for adjudica-
tion. In terms of making bail, the situation is thus even bleaker than
your article implies. For example, you cited data showing that only
11 percent of defendants who had bail set were able to make bail at
arraignment. This was actually the proportion only for cases that
were eventually disposed in Criminal Court. With the more serious
Supreme Court cases included in the base, the proportion making
bail at arraignment was lower (9 percent). Moreover, most Criminal
Court cases reach disposition much more quickly than do Supreme
Court cases, so the potential for lengthy detention is greater in the
types of cases that were not included in the data. Supreme Court
cases are not included in the release-to-disposition data in the An-
nual Report because at the time the report is compiled for each
previous year's arrests, a large proportion of Supreme Court cases
have not yet reached disposition.
Jerome E. McElroy, Executive Director,
and Mary T Phillips, Ph.D. , Deputy Director of Research,
New York City Criminal Justice Agency, Inc. (CIA)
New York City high school students will soon face tougher
graduation requirements. Photo: Jarrett Murphy
Cover image: DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, which
boasted a 68 percent graduation rate in 2006. Photo: JM
The power of a high school diploma is profound. Beyond education's role in the training and
building of curious and independent minds, a diploma largely determines economic destiny.
Nationally, a single year's population of dropouts will earn $192 billion less over a lifetime of
work than their peers who do graduate. The number of young New Yorkers who will be able
to obtain that crucial degree represents a powerful measure of our collective will to create a
society of dynamism and opportunity.
While the city's four-year graduation rate of 60 percent can be said to represent some
kind of progress, the scale of what's at stake is truly staggering: If the 140,000 young adults
between 16 and 21 who are at risk of dropping out of the New York City public schools com-
prised a separate educational entity, they would represent the second-largest high school
district in the United States.
This is not your father's dropout rate. In an increasingly demanding global economy, one
with steep demands for soft and hard skills, dropouts fall farther behind their graduating
peers than at any point in our history. In generations past, in an industrial economy, a drop-
out might find his or her way to stable employment and the promise of a middle-class life by
dint of desire and hard work. Today the prospects for that kind of economic success without
a diploma are far, far grimmer.
The mayor, the chancellor, parents, teachers, students, principals and the public at large
all recognize that we are in the midst of sea change in education in New York. Largely
unprecedented central control, the imposition of various testing regimes, merit pay, school
grading, small schools and more are all the hallmarks of a new era.
But the results of all this change are far from clear. Critics complain of an "elitist, noblesse
oblige" approach by City Hall and the Department of Education based in Tweed Court-
house; defenders counter with praise for a steady drumbeat of innovation. Some worry that
all this heat and light amounts to a mere shuffling of the deck to drive data in favorable ways
and strand the most vulnerable children on the outside looking in. Still others see merit in
the chancellor's arguments that progress in reorienting a system so vast and underperform-
ing comes only very slowly and with costs-both material and human.
In this issue of eu we look at who drops out and why, and at the strategies of the mayor
and chancellor to improve the city's high schools. We examine the phenomena of "push
outs"-kids who somehow magically disappear from tracking and accountability mea-
sures-and also ask if a looming new diploma standard might derail the fragile statistical
progress the Bloomberg administration has made.
With its plans for infrastructure, housing and development, it's clear this mayoralty will
leave an enormous mark on the physical landscape of New York. But it's just as clear that
the far-reaching changes emanating from Tweed Courthouse will prove even more conse-
quential to our schools, our children and the city's future.
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New York City's
struggle to graduate
I. The choice
II. Vocabulary lesson
III. Worlds of difference
IV. Small solutions
V. Charting a new path
VI. Lost in transition
VII. Still losing track
VIII. Grade: Incomplete
Rate Debate
What graduation stats really mean
Questioning a credential
Diploma Dollars
The high price 0/ dropping out
Works in Progress
The personal touch deters dropouts
Snapshot of Struggle
A school welcomes the toughest cases
Seating Reservations
Will there be room if dropouts stay?
Jarrett Murphy
Investigations Editor
Karen Loew
Web and WeekJy Editor
Abraham Paulos
News Assistant
Andy Breslau
Executive DirectorlPublisher
Jennifer Gootman
Deputy Director
Ahmad Dowla
Administrative Assistant
Michael Connor. Russell Duboer. Ken Emerson.
David Lebenstein, Gail O. Mellow. Lisette Nieves.
Andrew Reicher. Ira Rubenstein. John Siegal.
Karen Trella. Peter Williams. Mark Winston Griffith
I. The choice
Anthony's got a problem. A baby-faced
boy in a white hoodie with a pencil-thin
jawline trace of a beard, he's hunkered
down on an upholstered bench, poised
halfway between tears and a tough-guy
mask. Anthony's not yet 18 and a new
father, with a son, Anthony, Jr., only two
weeks old. His baby's mother, who is 24,
is pressing him to leave school to help
support her and the baby.
He's got to choose, he feels, between
being a man and finishing school. His
mother never graduated school; his
girlfriend didn't, either. He's not sure
about his dad, who's not around to say.
But Anthony feels differently; he wants
4 WINTER 2008
his diploma. Still, finishing is far from
easy: At 17, Anthony's well behind on
his high school credits and, as a stu-
dent at the John V. Lindsay Wildcat
Academy, a charter high school in
downtown Manhattan, he's feeling the
squeeze of homework and fatherhood,
torn between his desire to graduate
and an equal appetite to please the peo-
ple he cares for. He has to go to work,
he has to go to school; he's behind in
his classes and has to make up lessons
he doesn't understand; and he has to
change diapers. But right now, he's sit-
ting in the school hallway, moping.
Anthony's facing a test, today and ev-
ery day: Does he have the discipline and
drive to graduate from high school? It's
the toughest test he's had to face, and
the results-graduation, GED, or leav-
ing school entirely-will affect his life
and livelihood. Whether Anthony ends
up employed or jobless, independent or
incarcerated, self-sufficient or welfare-
dependent hangs in the balance; his
son's future, too, largely hinges on An-
thony's daily decision to come to school
and learn.
Anthony is far from alone: Tens of
thousands of young New Yorkers strug-
gle to finish high school. Many simply
don't. The class of 2006 included 10,023
dropouts-{)ne for every four graduates.
Another 17,500 students who began with
that class remain in high school; wheth-
er and when they will graduate is an
Many bigh schools are moving away from traditional
settings like this one-to smaller, less formal classrooms
designed to better engage today's students. Photo; JM
[Opposite] Bloomberg's and Klein's legacies as school
reformers will hinge on the graduation rate. Photo; City HaJJ
What graduation stats
really mean
The idea to make New York City's high school
graduation rates a 2005 campaign issue came
right out of the "Two Americas.· It was James
Kvaal. a longtime John Edwards adviser. who
suggested that Fernando Ferrer highlight the
low percentage of students graduating from
the city's high schools. But when the Demo-
cratic mayoral nominee hyped his set of num-
bers. the Bloomberg administration countered
with different data and voters were left to pick
their reality.
There's still time to choose which stats you
believe: Disagreement over what the gradu-
ation rate is-and today, in
New York and elsewhere.
Take the most recent snapshots of the
city's graduates. The City Hall press release
for May 21 of 2007 was headlined: "Mayor
Bloomberg Announces that High School
Graduation Rate Reaches Historic High of
60%.· A month earlier, the New York State
Education Department said that, "New York
City has increased its 4-year graduation rate
... to 50 percent in 2006'-
It was this gap between the state and city
statistics over which Ferrer and Bloomberg
wrestled. Why the competing numbers? Be-
cause of differences in who the city and state
considered graduates. New York City deemed
a person who earned a General Educational
Development (GED) credential to be a high
school graduate, but the state did not. The
state considered students in self-contained
special education classes to be part of the
student population against which the gradu-
ation rate was computed, but the city didn't.
And New York City's four-year graduation rate
included students who graduated in August,
after summer school, as well as those who
graduated in June. The state has usually only
tracked the June group.
6 WINTER 2008
Similar disputes cloud the national conver-
sation about graduation rates. The Manhat-
tan Institute's Jay Greene and Marcus Win-
ters have decried a nationwide graduation
crisis, with only 70 percent of the class of
2003 graduating and just over half of blacks
and Hispanics earning a diploma. Christopher
Swanson, a researcher with the Editorial Proj-
ects in Education Research Center in Mary-
land, has put the national graduation rate at
an even lower 68 percent.
But lawrence Mishel of the Economic
Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., says talk
of a crisis is overblown. His research indicates
that the overall national graduation rate is
somewhere around 82 percent, and while
there is a distinct racial gap even in Mishel's
estimates, his numbers have blacks and His-
panics graduating at a rate of 74 percent for
each group-far better than a 50-50 shot.
The National Center for Education Statistics
says about 87 percent of Americans not in
school and aged 18 through 24-in other
words, old enough to have graduated high
school-have completed their schooling
rather than dropping out.
So depending on which numbers you
pick, one in three high school students fails
to graduate ... or nearly nine in ten manage
to complete high school. For those who put
stock in the more alarming stats, the un-
certainty only heightens the sense of emer-
gency. ·We know there's a crisis and indeed
part of the problem is it's been obscured by
the fact that states haven't been measuring
consistently or by any kind of standard meth-
odology,· says Bob Wise, the former West
Virginia governor who heads the Alliance for
Excellent Education, a nonprofit that lobbies
for federal education standards. The Alliance
recently published a report finding that some
states had as many as 50 categories to de-
scribe people who leave school, providing
mUltiple ways for schools to hide dropouts by
simply calling them something else.
Skeptics, on the other hand, fear an overre-
action to overwrought statistics. "Those mea-
sures which exaggerate the problem, , think,
just move people towards hopelessness,"
says Mishel. "' think especially in New York,
a single-minded focus on so-called on-time
graduation rates is counter-productive. One
should, as New York City does, offer gradua-
tion rates which look at what happens by the
fourth year, but also the fifth sixth and sev-
enth years. While we'd like to see everyone
open question. That arithmetic outlines
the challenge facing New York City's
high schools, one that will take years to
play out-an expensive, expansive hu-
man experiment that will be the ultimate
measure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's
sweeping education reforms.
Four years after the Bloomberg ad-
ministration wrested control ofthe city's
schools and began imposing ongoing
reinventions of schools' management,
curriculum, financing, structure and ac-
countability, the 2006 graduation figure
represents more than one class's aca-
demic achievement Every year since
2002, more students have graduated
on time citywide. But the class of 2006
is the first set of students to start and
finish high school wholly during the
Bloomberg administration; they are the
test pilots of the new system.
And their results were heralded: In
2006, the citywide four-year gradua-
tion rate reached nearly 60 percent,
based on city Department of Education
(DOE) calculations. Celebratory press
releases and news articles lauded the
achievement-the highest graduation
rate in the two decades since the city
really started keeping track. Editorials
and pundits touted the city's real prog-
ress. The 60 percent result represented
an 18 point increase in the graduation
rate since mayoral control began in
2002. "By any yardstick, a higher per-
centage of New York City high school
students are graduating now than at any
time in decades," said Mayor Bloom-
berg in May 2007, when the results
were released. "Our hard work to raise
student achievement is paying off, and
we are beginning to turn around a fail-
ing system." New York City's gains won
the system the prestigious 2007 Broad
Prize for Urban Education, singling out
the city's schools as exemplars of prog-
ress in improving student achievement,
narrowing race-linked performance
gaps and increasing graduation rates, all
amid the labyrinthine challenges within
a sprawling, urban school system of 1.1
million students and 80,000 teachers.
But still: If you bought a dozen eggs
and five were cracked, you'd protest If
you ordered ten tickets to a ballgame but
only six were valid, you'd expect your
money back. But when the commodity
is children-with their entire futures at
stake-it's not clear whether a yield of
60 percent (or just 50 percent if you ac-
cept the state's graduation statistic for
city schools) is cause for celebration as
a sign of real progress, or for despair as
a harsh reminder of the distance yet to
be spanned.
Under Mayor Bloomberg, the DOE's
reform efforts have been far-reaching
and near-constant increasing autonomy
for principals, adding more resources
for classrooms and negotiating a long-
sought teachers' contract, as well as
creating hundreds of new small schools,
imposing closer oversight of struggling
students and forging new pathways to
eventual graduation. But many of the
Bloomberg-era programs are so new,
and the pace of change has been so rar>-
id, that real outcomes are hard to deter-
mine. On the ground, in some parts of
the city, the dropout rate is rising, even
as graduation rates stay static or decline.
In many communities, more than half the
boys don't graduate from high school.
And the advent of more rigorous gradu-
ation standards (2008 graduates must
earn higher Regents exams scores than
their predecessors) means the gains the
city has made are very likely to fade.
Mayoral control of the city's schools
is slated to sunset in 2009 if not renewed
by the state legislature. Whether and
how it survives will likely be a subject for
intense public debate in 2008 and in the
next mayoral campaign, and the city's
high school graduation rate will play a
critical role in that conversation. But the
graduation rate represents more than a
simple, stark value. It is a complex and
nuanced measure, easily misinterpreted
and manipulated. It's an often-mismea-
sured product of social forces, econom-
ics, demographics and, not least, the
schools and students themselves-their
successes and failures, which add up to
the city's own.
Graduation rates are a worry well be-
yond the five boroughs. In some major
U.S. cities, one in four students gradu-
graduate in four years, I think we'd rather
that they graduate than not."
In the debate over how many graduate,
political agendas are no doubt at play: Some
of the people claiming a dropout crisis are
advocates for school vouchers. while their
opponents sometimes hail from pro-labor
organizations that aren't exactly unfriendly
to teachers' unions. But the fact is. there's
room for legitimate disagreement and confu-
sion over what the graduation rate really is.
because there are competing sets of limited
data for researchers to use.
The simplest way to calculate a gradua-
tion rate is use school enrollment figures to
compare the number of diplomas issued in a
particular year to the number of ninth graders
three school years earlier. The problem with
that method is that ninth grade is a big year
for holding students back, so the size of the
ninth grade is inflated, which can produce an
artificially low graduation rate.
Other studies use the U.S. Census Bureau's
Current Population Survey (CPS), a joint proj-
ect with the Bureau of Labor Statistics that
asks respondents if they've completed high
school. The problem is, those answers are
self-reported, and not everyone is willing to
own up to being a dropout. What's more, CPS
ignores people in prison and the military, and
the census has always done a better job of
counting white people than minorities. Cen-
sus data also fails to distinguish between
the GED and the traditional diploma; many
researchers feel the two can't be treated as
New York Stata and New York
City measure graduation rates
differently. Here's a comparison of
the two measures since the atata
began compiling It in 2004.
Source: NYSED, DOE
_ State graduation rate
o City graduation rate
equivalents (see "GED ABCs", p. 11).
For his part, Mishel uses national longi-
tudinal studies that track students through
their years of schooling. The problem with
those studies. citics say, is attrition-not ev-
eryone who starts in the survey stays in touch
as the years go on. Dropouts are considered
prime candidates to fall off the survey's ra-
dar. meaning longitudinal studies can under-
count them.
Hoping to reduce confusion over the
scope of the graduation problem, 45 states
including New York signed a compact in
2005 developed by the National Governors
Association to regularize how graduation
rates are tracked-a move necessitated by
the federal No Child left Behind Act (NClB),
which requires states to make progress on
their graduation rates.
That was a step forward. But the governors'
compact wasn't perfect: It has no timeline, "so
some states are stretching it out" says Wise,
who also points out that the compact" reflects
only the political life of that governor" who
signed it.
This year New York City and New York state
agreed to resolve their long-standing differ-
ences over how to calculate the graduation
rate and move toward the uniform national
rate. The state said it would begin count-
ing August graduates. and the city agreed to
switch to the state's tabulation method-al-
though City Hall said it would also continue to
track its traditional measure to allow compari-
sons to past performance. -Jarrett Murphy
2004 2005 2006
WINTER 2008 7
Freddie Perez (left) and Jonathon DeLaTorre at South Brooklyn Community High School,
which offers an alternative to traditional high school settings. Photo: JM
ate on time, and legions of high schools
nationwide graduate fewer than six in
ten. Here in New York, 140,000 young
adults aged 16 to 21 are at risk of not
finishing high school; about half, 68,000,
have already dropped out If these at-
risk young adults were an entity unto
themselves, they would constitute the
second-largest high school district in
the United States-a place where every
student faces a test like Anthony.
II. Vocabulary lesson
Sixty years ago, a conversation about
dropout rates would not have been a top
public policy debate. Education histori-
ans and academics agree that America's
school districts originally did not plan for
universal high school graduation. It was
widely held that a segment of students
would be better served by other routes.
A century ago, "school leavers" often
went from the eighth-grade classroom
to work at a family business, a farm or
a factory, or to take up a skilled-trade ap-
prenticeship. The notion that students
should stay on to graduation dates to
the Great Depression, when teenage
schoolleavers were coaxed out of their
jobs to give unemployed adult men the
opportunity to earn even meager wages.
8 WINTER 2008
Before that, schoolleavers were not cas-
tigated for their choice; it was expected
that some youngsters would work to
support their families, and equally ex-
pected that an able, disciplined young
person with decent manners and a good
work ethic could-without a high school
diploma-still obtain work that would
permit a middle-class life, with financial
security and a reliable income.
Today, that expectation would be whol-
ly invalid: A high school diploma, if not
a post-secondary credential, is required
for entry-level employment. "Complet-
ing high school is an absolute necessity
for young people. Many employers will
not take a job application from someone
without a high school diploma," says
Gary Orfield of The Civil Rights Project
(originally at Harvard, now at UCLA),
which helped attract national attention
to the high-school dropout question be-
ginning in 2001. 'The diploma is an im-
portant sign in the labor market-a sign
of reliability and persistence."
The negative sting of "dropout" devel-
oped in the 1950s, when rebellious teens
became identified in the public mind
with rumbling gangs, cruising hood-
lums and other social ills. Over time, as
automation begat early computerization
and an economy that valued knowledge
and service over production, skilled
manual labor was increasingly muscled
out of the middle-class marketplace.
The negative connotation that quitting
school was a personal failure, reflecting
a lack of spine and a tendency toward
dissolute behavior, emerged during this
era and persists today.
Over and above the stigma, drop-
ping out has profound economic and
social impact: If everyone in the Unit-
ed States on public assistance without
a high school diploma instead had one,
the potential annual savings in welfare
spending, including food stamps and
public housing supports, would range
from $7.9 to $10.8 billion a year, accord-
ing to Jane Waldfogel and colleagues
at Columbia University. Princeton Uni-
versity economist Cecilia Elena Rouse
has shown that just a single year's pop-
ulation of dropouts earns $192 billion
less over a lifetime of work, or about
1.6 percent of the nation's GDp, than
they would if they had graduated. If
1 percent more boys graduated from
high school in a given year, crime in-
cidents might drop by 100,000 nation-
wide for a savings of $1.4 billion, say
economists Lance Lochner and Enrico
Moretti, of the University of Western
Ontario and University of California at
Berkeley, respectively.
Beyond the dollars and cents and "a
terrible loss of talent and destruction of
lives," Orfield says that a generation's
human rights are at stake: With half of
black and Hispanic young men lacking
a high-school diploma or the skills to
match it, he argues, "these communi-
ties face mortal risks, and will see their
dreams shrivel."
Thinking of the nation's or the city's
graduation rate as a single, round num-
ber is a tempting oversimplification. It's
an easy sound bite to swallow on the
evening news and fits neatly into a press
release, but unpacking the city's near-60
percent graduation rate reveals that 76.9
percent of white students graduate on
time, as do 74.5 percent of Asian high-
schoolers. For black and Hispanic stu-
dents, just over half, or 54.6 percent and
50.8 percent, respectively, finish high
school in four years. While students
can stay in New York City schools until
the end of the academic year in which
they turn 21, students who don't gradu-
ate high school on time are much more
likely to drop out altogether.
But tracking the fate of those stu-
dents is one of the complications within
the city's graduation rate. Because so
many kids take extra time to finish-
and because so many leave school-
statisticians describe city high-school-
ers in cohorts, not graduating classes.
The 2002 cohort, which included more
than 85,000 students, should have
graduated in 2006. According to city
DOE statistics, nearly 41,000 actually
did. More than 10,000 dropped out. An-
other 17,500 students were discharged
from the city's attendance rolls, ostensi-
bly to other school systems or alterna-
tive educational programs. For years,
advocates have asserted that many of
these discharged students are actually
dropouts, students "pushed" off school
registers for long-term absences, fight-
ing and poor performance. At the very
least, the DOE's statistics show that
one in five students in the class of 2006
didn't formally drop out, graduate or
stay enrolled. They just went away.
Even "graduation" means different
things to different people. By the DOE's
measure, the 2006 graduates included
students who graduated in June, those
who graduated in August, GED com-
pIeters and a small subgroup of diploma-
earning students with special needs. But
by New York State Education Depart-
ment measures, only June graduates are
counted, with later grads rolled into the
next year's data. Those earning GEDs
are not counted as high school gradu-
ates by the state, reflecting a widely held
perception that the GED exam is not
equivalent to a high school diploma (see
"GED ABCs, " p.ll).
For some 17,000 students in the class
of 2006, the story isn't complete. They
remain enrolled for a fifth, sixth or sev-
enth year of high school, to accrue es-
sential credits, fill an incomplete gym
credit (the bane of thousands of almost-
grads) or repeat a failed Regents-level
class in hopes of passing the exam on
the second or third try.
ew York has only been tracking
actual dropout statistics since
1986; before then, the city relied on
extrapolated projections. "Graduation
rates have long been relegated to a dark,
dusty corner of the education statistics
enterprise," says researcher Christo-
pher Swanson, director of the Editorial
Projects in Education Research Center
and lead author of Diplomas Count, Ed-
ucation Week magazine's annual gradu-
ation project. Elements of the federal
No Child Left Behind Act are linked to
high-school graduation, yet "there is
no widely accepted, scientifically vali-
dated method for calculating gradua-
tion rates," says Swanson. The nation's
governors agreed in 2005 to adopt a uni-
versal method to measure and compare
graduation statistics, but its implementa-
tion remains contentious.
No matter how the numbers are
configured, or who's crunching them,
the same inequities persist: graduation
gaps among the races, between the
sexes and between richer and poorer
students. Children in affluent commu-
nities fare better than their less-wealthy
peers; state data show that low-need
districts, with ample school spending
and low poverty, graduate 91 percent of
their students on time, compared with
50 percent of students in high-need
districts with lower per pupil spending
and higher poverty. Johns Hopkins re-
searcher Robert Balfanz observes that
nationwide, "black and Hispanic stu-
dents are three times more likely than
white students to attend a high school
where graduation is not the norm, and
where fewer than 60 percent of ninth-
graders graduate in four years."ln New
York City, the schools with the lowest
graduation rates predominantly serve
poor students of color.
The categories of "graduate" and "dropout" oversimplify what happens to a New York
City high school class between its first day of freshman year and (for some) the cap-
and-gown procession. Here's how two recent classes-the class of 2006 after the tradi-
tional four years and the class of 2003 after their legal maximum seven years-fared:
'---- D.
A. 15% Graduated: Local Diploma
B. 11% Graduated: Advanced Regents
c. 19% Graduated: Regents
D. 2% Earned GED
E. 21 % Still enrolled
F. 12% Dropped out
G. 20% Discharged
'---- c.
A. 35% Graduated: Local Diploma
B. 12% Graduated: Regents Diploma
C. 3% Graduated: Regents w/Honors
D. 4% Earned GED
E. 22% Discharged
F. 24% Dropped out
Source: DOE
WINTER 2008 9
Swanson and his research group de-
veloped a technique comparing enroll-
ment to on-time graduation that's widely
endorsed by education advocates and
think-tankers of varied political stripes,
including the conservative Manhattan
Institute and the more liberal Urban In-
stitute. Swanson's measure tracks annu-
al instead of cohort enrollment and ex-
cludes some subgroups the city counts,
like GED completers. His analysis shows
that New York City is graduating only
45.2 percent of its students on time, with
black and Hispanic students lagging 10
percent or more behind their white and
Asian peers. Girls, no matter their race,
lead their brothers in academic achieve-
ment by 10 percent or better. The racial
split emerges well before high school
on standardized tests that show the
if they went into two high schools, one
90 percent white, one 90 percent black,
they would see different planets. The
inequality is out there and it kicks you
in the face." While no New York City
public high school is 90 percent white,
New York has plenty of schools where
90 percent or more of the students are
of color.
Across the city, the best outcomes,
in terms of graduation rate and stu-
dent achievement, are in the most
integrated high schools-those that
enroll students from a broad swath of
neighborhoods and ethnicities. These
are often selective-admission schools,
which draw students from a wide pool
of applicants. Some selective-admis-
sions schools, like the prestigious "spe-
cialized" high schools, accept students
city's black and Hispanic eighth grad-
ers scoring well below white and Asian
students. DOE has made a commitment
to narrowing these gaps and has made
some progress, evidenced by improved
elementary-school test scores, but mid-
dle-school scores-long the Bermuda
Triangle of standardized testing-are
proving tough to budge.
The color of students isn't the only
thing that affects graduation rates; so
does the color of schools. In an ideal
world, all schools would enroll similarly
diverse student bodies and all would
receive comparable funding and en-
joy comfortable resources. In the real
world, some schools are better off than
others and often, the "better" schools re-
cruit "better" students-and tend to be
in more affluent parts of New York City.
"If you look at white attitudes, most
people will say that blacks and Hispan-
ics get the same educational opportu-
nity as white kids," says Orfield. "But
10 WINTER 2008
who score above specific thresholds on
a special test. Others look at a student's
grade-point average and standardized
test scores; still others review student
portfolios, conduct interviews and/or
auditions and scrutinize writing sam-
ples. The contrasts between these di-
verse, top-flight institutions and other,
ethnically imbalanced city high schools
are stark. Science "labs" in predomi-
nantly black and Hispanic high schools
in the Bronx and Brooklyn comprise
rolling carts stocked with cardboard
spectrometers and clattering beakers,
while the glassed-in suite of labs at ra-
cially diverse Townsend Harris High
School in Queens sits atop the school
building, chockablock with high-tech
tools for DNA analysis and electron
microscopy. One racially-mixed, selec-
tive Brooklyn high school has three
working theaters; a predominantly
Hispanic school elsewhere in Brook-
lyn is housed in a converted church
space and uses a narrow former chapel
(complete with sacral fonts and arched
nave) for its gym.
At the time of Brown v. Board of Ed-
ucation, one in four black Americans
graduated from high school. In the de-
cades since Brown, that rate more than
doubled-until the late 1980s, Orfield
says, "when education policy changed
from a civil rights and antipoverty orien-
tation to testing-based policies."
"Basically, we've had a one-note educa-
tional policy since the Reagan era: Tight-
en standards to produce gains,'" says
Orfield. But acceptance of high-stakes
testing as a central remedy leads to a kind
of "ideological lockdown," he says, that
punishes low-performing, largely segre-
gated urban schools by forcing them to
focus scarce resources on improving test
scores. "It's just like a religion," says Or-
field. 'The business leaders have bought
into it; so have the governors. But there's
little evidence that increasing test scores
increases economic gains and strong
evidence that dropping out has a strong
negative effect," on both the community
and the individual student The Bush
administration's education protocol, No
Child Left Behind (NCIB) , remains a
profoundly controversial mandate. Since
NCLB's adoption, "there's been a flatten-
ing out and in some cases, a reversal, in
the graduation rate," in highly segregat-
ed high schools.
NCLB dictates that schools document
Ayp, or "annual yearly progress," in test
scores and high school graduation rates.
The New York State Education Depart-
ment defines "progress" as a 1 percent
annual increase in the graduation rate,
so twenty years may pass before the
graduation rate moves from 50 percent
to 70 percent, and that would still qualify
as "progress." (In other states, any up-
ward tick, however miniscule, qualifies.)
What this means, in practice, is federally
mandated low expectations: New York
State's targeted high school graduation
rate for 2013, the year NCLB sets as
its outside marker, is 55 percent. New
York State's 2006 graduation rate was
55 percent. So despite the definition of
progress as 1 percent growth, there is
no daylight between the status quo and
the targeted 2013 high school gradua-
tion rate-itself an implicit acceptance
that slightly less than half of students
will drop out statewide.
If the state isn't exactly aiming high
on future graduation rates, at least
it's reached an agreement with New
York City on what graduation actually
means-and how to count graduates.
The cohort that began high school in
September 2004-with on-time gradu-
ation projected for June 2008--will be
the first one tracked under the retooled,
reconciled system. Both the state and
city will count as graduates students
who meet the requirements for a high-
school diploma in June and in August
GED completers (who do not earn diplo-
mas) will be counted by the city but not
described as grads; instead, they'll be
assigned to a kind of orphan category,
distinct from dropouts, discharges and
conventional graduates.
What seems like a mere account-
ing shuffle will, in fact, affect the city's
graduation rate, and likely for the worse:
GED completers usually contribute
about 4 percent or 5 percent to the city's
overall graduation rate, so the 2008
graduation statistic can be expected to
decrease-but not only because of the
change in how the city counts the GED.
n New York City high schools, all
diplomas are not equal. Fifty years
ago, the city offered three types of
diplomas to its graduates: academic,
commercial and general, with the un-
derstanding that academic diploma-
holders would be the likely segment to
continue on to college. Today, the city
still offers three levels of diplomas: a
basic local diploma and both regular
Regents and Advanced Regents diplo-
mas. But those offerings, and what
they require, are changing.
An Advanced Regents diploma re-
quires scores of 65 or better on eight
Regents Exams. Until now, the regular
Regents diploma required scores of 55
or better on five exams. Starting this
school year, the passing score will be
raised to 65-a higher hurdle for the
The GED's rnakers defend the exam's rigor. saying that 40 percent of students who get
regular diplomas would fail the GED test the first time they take it. Photo: JM
a credential
GED doesn't stand for General Equivalency
Diploma or Graduate Education Degree or
many of the other things for which the acro-
nym is often believed to stand. Launched in
the 1940s for returning servicemen who went
to World War II before completing high school.
GED stands for General Educational Develop-
ment and refers to a battery of five subject
tests-writing, reading, mathematics, science
and social studies-that a candidate takes for
a total of seven-and-a-half hours spread over
two days. In 2005, nearly 600,000 Americans
took the test, and each year the United States
produces about one GED earner for every six
high school grads. Exactly where the GED fits
into the national discussion about the gradua-
tion rate is up for debate.
In New York City'S high school class of
2006, some 2 percent of students received not
a diploma but a GED. The city considered them
graduates. The state did not. But, in describ-
ing the GED programs it administers, even the
state refers to the credential as a "high school
equivalency diploma." Does it really mean the
same thing?
H No, it doesn't: says Peter Kleinbard, di-
rector of the Youth Development Institute at
the Fund for the City of New York. "A high
school degree represents four years of work
and presumably accumulated learning. A GED
might represent a comparable skill level, but
it also represents less of a sustained involve-
ment in schools."
Each of the GED's five subject tests gener-
ates a score up to 800. The questions include
things like: "Last month, the balance in TIsha's
checkbook was $1,219.17. Since then she has
deposited her latest paycheck of $2,425.66
and written checks for $850.00 (rent), $235.89
(car payment) and $418.37 (credit card pay-
ment). What is her current balance?·
To eam the GED, a candidate has to pass
each subject test by scoring 410 or higher and
achieve a combined score of at least 2,250. If a
candidate fails the GED, he can repeat the test
up to three times a year. even re-taking just that
portion of the test where h ~ performed poorly.
"I have 1 O-plus years doing this and I can tell
you a handful of young adults who have come
and gone and passed the test in one time,·
says Evelyn Femandez-Ketcham of the New
Heights Neighborhood Center in Washington
Heights. which runs a GED program.
The American Council on Education (ACE),
which administers the GED, says the test was
made more rigorous in 2002 after test design-
ers consulted teachers to learn what traditional
high school curricula are covering these days.
The council points to research showing that
G ED test passers perform as well as or better
on the test than high school diploma hold-
ers. "Do I think it's equivalent to a diploma?
I would say it's not meant to be an indication
that a student has completed the traditional
years of high school,· says Dr. Carol Ezzelle,
the director of psychometrics and research for
the ACE's GED Testing Service. "However. the
test does measure what's taught on the high
school level, and we set the standard so that
only 60 percent of graduating high school se-
niors would pass the GED test battery on their
first attempt:
Critics of the GED say they fault not the test
itself. but what students do before they take it.
WINTER 2008 11
Regardless of how smart they
are, high school diploma hold-
ers demonstrate that they showed up for school most days, attended
classes, put up with long lectures and navigated the myriad frustra-
tions of four years in high school-practical life skills that employ-
ers respect. The GED, on the other hand, "doesn't involve the same
rigorous conditions as earning a high school diploma, .. says Marcus
Winters, a Manhattan Institute researcher. "That's why we see that
life outcomes of GED recipients are not the same."
A 1998 U.S. Department of Education survey found that GED hold-
ers on average earn more than dropouts, but less than diploma recipi-
ents. The truth is, a lot depends on the underlying talents of the stu-
dent: While some of those who leave high school are barely literate,
others are high-performing students who dropped out not because
they were failing but because they needed to work, became pregnant
or simply got fed up with school. Brown University Professor John
Tyler has found that the GED confers the most benefit on low-per-
forming students who leave school. High-performing dropouts get by
on their underlying talents, and do about the same whether they have
the GED or not.
The most important contribution of the GED, most analysts agree,
is that it can clear a path for vocational training or college. It's a less
reliable entry-point to the military. The U.S. armed forces began in
the 19805 to limit the number of GED-holding recruits they'll accept
because those recruits were much more likely to drop out of training
than diploma recipients.
It's widely acknowledged that the existence of the GED probably
encourages some high school students to drop out because it pres-
ents an alternative to staying in school. People who work with GED
programs say that students often come in with unrealistic expecta-
tions of how easy it will be to obtain the credential. "Most young
people can't just pop in and pop out," says Kleinbard. "Most of the
kids who drop out of high school have pretty low skills. For those kids,
it's going to take a couple years to get aGED."
In New York City, dozens of entities run independent GED prep
classes. Separately, some 12,000 students are enrolled in GED pro-
grams administered by the city's Department of Education, located
both in alternative high schools and at dozens of community-based
organizations. This year, the DOE restructured its GED programs be-
cause only about 15 percent of students were passing the exams.
Four separate GED tracks were combined into one called GED Plus
and borough centers were set up to direct students to the instruc-
tion that fits their skill level. Some 10 programs were shut down
because their students' passing rates were substantially worse
than the average.
Students who enter city-run GED programs are first tested to see
what kind of instruction they need. Those with reading levels of ninth
grade or above go right into GED classes. Those who read between
the sixth and ninth-grade level are sent to pre-GED instruction, while
students with poorer skills get literacy training.
The goal for every student should be a diploma, says Fernandez-
Ketcham, but the reality is that some of the students she sees have
so few credits that no high school can take them. The GED might be
their only shot. Other GED defenders agree. The city should invest
more in GED testing and support systems for students, Kleinbard says,
because "there will always be a subset who needs the GED." -JM
12 WINTER 2008
city's students.
But even as the Regents diploma becomes harder to obtain,
the chance for students to get a non-Regents diploma is van-
ishing. The local diploma will be phased out with the 2004 co-
hort (i.e., the students who should graduate in 2008).
Taken together, those looming changes could have a dra-
matic effect on the number of New York City students who
graduate high school. Of those who graduated in 2006, about
a third earned the less-demanding local diploma. If these stu-
dents had to meet the more rigorous standards that will bind
future classes, the city's graduation rate would not have been
nearly 60 percent; it could have been as low as 40 percent. The
impact on some groups could be even more striking: DOE sta-
tistics show that while 82.1 percent of Asian and 76.7 percent
of white graduates earned Regents diplomas, only 52.8 per-
cent of Hispanic and 52.5 percent of black graduates earned
the same credential. In the coming year, the city's effort to
impose more rigorous academic standards might conflict with
its push to improve graduation rates, stopping and possibly
reversing the system's vaunted, recent progress.
The schools' leader is willing to take that risk. "In the end,
the local diploma isn't doing anybody any good," Chancellor
Joel Klein tells City Limits. He acknowledges that not everyone
will meet the more rigorous Regents criteria-yet. Schools will
"have to work doubly hard to get those Regents diplomas," he
acknowledges. But Klein sees hope in the high school classes
of the coming years. 'There's a different population moving
through the system," Klein explains, citing strong gains in
fourth-grade test scores.
Some students still won't make it. "Students not on track for
a traditional diploma, I don't say 'forget about you,'" says Klein.
"A student with five 55s"-who would have earned a Regents
diploma under the old standards but would fall short under
the new ones-"that student should get aGED."
III. Worlds of difference
Whatever the state and city report in coming years, applying
any single graduation rate to the entire city high school sys-
tem will mask dramatic differences within.
Draw a line through lower Manhattan from Anthony's
school, John V Lindsay Wildcat Academy on Battery Place to
Stuyvesant High School, not even a mile to the north. Within
those two points reside both extremes of the city's schools,
from Stuyvesant where nearly everyone goes on to a good col-
lege, to Wildcat, where graduates are often the first in their
family to complete high school (at age 19, 20, or even 21) de-
spite having failed at a previous high school. Populating the
landscape between these extremes are students born here
and others from overseas; able, well-versed students as well
as over-age, under-credited teens who find themselves in the
"parking lot" of high school, their progress undone by Regents
exams and other graduation requirements. Some lack family
support or face pressures to quit from parents and siblings
who themselves dropped out or from the friends they see on
the street. Among those who do leave, a minority find alterna-
tive high school paths within the city school system; others
say they were counseled out of school entirely, pushed out by
administrators who said they had to leave.
It's axiomatic that good schools graduate more students and
that "bad" schools, like those the city has shuttered in recent
years, graduate far fewer. Schools that are more desired by stu-
dents-those that admit students by academic application or
by exam, those that require auditions or portfolios and those
that encourage greater parent and community involvement,
for example-have far lower dropout rates than mainstream,
comprehensive schools. As a rule, the larger the school and
the less focused its academic mission, the higher the fraction
of students who fall behind. But the problems that prevent
some students from earning their diplomas often begin well
before freshman year.
Most teenagers who drop out of high school have been
struggling for some time. In the DOE's nomenclature, they
are "over-age and under-credited"-older than their peers,
with fewer credits on their transcripts ("over/unders" for
short) . Being an over/under is far from rare in New York
City's schools: The DOE says that nearly half of all incoming
ninth graders will become over-age and under-credited some
time during their high school careers. Students are expected
to earn 44 credits over four or more years of high school; stu-
dents who earn at least eight credits a year are considered by
the DOE as "on track" for graduation, and on-time grads earn
11 credits a year. Race and gender gaps persist: 11 percent
more boys than girls are over/unders, according to the DOE,
and among black and Hispanic students, over/under rates are
14 percent above citywide averages.
For many students, high school is a shock: For the first
time, they have to navigate a school environment that may
be three or four times larger than their middle or elementa-
ry school. They are no longer moved along the educational
pipeline with their peers; progress depends on accumulating
credits and passing state exams. Students who arrive in high
school over-age because they have been held back in middle
or elementary school face a more daunting task: More than
two-thirds eventually drop out. Those who flounder while try-
ing to accumulate ninth and 10th grade credits make up more
than 90 percent of the dropout pool, according to researcher
Swanson and others.
Other obstacles are social. Historically, Americans look
to schools to address social problems, often mandating that
schools stand in loco parentis, filling in for absent or weak
family structures. The dropout crisis in New York challenges
schools here to also stand in loco communitas-fi1ling sys-
temic gaps in social and emotional support that, unfilled,
undermine many students' daily lives. Students may lack
strong family supports. They may have outside responsibili-
ties-picking up younger siblings, a part-time job, older rela-
tives who need care-that preclude after-school and Saturday
The dark spots below represent census tracts where, according
to the 2000 U.S. Census, less than half of the adult residents have
high school diplomas. This swath in the Bronx and northern
Manhattan is the city's most significant concentration of such
tracts. Other dropout hot spots are found in Corona, Jamaica and
Queensbridge in Queens; Brownsville, Bushwick and Sunset
Park in Brooklyn; Chinatown and the Lower East Side in Man-
hattan; and West Brighton on Staten Island.
Source: U.S. Ce1lSIIS Burealt. UNHP
WINTER 2008 13
The high price of
dropping out
From 1975 to 2005 the average American drop-
out eamed a cumulative, inflation-adjusted
$242,000 less than the average high school di-
ploma holder. But calculating the value of grad-
uation involves thinking about more than just
money, more than how individual graduates
fare and more than simple cause and effect.
Only half of dropouts have jobs, compared to
more than two-thirds of people whose educa-
tion ended with a high school diploma. With
the average dropout earning around $19,900
a year. he or she skirts pretty close to the fed-
eral poverty line ($20,650 for a family of four
in 2007). Research by the Federal Reserve Bank
of Cleveland has determined that high school
dropouts are 10 times more likely to become
poor in a given year than high school gradu-
ates. Recent research by Columbia University's
School of Social Work found that even among
single mothers, those with diplomas are less
likely than dropouts to receive TANF benefits (17
percent of grads versus 27 percent of dropouts)
or food stamps (31 percent versus 38 percent).
High school graduates have been estimated
to live nine years longer than dropouts, per-
haps because they make better decisions (an
additional year of school appears to reduce
cigarette smoking and increase time spent ex-
ercising), eam more money and work healthier
jobs. Graduates are also more likely to have
healthy children and to raise kids who finish
high school and don't become teenage parents.
A high school graduate might even help their
spouse earn more: Some studies have found
that better-educated spouses increase their
mates' eamings, perhaps by providing more
sound career advice.
America's swelling prison and jail population
is dominated by dropouts-75 percent of those
locked up lack a diploma. Black men are a lot
more likely than white men to end up incarcer-
ated; research indicates that's due in part to the
educational disparities between the races. Re-
searchers Becky Pettit of the University of Wash-
ington and Bruce Western of Princeton Universi-
ty have estimated that in 1999 the risk of dying
or going to prison by age 34 in 1999 was 22
percent for a black male high school graduate
and 62 percent for a black male dropout. (Both
numbers are far lower for white men).
14 WINTER 2008
These outcomes hurt not only the dropout,
but also society at large; crime harms the victim,
the incarcerated perpetrator and the taxpay-
ers who pay for prisons. Taxpayers also pick up
the tab for dropouts' welfare and public health
care costs. Since they are more likely to be un-
employed or at least earn less than graduates.
high school dropouts pay less in taxes and do
not contribute as much to public insurance pro-
grams like Social Security. Their lower earnings
mean dropouts consume less and contribute
less to the economy. Dropouts are less likely to
vote or give to charities.
Dr. Clive Belfield, an economist at Queens
College, has estimated that a Hispanic male
New Yorker who gets a diploma rather than
dropping out earns $250,000 more over his
lifetime, pays $68,700 more in taxes and costs
federal and state governments $83,300 less in
incarceration, health care and welfare costs.
The numbers are stunning, but it's neces-
sary to recognize that researchers can't with
absolute certainty attribute all these outcomes
simply to the act of dropping out. Poverty, for
example, could be as much the cause of drop-
ping out as the effect-and poverty is also an
obvious factor in whether a person is jailed,
goes on welfare or suffers from ill health. Simi-
larly, successful teenage criminals might have
less incentive to finish school; for them, a life
of crime could be the cause, not the effect, of
leaving school.
It's also important to note that the diverg-
ing fortunes between high school dropouts and
graduates are part of a wider economic trend
in which the gaps in economic retums among
all levels of education are spreading. Yes. a
high school graduate's edge over a dropout
has increased in the past 30 years. At the same
time, the average high school graduate has lost
ground to a person with a college degree, and
people with college degrees are falling further
behind folks with advanced degrees.
There are competing explanations for why
this has happened. One is that globalization
and technology have made low-skilled jobs
easier to replace, reducing the wages of the
less-educated people who work them. An alter-
native view is that corporations have granted
their executives and managers (who tend to
have more education) an increasingly large
slice of the wage pie, leaving less for work-
ers. Whatever the explanation, the diverging
income gap both strengthens and complicates
the sales pitch to get kids to stay in school: They
must graduate in order to avoid falling even
further behind, but unless they go to college,
they cannot expect to keep up. -JM
In 1975, an American with a high school
diploma made what in today's tenns would be
$6,000 more a year than a person without one.
By 2005, the gap was almost $10,000. Here's
how average annual income has changed:
_ Advanced
_ Bachelors
_ Diploma
_ No Diploma



$20k •

• •
• •
'75 '80 '85 '90 '95 '00 'OS
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, (2005 dollars)
tutoring, the kinds of programs that
bring struggling students up to grade
level. Some students are parents them-
selves; according to the DOE, 7,000
girls will give birth in a given academic
year. (Other city statistics suggest thou-
sands more school-age girls give birth,
making the DOE's estimate a conserva-
tive one). Many live unstable domestic
lives in which they deal with parents'
substance abuse, money troubles, legal
worries, immigration fears and housing
problems. Nearly every high school in
the city, from the largest traditional com-
prehensive high schools to the scores
of small schools that have opened since
2002, enrolls children who live in home-
less shelters or in foster care and group
Some travel farther than others to
study here: Immigrant students from
over 170 countries enter New York City
schools. They may live with one parent,
or with unfamiliar, extended family, trad-
ing the stability and structure of home
for opportunity in the United States.
Others have survived civil war and vio-
lent conflict, like the teenagers in the U-
berian enclaves of Staten Island and the
Serb and Croat communities of Brook-
lyn. About half of immigrant students
arrive just in time for, or during, high
school. Of that group, half graduate and
half drop out or are discharged. (DOE
statistics show that students who immi-
grate during middle school fare about
as well as the average city student, with
nearly 60 percent graduating in four
For some students with families
overseas, just showing up is a chal-
lenge. They travel abroad, sometimes
for weeks or months at a time, missing
coursework and eventually failing their
classes. Dropping out starts to look like
the only option for a boy of 18 who hasn't
yet accumulated freshman credits. And
some principals say that cultural forces
influence access to education: Some
boys resist female authority at the head
of the school or a classroom and end
up in long-term suspension. Families
whose daughters are destined for ar-
ranged marriages, or those whose cul-
tures discourage secondary education
for women, pull their daughters out of
school as soon as it's legal, at age 17.
A more pedestrian but still very real
obstacle for native and foreign-born stu-
dents alike is discouragement. Students
who have been left behind even once
lack more than academic skills; they
often lack the confidence to persist and
complete the coursework they failed. "If
kids do not come into high school pre-
pared to do well, with a solid academic
foundation-if they've been wallowing
away in elementary and middle school
and they're over-age for grade-they're
really behind the eight-ball," says Robert
Tobias, a professor of education at New
York University and a 33-year veteran of
city schools who once ran the system's
Department of Assessment and Account-
ability. "How much can a weak back-
ground be overcome by high school?"
That students enter high school un-
derprepared is undeniable. Overall,
more than half of the city's eighth-grad-
ers tested below grade level on 2006
state exams. That was an improvement
over earlier years.
Student scores span Levels 1 though
4, with Levels 3 and 4 defined as meet-
ing or exceeding grade standards. In
2007, one in five eighth-graders scored
at Level 1 on the Math test. Thou-
sands scored similarly on the English
Language Arts exam. Principals say
that many of these students are be-
ing promoted into high school, setting
the stage for almost certain academic
failure. But how does the continued
promotion of truly struggling, Level 1
students square with the department's
standing ban on social promotion?
"It doesn't surprise me," says Chan-
cellor Klein. It's possible, he says, that
the kids slipped through the cracks as
the ban on social promotion was imple-
mented grade by grade. "Five years
from now, you won't see significant
numbers of Levell's entering high
school," says Klein.
The low-performing 14- and 15-year-
olds who already have been promoted to
high school, of course, can't go back in
time. It's easy to blame schools for put-
ting them there. But the pros and cons
of promotion are complex: Students
who don't master their coursework
shouldn't, by rights, advance to the next
grade, but those who are left behind find
their confidence eroding with every se-
mester. Under-credited students, espe-
cially those who enter high school late
after being held back in elementary or
middle school, have the highest dropout
rates. Caught between a moral rock and
an analytical hard place, school adminis-
trators often opt to move students along
the educational pipeline.
The stigma of retention continues
into high school. It's socially difficult
to be 16 years old and in a roomful of
freshmen, repeating a class like Uving
Environment for the third time. And
many high schools have students who
are 19 or 20, still struggling to complete
their coursework and pass the Regents.
Other students deride them as "Super
Seniors"; they are ostracized from many
schools' mainstream, far from the high
school social radar. New York City is le-
gally bound to educate students until the
end of the academic year in which they
turn 21, but the complex social difficulty
and the academic challenge of being 20
years old in high school means that far
too many over/unders give up on their
studies and drop out.
IV. Small solutions
Mayor Bloomberg is nothing if not a
man with a plan, and a world-class en-
trepreneur's knack for putting his plans
into action. When he won control of
the Board of Education in 2002, his re-
vamping of the city schools began with
a renaming-the Board became the De-
partment, signaling its place in the city
hierarchy-and a relocation of the school
system headquarters, from its longtime
bastion on Uvingston Street in Brooklyn
to the Tweed Courthouse that sits back-
to-back with City Hall, physically proxi-
mate to the mayor and his staff.
Bloomberg and Klein's "Children
First" initiative launched the duo's plan
to remake the city schools in 2003. Since
then, Children FIrst has been the frame-
WINTER 2008 15
The personal touch
deters dropouts
This article and ·Snapshot on Struggle" on p. 20 were
produced in partnership with the Center for New York
City Affairs at The New School, which has launched a
project focused on improving city schools' relentlessly
high dropout rate and creating new opportunities for
students to stay in school and succeed. For more infor-
mation, email
If kids at South Brooklyn Community High
School for Leadership are more than 30 minutes
late in the morning, a counselor telephones their
parents to find out why. If they miss a couple of
days of school, the counselor visits their home
to see what's wrong. When the kids leave the
building for lunch, the grown-ups wait outside
for them to return, cajoling them back into the
building as soon as the bell rings.
"Come on kids, let's make this happen!"
a counselor shouted cheerfully, clapping his
hands after lunch one day. "Come on Leo!
Frank, come on man! "
South Brooklyn Community High School,
which serves 150 students at a time, is one of
the city's most successful programs designed to
encourage chronic truants to return to school
and get their diplomas. As many as 69 percent
of South Brooklyn students ultimately get their
diplomas, compared to 19 percent of kids with
similar backgrounds-over-age for their grade,
with few academic credits--enrolled in tradi-
tional high schools.
The school. located in Red Hook, is a part-
nership between the Department of Education
(DOE) and Good Shepherd Services, a citywide
social service agency. That means the teachers,
who are paid by the DOE, and the "advocate
counselors, " employed by Good Shepherd,
work together to see that kids get the attention
they need.
Students, who are aged 16 to 21, must re-
quest admission to South Brooklyn, and a par-
ent or other "caring adult" must accompany
them to the interview. Students must read at
least at a sixth-grade level to be admitted,
and they must have accumulated enough high
school credits at their old school to show they
have a good chance of graduating within two
16 WINTER 2008
years. Students who need classes in English as
a Second Language aren't eligible, and, while
1 0 percent of students receive special educa-
tion services, those supports are limited.
These requirements help ensure South
Brooklyn's success, but they also mean that the
school doesn't serve the city's most vulnerable
and alienated students-those in need of seri-
ous remedial help, those with significant spe-
cial education needs and those who don't have
the support of an adult in their lives.
Still, the kids at South Brooklyn face plenty
of obstacles and it's a good bet that the vast
majority would never graduate without a
school like this. Some students, victims of
abuse and neglect, are living in foster care.
Teen parents struggle to care for babies and
finish school. Some students live with parents
who are drug addicts. One student has been
depressed since his mother died in the attack
on the World Trade Center.
The school's support system revolves around
the "advocate counselors," who are assigned
to each student when they enroll, greet them
each morning when they arrive and follow
their progress until they graduate. One morn-
ing, the school's six advocate counselors burst
into applause when 17-year-old Gary arrived a
few minutes after 9 a.m., his blond hair pulled
back from his face. He was almost on time, the
counselors said, and even more important, he
allowed people to see his face, previously hid-
den by long hair in his eyes.
"Too often, students are trying to hide from
adults," said one of the counselors, John Foley-
Murphy. "By showing your real face, you are
trying on a new identity, [with] a sense of be-
longing not to the losers or the dropouts, but to
a community of achievers."
Beautiful physical surroundings make both
teachers and students feel valued. Classes are
small, with 20 to 22 students instead of the 34
that is standard for New York City high schools.
Some teachers have four classes instead of the
five that is typical in traditional schools.
The smaller numbers mean teachers
have a fighting chance to grade papers in
a timely fashion. The teachers get to know
their students well . And having the advocate
counselors on staff means teachers can con-
centrate on academics and refer social prob-
lems to someone else, knowing they will be
dealt with promptly. At South Brooklyn, each
counselor has 25 students; at a typical high
school, each guidance counselor serves hun-
dreds of students.
The kids at South Brooklyn say the teach-
ers at their old schools didn't even know their
names. They could skip class and no one no-
ticed. One girl said she used to swipe her ID
card to record her attendance at her large tra-
ditional high school. then slip out a side door.
She skipped school for 10 months, she said,
before anyone noticed. At South Brooklyn, she
said, the teachers are on your case. You can't
get away with anything. They care. They notice.
For students who are behind in their stud-
ies, graduation seems a daunting task. South
Brooklyn makes the task seem manageable by
offering students the opportunity to earn cred-
its faster than they would in a typical school or
transfer program. Instead of two semesters, the
school offers three 12-week terms, plus a sum-
mer session. That means students who focus
intently can accumulate 20 credits a year, nearly
double the usual number. And, since some of
them are nearing their 21st birthdays-the date
on which they are no longer eligible for public
schooling-accumulating credits fast can mean
the difference between success and failure.
Is anything lost in the rush? Kids at South
Brooklyn receive a bare-bones education, with
none of the electives or extra-curricular activi-
ties that can make high school fun.
Nonetheless, teachers manage to infuse
their lessons with an excitement and energy
that goes beyond the Regents test-prep so
common in public schools. A history teacher
encouraged students to research why vari-
ous groups might have opposed women's
suffrage-and showered with praise one stu-
dent who suggested that the liquor industry
feared women would vote for Prohibition. An
English teacher engaged kids in a discussion
comparing The Great Gatsby--the kind of
novel they might encounter on the Regents
exam-with Bodega Dreams--a more acces-
sible book modeled on The Great Gatsby, but
set in East Harlem.
The DOE spends $15,811 per pupil, per year
at South Brooklyn, substantially more than
the citywide average of $11,607, according to
DOE's 2005-2006 school report card. In addi-
tion, Good Shepherd provides another $6,000
per pupil, per year-money that comes from
private fund-raising as well as from a DOE
grant to help prepare students for the work-
force. The extra expense seems well worth it,
said English teacher Sydney King, adding: "If
every high school had this amount of support
[for teachers and students], we wouldn't need
to exist.· -Clara Hemphill
work for the city's ongoing waves of
change in departmental organization,
streamlined management, financial ac-
countability and budgeting. Bloomberg
and Klein cultivated leadership in their
Principals Academy and groomed new
teachers in the Teaching Fellows Pro-
gram; they negotiated a long-overdue
contract agreement with the teachers'
union that begins to reward classroom
professionals and they've proposed
cash-based merit awards of many
stripes: Principals are to be rewarded
for school improvement; teachers are
to be collectively rewarded (in a pooled
fund at successful schools) for student
progress; high-school students are to
be rewarded with cash for taking and
passing rigorous, college-level AP ex-
ams. (Compensation is linked to the
student's score, with a high score of 5
"earning" more than a passing score
of 3.) Principals have gained greater
autonomy over their budgets, hiring
and school management; parents have
gained some access to school adminis-
trators with full-time parent coordina-
tors. School reviews begat school sur-
veys begat the recent, much-debated,
school report cards.
When it comes to improving high
school graduation, Klein's strategy has
been two-pronged. He has broken fail-
ing large high schools into smaller ones.
And he has created new paths to gradu-
Most city high schools had lower drop-
out rates than the citywide average of
14.6 percent in 2006. On the other end
were high schools with extremely high
dropout rates. The DOE has closed or is
closing many of the worst-performing
schools. Among those that (as of press
time) are to remain open, these posted
the highest dropout rates for the class
of 2006:
Source: DOE
Walton High School in the Bronx now hosts six small schools. Its 2,800 students are more
than the school is supposed to hold. Photo: JM
ation for kids for whom traditional high
schools of any size aren't working.
tudents can and do get lost in big,
alienating city schools. This is, of
course, no news; it's common knowl-
edge that factory-style schools with
4,000 students offer less personalized
attention than schools one-eighth their
size. Struggling students are more
likely to fall behind in big schools; their
absences are less likely to spur action,
and when a student's attendance di-
mini shes, so does achievement. Small
schools, often organized around a spe-
cific theme or academic concentration,
seem an antidote to the impersonal
large-school model. With deep-pock-
ets funding from the Bill & Melinda
Gates and Carnegie Foundations, the
Broad Foundation, Open Society Insti-
tute, New Visions for Public Schools
and other private/corporate partners,
the DOE has grown a colony of small
schools, often set in impoverished, un-
derserved neighborhoods.
•. id.iij.!iti¥".
.. ............................................. ...... .
.. ............ .. .. . ........................... ...... .
Far Rockaway High School (Queens) 26.8%
........................................ .... .................... ...............................................
Flushing High School (Queens) 23.3%
....................... ......................... ....... ........................................................
.. ................................................ .. .. ..... .
.. ........................................ . ................ 2 ...... .
.......................................... .. .. ...... .
John F. Kennedy High School (Bronx) 20.4%
Long Island City High School (Queens) 20%
............... .... ........................... ..... .... ................................................... .....
WINTER 2008 17
18 WINTER 2008
Since 2002, 231 small schools have opened in New York
City. About 180 of them have been secondary and high schools
(serving grades &12 and 9-12, respectively), each enrolling 600
or fewer students. These schools are young works in progress;
the vast majority have not had a single graduating class, much
less a breadth of experience from which to draw conclusions
and document trends. But the idea behind them is far from
new; Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez created his own
legacy of small schools in the 1980s, some of which thrive to-
day, some not The key, says Ernest Logan, president of the
Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union
for school principals and other administrators, is whether a
small school allows for personal interaction among its players.
"It's your connection to your staff and students that makes a
difference," he says.
These schools are meant to replace the large, failed schools
of history, often in the building originally intended for a single
behemoth of a high school, according to Garth Harries, the
head of the DOE's Office of Portfolio Development, which over-
sees the creation of new schools. To date, 25 large, comprehen-
sive high school buildings have been remade into educational
complexes that house two, three, or more small schools. Some-
times the schools sharing the premises are all high schools;
other times, they're a mix: a high school, a transfer school and
a GED program can all share a single building (with students
from 14 to 21 years of age), or two middle schools and a high
school can share a single facility (with students of 11 some-
times sharing a building with students 10 years their senior).
It's not ideal, Harries volunteers, "but we have the resources
we have, and we have to manage the best we can."
Small schools are founded on a "decided investment in rig-
or, personalization and partnership" aimed at "increasing the
graduation rate and access to post-secondary education," says
Harries. This focus stems in no small measure from the char-
acter of the failed comprehensive schools the small schools
are designed to replace. 'Those environments can no longer
be the warehouses they once were, where hard-to-educate kids
have been ignored," says Harries. He acknowledges that the
honed focus limits the small schools' ability to provide "some
specialized offerings" like school sports teams, advanced
academics and specialized electives. Some small schools pool
their resources, co-offering advanced placement classes and
campus-wide varsity sports teams. In other settings, schools
function essentially as tenants-independent institutions with-
in a single, shared campus.
Recent news from the small high schools has been, at face
value, encouraging, Harries says: Greater numbers of students
are graduating on time, attendance is stronger than in large
schools and students feel better connected to school and thus
more committed to staying there. But it's difficult to generalize
across 200 schools based on graduation data from only a few.
The track at DeWitt Clinton H.S. A recent report found that in the
race to graduate. nearly half of city students will fall behind. Photo: JM
WINTER 2008 19
A school welcomes
the toughest cases
There were a few tense moments on a day in
mid-November when 17-year-old Elizabeth
arrived at Community Prep, a tiny transitional
program that prepares students who have
been released from juvenile detention to return
to regular high schools. It was 10:30 a.m., and
Elizabeth was an hour-and-a-half late for class
in the drab converted office building on East
29th Street in Manhattan.
The school's dean and English teacher, IIze
Drozds-Russano, welcomed her, but told her
that only students who arrived on time or up
to 45 minutes late could leave the building for
lunch. Elizabeth tensed up, gave an angry look
and seemed ready for a fight. "You can't talk to
me like that!" she shouted.
Principal Mark Ryan came by and defused
the situation. "We're glad to see you, n he told
the girl. ·Would you like us to give you a call at
7:30 a.m. to help you get up?"
Elizabeth, a thin girl with gold hoop earrings,
black jeans and a black jacket. her blond-and-
black streaked hair pulled back into a pony tail,
relaxed her tense muscles, shook her head and
silently went off to class.
"She's much better. She didn't curse us out!
She didn't break anything!" said Drozds-Russano.
"She went to class! That's a major victory!"
Ryan chimed in.
Such are the success stories at Community
Prep, a school that serves some of the city's most
challenging students: kids who are re-entering
the world after being released from juvenile de-
tention centers or court-ordered alternatives to
incarceration, such as residential treatment fa-
cilities for teens needing psychiatric help. Many
have been convicted of assault, robbery or drug
dealing; some have been designated Persons in
Need of Supervision (PINS) by the courts-kids
whose parents couldn't control them.
Community Prep was founded in 2002 as
a partnership between the Department of
Education (DOE) and the nonprofit Center
for Alternative Sentencing and Employment
Services (CASES) to help kids with serious be-
havior problems that other high schools are
ill-equipped to handle. The idea is to get stu-
dents to attend classes regularly, build up their
20 WINTER 2008
social and academic skills and prepare them
to return to a regular high school or to enroll
in a GED program.
The students have trouble getting along with
other kids, with grown-ups, with anyone in a
position of authority. But they also crave the at-
tention of a caring adult-something many of
them have never had. Many are the victims of
abuse or neglect at home. One child was in 16
foster care placements in 16 years. About half
have been diagnosed with special education
needs. The majority have mental health prob-
lems. Most use illegal drugs and many have
parents who use drugs. Most of them are way
behind in their academic work. Some read at a
first-grade level.
Community Prep is "half therapeutic, half aca-
demic, " Ryan says. Kids-all kids, not just the
ones h e r ~ e e d far more attention from car-
ing adults and far more help with social and
emotional problems than they get in the typical
high school, he adds.
At Community Prep, the socialization begins
with a daily " advisory," led by a teacher and a
social worker. Similar to group therapy, students
vent their feelings and learn to control their
behavior using the principle of "restorative
justice. n That is, when students break a rule,
they must answer questions such as, "Who was
harmed by your actions?" and must find ways
to make amends.
Teachers, employed by the DOE, and coun-
selors, who work for CASES, don't ask kids why
they were incarcerated. Instead, they attempt
to give them a fresh start and to seek out their
strengths-noting, for example, that one child is
a master carpenter, another a promising artist.
They lure them into the school community with
fun things to do: a fishing trip, a bowling excur-
sion, tickets to Broadway shows. "We're trying
to make them feel they are going to miss some-
thing if they are not here," says Ryan. "There's a
lot of unconditional love in this building."
Teachers, social workers and drug abuse
counselors meet daily to discuss students'
progress. One boy, now living in a group home,
got out of jail to find that his only relative, an
uncle with whom he had lived before he got
in trouble, had disappeared. One girl had been
·on the street, making money· since she was
13. When one student began to misbehave
in class, a counselor explained: "Christmas is
coming. He hasn't spoken to his mother for two
years and he thinks she's dead." Staffers sug-
gested that another boy had been traumatized
by witnessing the murder of someone shot in
the head.
Students typically stay at Community Prep for
one year. The school has room for 85 students; it
tends to have lower enrollments in the fall and
fills up during the year as students are referred.
Ryan says daily attendance hovers around 48
percent, compared to a citywide average of 85
percent. About one-third of the students eventu-
ally return to regular schools or go to full-time
GED programs. Since its founding, 26 students
have left Community Prep for jail.
Progress is marked not by the usual measure
of passed Regents exams and graduation rates,
but by the smallest of steps: staying at school
all day (rather than leaving midday in a huff),
not getting high for a week or doing homework
three nights in a row, leaving their gang-identi-
fying gear at home. "If they take off their beads,
don't wear their [gang) colors, that's huge, n
says Drozds-Russano.
When the bell rang at 2:50 p.m. that day in
November and the students went home, Ryan
checked the attendance sheet at the front
desk. Of the 65 kids currently on the register,
36 had showed up. Of those, 19 were less than
45 minutes late and 30 stayed for the whole
day. There had been a few close calls, but no
major disturbances, no student meltdowns.
"That's fantastic," Ryan said, pleased with the
day's accomplishments. -Clara Hemphill
Students at a GED class in the Bronx. The city recently revamped its GED offerings because
so many students were failing the exams. Photo: JM
By design, small schools less than two
years old exclude many special-needs
students. Even so, most students are
below grade level. "Probably 75 percent
of our students are coming in with Level
1 or 2 Math and ErA tests. Some are
surely over-age," says Lili Brown, vice
president for external affairs at New
Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit
whose New Century High School proj-
ect has created 83 small high schools in
New York City. Progress is measured
with metrics, Brown says. 'We evaluate
student data against standardized test
scores. We ask, what do these kids need
to learn? Whatever they learn, they need
to learn it faster, to make that four-year
graduate rate."
The pressure to graduate students
in four years can translate to lower aca-
demic expectations: When New Cen-
tury High Schools recently published a
78 percent, four-year graduation rate-
nearly 20 percent higher than city aver-
age-it made headlines. But reading
deeper into the stats, less than half of the
New Century graduates earned Regents
diplomas, as opposed to more than two-
thirds of students in demographically
comparable high schools. So what looks
like progress sometimes isn't-{)r at
least isn't as much as it seems. And what
progress there has been at New Centu-
ry schools could roll back when the new
diploma requirements kick in.
Brown says the progress will build on
itself. 'The bar is being raised at a policy
and a practical level," she says. "In the
first generation, we asked, 'Can we get
them to graduate in four years?' These
were kids who used to graduate at the
20 percent to 30 percent level; our staff
almost didn't believe they could gradu-
ate kids in four years." Every year, she
says, more students graduate with Re-
gents diplomas. Still, it's impossible to
guarantee that all students will meet the
universal Regents criteria in 2008.
New Century students drop out of
school far less often than their peers.
But day to day, in the classroom, "the
quality of student discipline and teacher
influence on policy [has] declined," ac-
cording to a report by the organization.
In addition, current students are coming
to school less regularly, earning fewer
credits and getting suspended more
often than previous New Century stu-
dent cohorts. Such evolutions are to be
expected in new schools, but when the
experiment is on a grand scale-more
than 200 schools, 100 more planned-it
can be daunting to predict, based on
relatively thin experience, what will hap-
pen in the lives of nearly 80,000 predom-
inantly low-achieving students.
V. Charting a new path
As Klein shrunk and replaced large high
schools, his reforms also created new
avenues for students who were through
with traditional high schools altogether.
The recently-revamped Office of Mul-
tiple Pathways to Graduation (OMPG)
has a complicated portfolio: Basically,
the DOE invested $37.5 million to de-
velop school models to give struggling
students options beyond the traditional
high school setting. The Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation contributed an addi-
tional $5.3 million. In fall 2007, a retooled
range of educational options was rolled
out including transfer schools, citywide
referral centers for GED programs,
Young Adult Borough Centers and op-
tions for students either in or recently
released from incarceration.
From transfer schools-small, di-
ploma-granting schools designed for
students under 17 (the legally permis-
sible age to drop out)-to Young Adult
Borough Centers, which help older
students earn enough credits to gradu-
ate, these school programs aim to fill
a crying need. Transfer-school gradu-
ates earn diplomas from their transfer
school; Young Adult Borough Center
diplomas are granted by the student's .
home high school. GED programs, on
the other hand, give over-age, far-behind
students-those who simply can't earn
sufficient credits before their legal right
to education expires-access to post-
secondary programs like community
college and technical training. Pre-GED
programs offer remediation to students
not yet ready for GED preparation.
The problem is, relatively few stu-
dents make use of these options; only 16
percent of over-age and under-credited
high-schoolers participate in multiple-
pathways programs. Of the balance who
remain in comprehensive high schools,
fewer than one in five graduate and only
a small fraction earns Regents diplomas.
A lack of consistency in admissions
requirements complicates enrollment in
WINTER 2008 21
New York City's graduation rate is going up these
days, finally gaining traction after episodes of very
slight improvement in the 1990s lost steam. Note that
the rate shown here, which is the city's, differs from
other graduation measures.
-+- Graduate
-+- Still Enrolled
-+- Dropout
20% ..... ---e.-- _---I.t------. • ...---...... ~ ~
~ ~ - - - - ~ . - - - - ~ ~ . - - - - - -
'99 '00 '01 '02
the alternative schools: Transfer schools
set their own age and academic criteria,
so students can be eligible for one school
but blocked at another. Some programs
require reading scores at a sixth-grade
level, which many struggling students
just can't meet.
Multiple pathways schools and pro-
grams are co-sponsored by community-
based organizations (CBOs) to provide
a network of social and community sup-
port; this is less useful to students who
must travel great distances to attend
school. They also include a Learning
to Work component, which generally
means an internship or work oppor-
tunity, identified or sponsored by the
partner CBO. Working is both a means
and a model. Students can explore set-
tings and professions that they might
not have previously considered, and
gain real-world work experience. Since
CBOs and non-DOE sponsors structure
the work options, there's great variety
between programs.
There's also concern that students in
these programs are not being tracked
as carefully as they should be, although
DOE staff express confidence and prom-
ise "total accountability." Students in mul-
tiple pathways programs are discharged
from their ''home'' high schools, then go
to regional placement centers to meet
with guidance counselors and evaluate
22 WINTER 2008
'03 '04 'OS '06
Source: DOE
their options. The transition to a new pro-
gram is generally swift; most students ob-
tain placement recommendations within a
few days. But the follow-up isn't clear; the
DOE could not say how many students
it had sent to various programs in 2007,
nor could it detail how many students ac-
tually remained in their new placements.
Students referred to GED programs out-
side the DOE are discharged from the
schools and no longer followed.
Meanwhile, students who need to
master English or with special needs
are poorly served by the DOE's multiple
pathways: A December 2007 policy re-
port from Advocates for Children (AFC),
a New York-based nonprofit, shows that
the majority of Young Adult Borough
Centers and transfer schools offer mini-
mal or no services for students learning
English. Only about half of the Borough
Centers serve students with special
needs; fewer than one in five can enroll
students with profound needs. In addi-
tion, most Borough Centers and many
transfer schools do not provide child care
or referrals for it. This shortfall "not only
violates state law," concludes the AFC re-
port. "It leaves a significant portion of the
over-aged/under-credited student popu-
lation without a pathway to graduation."
This is, unfortunately, nothing new.
Historically, alternative pathways de-
signed to lead to graduation do so only
about half the time. Attrition is great,
and so are the odds: The vast majority
of transfer and Young Adult Borough
Center students would have been lost
to the system entirely without the mul-
tiple-pathways options. That the options
aren't comprehensive, says Klein, is
simply reality. "I don't have the capacity
to create 50 good transfer schools," the
chancellor says. He adds that reaching
all of the at-risk students is "going to
take a long time."
million-Child school system isn't
a monolith. Its hundreds of high
schools apply a range of methods in an
effort to match their students' capabili-
ties to citywide standards. The need to
innovate is most pressing at schools
that serve the least prepared students.
Bay Ridge's New Utrecht High
School is one of those. Principal Howard
Lucks' incoming ninth-grade class gen-
erally numbers around 1,000, of whom
"close to 500" scored below grade level
on standardized eighth-grade reading
and math exams.
Lucks' response has been to encour-
age underprepared kids to plan on more
than four years in high school. His
school offers an extra year of school up
front, in the conventional ninth-grade
slot, to bring student skills up to and
beyond basic competency.
While Lucks slows things down for
his struggling students, principal Reesa
Levy and assistant principal Ronald Orji
at Sheep shead Bay High School have
sped things up. Their approach, the Fast
Track program, targets over-age, under-
credited students and gives them double
periods of the pre-graduation essentials.
Of 23 students in a class City Limits vis-
ited, all said they were on track to gradu-
ate in FastTrack. Only two thought they
would have graduated if they stayed in
"regular" high school.
'''This program is like a miracle," said
one boy, who will graduate in January
after two years in Fast Track. Another
boy explained, "You get used to failing.
Other schools, they give you the 55 easy.
Here, they make you work, then you see
straight 80s, 85s."
Fast Track's stripped-down focus
means that students don't have conven-
tional electives; they also are expected
to attend school for a longer day. And
not every student is true believer. Atten-
dance is spotty: A core of about 70 of the
120 students come to school every day.
eanwhile, students at the John
V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy
in downtown Manhattan balance the
worlds of school and work in a year-
round academic calendar, alternat-
ing weeks of full-time internship with
weeks of full-time education. Both
work and school are credit-earning re-
quirements at this state-chartered high
school, which rewards work with small
allowances and celebrates strong atten-
dance and academic achievement with
pizza parties and theater tickets.
Most Wildcat students (the school de-
rives its name from an organization that
helped found it) left their original high
schools for Wildcat's work-study alter-
native. J alissa Martin, 18, was urged
to leave her high school, John F. Ken-
nedy in the Bronx, because she rarely
went to class. "1 was cutting," she said,
unabashedly, "and the principal wrote
a letter home saying we wasn't gonna
be allowed back in school if we had bad
attendance." Her guidance counselor
suggested Wildcat, and Jalissa never
looked back. "I wouldn't go back to JFK
if I could. It's too much freedom: Eight
floors and 5,000 students," she says.
"Here, it's strict, and it's small." She's
doubled her credits at Wildcat, and
hopes to go to business school when
she graduates.
Infinite Cubia, 20, will graduate from
Wildcat when he passes his math Re-
gents. He went to Samuel]. Tilden High
School-according to Infinite, it was
"the worst environment," with too many
fights and not enough attention-and
dropped out at 16 with a total of two
credits. GED programs wouldn't take
him because he was too young; Wildcat
placed him in a culinary apprenticeship
and got him back into school. ''I'm, like,
the first male to graduate on my moth-
er's side, the first to think about going to
college. My father, he got his diploma in
prison. I come from a long line of GEDs,"
he says. "I plan on changing that."
Wildcat's four-year graduation rate is
low, at 22 percent. Wildcat graduates go
on to two-year community college and
technical training programs, Principal
Ron Tabano says, but "not everybody's
going to go to college." He adds: "Let's
Students at traditional high schools can get
lost among thousands of schoolmates in massive
facilities. Photo.· JM
wake up. There are other things beyond
college. The world needs plumbers,
electricians, skilled laborers."
Once upon a time, high schools edu-
cated future corporate titans and future
mechanics in the same hallways, if not
the same classrooms. Today, Bloomberg
and Klein's DOE mandates that schools
provide a college-preparatory curricu-
lum, with the goal that every student
go on to post-secondary education. But
hewing to the principle of college for all
leaves little room for other professional
paths-skilled-trades jobs like aircraft
mechanics and IT providers, or entre-
preneurship-that are valid, valued ca-
reer options. The all-or-nothing focus on
college comes at a cost Students who
may not be destined for university don't
get the chance to learn about the techni-
cal and skilled-labor jobs that might mo-
tivate them to stay in school. If it seems
the choice is between flipping burgers
or dissecting paramecia, lots of students
opt out.
Some city schools still provide career
and technical training as electives. But
only a few truly offer access to careers
and professions that don't necessarily re-
quire college degrees. These career and
technical education (CTE) high schools
provide students with a comprehensive
high school curriculum, comparable to
most mainstream schools, plus extra
coursework that leads to professional
certification in areas like computer re-
pair, aviation maintenance and licensed
practical nursing.
On a practical level, the ability to be-
come self-supporting upon graduation
is essential for many students-but
within the reach of a relative few. CTE
schools may mean a longer school day,
fewer electives and less time for ex-
tra-curriculars like sports and clubs,
but the tradeoff seems worth the sac-
rifice: Most of the city's CTE schools
consistently post higher graduation
rates than city averages. A few, like
Aviation High School in Queens, regu-
larly boast stellar outcomes, with more
than 90 percent of students earning a
local or Regents diploma. Building this
skilled, technical proficiency is a cher-
ished goal of veteran principals. But
the increasing pressure on schools to
provide college-focused preparation
hinders the expansion of technical edu-
cation at most non-CTE schools.
VI. Lost in transition
In the Klein chancellorship, creating
new opportunities has meant closing
some doors as well.
When it shuttered the city's Schools
for Pregnant Students, the Department
pointed to the schools' general lack of
success. Carni Anderson, senior superin-
tendent for the DOE's District 79 alter-
native school division, says so-called "P-
Schools"-designed in the 1960s to give
visibly pregnant girls a way to stay in
school-seemed like a good idea at the
WINTER 2008 23
time. But they didn't serve the students
they were designed to help. Attendance
at P-Schools was pitifully low: Only about
half of the 300 students enrolled attended
on a regular basis, earning a scant hand-
ful of credits a year. Instead of keeping
girls on track, the P-Schools seemed to
slow their progress toward graduation.
The question is whether the DOE has
other programs that support student
parents. It now runs 39 LYFE Centers
(Living for the Young Family through
Education), sprinkled throughout the
city. Anderson says the LYFE centers
are consistently underused-with room
educators and advisors, including the
Citywide Council on High Schools, a
DOE parents advisory panel that unani-
mously pressed for "substantial delays"
in new small-school implementation. A
2006 complaint to the U.S. Department
of Education's Office of Civil Rights by a
member of the citywide council, Brook-
lyn College Professor David Bloomfield,
charges "clear discrimination." Bloom-
field says that small schools "cherry-pick
special ed students." He adds: 'Those
that can be mainstreamed go to the small
schools. The hardest to teach go to the
large high schools. Not only is it morally
for 600 babies, "we've never hit capac-
ity," she says. The DOE's estimate-it-
self a small slice of the school-aged girls
who give birth in the city each year-is
that 7,000 students give birth each year.
So the number of children served at
LYFE centers is dwarfed by the number
of babies born to students. Anderson
says many girls have resources at home
and that extended families often take on
child-care duties.
But critics say the centers are under-
staffed and underfunded. Attending a
LYFE center often entails an extra com-
mute for young parents, and their lim-
ited operating hours, with most closing
at 3 p.m., mean that young parents can't
stay at school for the extra tutoring and
support they almost certainly need, can't
participate in clubs or teams and can't
count on the LYFE centers for coverage
if they need to work.
Nor are pregnant students the only
ones for whom Klein's reforms pose,
along with opportunities, new challenges.
The rapid pace of new school expan-
sion, while applauded at Tweed (and
funded by Albany and private grantors),
is met with considerable caution by
24 WINTER 2008
outrageous, it skews the data."
For students with identified special
needs (a category that includes every-
thing from learning disabilities and at-
tention deficits to autism and cerebral
palsy), navigating a large high school
can be an overbearing burden. These
students especially benefit from a small-
er, more personalized school, where they
can be known to teachers and adminis-
trators and not disappear into large class-
es or jarnrned hallways. Yet very few of
the new schools created by the DOE are
equipped to support students who need
dedicated, special-needs classrooms.
Even special ed students who can be
placed into collaborative team teaching
(CIT) classes with two certified teach-
ers-which is the citywide model for
integrating general education kids with
challenged students-are not permit-
ted to enroll at a small school unless
the school is more than two years old.
Most of the 231 new schools have been
open for less than two years: 100 opened
in 200&.07, and 45 more in 2007-08, with
DOE representatives projecting "at least
100 more" by 2010.
Those enrollment barriers make it im-
possible to compare those small schools
to the large school they are replacing,
says Leo Casey, the vice presidentfor ac-
ademic high schools at the United Fed-
eration of Teachers. 'They have many
fewer special education students, many
fewer English Language Learners. They
have students who are coming in who
have a much better attendance record,"
Casey says. In comparing the old large
to the new small, he warns: ''You have
to make sure you are actually measuring
apples, and not apples and oranges."
More than a few critics agree that this
kind of selection results in "creaming off'
higher-performing, less disruptive stu-
dents for the new, small schools. 'These
are all policy choices," says Kim Sweet,
executive director of Advocates for Chil-
dren. "Small schools were designed not
to take the English language learners
and special-needs kids; those are delib-
erate choices. It could have been done
differently, but it wasn't When does it
become time to help the kids who need
help the most?"
DOE representatives counter that re-
sources like specially-trained teachers
and dedicated classrooms just aren't on
hand in every school, especially early
in a school's life. The big-picture goal,
according to Chancellor Klein, is build-
ing capacity in the small schools, so that
greater numbers of students have ac-
cess. Part of that mandate is to create
capacity first for the greatest number
of student-the general-ed population.
'The only way to transition the system
is to rebuild it," the chancellor said in
an interview. Choices have to be made
and priorities ordered. "I don't have a
wand; when you're reconstructing the
school system, this is a real-world is-
sue." He adds: "A school with five teach-
ers"-typical in some small schools,
which open with one class of 100 to 120
students-"can be destabilized if you
require special education. You have to
build capacity first, build a strong envi-
ronment and culture, then send in the
challenged kids."
But one result of this DOE policy
choice to restrict small school admis-
sions is that comprehensive, troubled
high schools are overloaded with high-
need, special-ed students. That "is an
ongoing issue," Garth Harries, the DOE
official who oversees the development
of small schools, acknowledges. 'That
result is not one we're happy with."
Grants for certified special-ed teach-
ing staff have permitted 10 new small
schools this year to enroll special-needs
students. Most still don't. Klein says
that "two to three years from now, small
schools will take their share" of special
needs children.
But this staged enrollment model-
able students first, followed by special-
needs students-means that school
reform efforts "have left special-needs
students out, or included them only as
afterthoughts," says AFC's Sweet. "I
don't expect the Bloomberg-Klein ad-
ministration to solve the challenge of
special education, but I expect them to
try, and to try a lot harder."
The fact that most small schools
don't accept such students means those
kids head to large, often-struggling
high schools, the very structures most
likely to fail them. These large schools
then face a vicious cycle. First, their
register of special-needs students in-
creases-to twice the city average, in
some schools-requiring allocations
of staff and funding that might other-
wise go to other uses. Second, when a
greater fraction of students struggle to
achieve, the schools' graduation rates
and Regents test scores suffer. Dropout
numbers climb. The schools' outcomes
look worse to prospective students
and their families and to potential new
faculty, making the school less appeal-
ing for motivated, college-directed stu-
dents, and consigning the school to a
diminishing future. Bad marks on the
new school progress reports doom
struggling schools to apathy, failure
and eventual reconfiguration or clo-
sure. Schools once thought borderline
become destined to fail; those that man-
age to respond constructively win their
gains over increasingly large obstacles.
Differing timeframes cloud the con-
versation as well. While DOE sources
say that new small schools exclude high-
Bloomberg moved the city 's education headquarters to the Tweed Courthouse (top), right
behind City Hall. Photo: Europa Technologies
need special-education students "in the
short term," they're framing their refer-
ence in regard to the life of the school,
which they hope to measure in decades.
But what is short term to the DOE is long
term to students, including those with
identified special needs-a description
that pertains to more than one in ten, or
about 145,000 students citywide. These
students' futures are inevitably forged by
the schools they attend now. For a stu-
dent, short term is a single semester; for
the DOE, it's three to five years. If large
schools are less supportive and more dif-
ficult for both able and special-needs stu-
dents, the long-term implications of the
DOE's "short term" strategy multiply far
into the future, affecting thousands of
students for years to come.
Beyond their restricted enrollment,
small schools have other drawbacks.
Small schools that open in place of a
large, failing school offer more indi-
vidual attention, but often serve far
fewer students. For example, when
three small schools opened this year on
the Lafayette High School campus in
Brooklyn, they enrolled about 300 stu-
dents-which, combined with the 800
who remain as Lafayette itself phases
out, means the campus serves just over
half as many kids as it used to. Young-
sters who would have gone to Lafayette
must instead go elsewhere, often to al-
ready-crowded high schools.
DOE representatives say that the
school-choice model, which permits
students to apply to high schools city-
wide, is flexible enough to absorb and
direct the overflow. While this may be
true in theory, in practice many stu-
dents are reluctant to travel great dis-
tances to attend school.
Small schools, while providing a
school-engagement solution for some,
don't offer a real alternative to all stu-
dents, especially those in the broad
middle of the student population. Good
larger schools may as a function of their
size have more teachers with degrees in
their subjects, a more stable faculty and
more clubs and teams that help to retain
students. Students who want the kinds of
academic challenges-like honors and
WINTER 2008 25
The John F. Kennedy High School cam-
pus in the Bronx, where more than 4,000
kids attend five high schools. Photo: JM
Will there be room if
dropouts stay?
The pack of chattering teenagers bouncing down
the path to the Kennedy high school campus in
the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx looks like
a typical bunch of kids--<Iad in sweatshirts,
hauling backpacks, giggling over a joke. But
why on earth were they showing up a half-hour
early for school, and on a Friday of all days?
Well, says the chubby guy who stands five-foot-
five (if you count the six-inch Afro), H Because it
gets mad crowded sometimes· when he and
his 4,198 schoolmates-more than live in most
towns in New York State-try to get through
the metal detectors at the entrance.
That those five kids were showing up for
school at all-let alone early-was exactly
the kind of thing the Department of Education
wants to encourage as it strives to increase
the graduation rate. But in crowded city high
schools will there be enough seats for all the
kids that the DOE hopes will stick around?
Some education advocates see flaws in the
enrollment projections that the School Con-
struction Authority (SCA) uses to plan new
school seats. They take issue with two trends
in the projections. which run from now through
26 WINTER 2008
2015: an overall decrease in school enrollment
and no increase in the ·survival rate: which
is the number of ninth graders who make it to
12th grade three years later. The critics say that
the projected enrollment decline doesn't square
with the expected million-person increase in city
population between now and 2030. And they
claim that since the DOE plans to increase the
percentage of high school students who stay in
school and graduate, school construction plans
should bank on the survival rate going up.
The critics point to a June 2007 letter to
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn from DOE
Deputy Chancellor for Finance and Administra-
tion Kathleen Grimm that read, "Our current
demographic projections are consistent with
the current graduation rate" -in other words,
not the improved rate that the DOE is targeting,
Simply put. says April Humphrey, an organizer
at the Alliance for Quality Education, "If [school
officials) were to reach their graduation rate
goal by the end of this capital plan, they will
fall short" of seats.
The DOE maintains that its projection is
sound. For one thing, the Department of City
Planning does forecast that the number of
school -age people in the five boroughs will
decrease even as the city population swells.
What's more, the DOE says it expects the
graduation rate to improve gradually-slowly
enough that the agency will be able to update
its current $13.1 billion 2005-2009 school
construction plan if new data shows a need
for adjustment.
Besides, an improving graduation rate can af-
fect school populations in complicated ways, as
even some critics of the DOE will tell you. "Part
of the reason that there is overcrowding in the
high schools, despite a not very high graduation
rate, is because kids languish in ninth and 10th
grades." says Noreen Connell, executive direc-
tor of the Educational Priorities Panel, a group
that was formed in 1976 to fight school bud-
get cuts and has tracked school spending ever
since. "If you had more successful high schools
there would be far fewer retained ninth graders
and retained 10th graders, H she adds-mean-
ing that any increase in 12th-grade enrollment
because fewer kids drop out could be offset by
smaller ninth or 10th-grade classes if fewer kids
stay back. Meanwhile, as schools improve, more
kids might graduate in four years-Qpening up
seats-while at the same time, more would-be
dropouts could opt to stay in school for five, six
or seven years-Qccupying new seats. The bot-
tom line is it's hard to predict the impact.
But while advocates are split on exactly
how graduation rate improvements might af-
fect high school overcrowding, there is broad
consensus that the school construction plan is
inadequate-largely because the way the city
measures overcrowding is considered unreli-
able and prone to understatement.
The critics question how it is possible that
the current plan is promising roughly the same
number of seats it did three years ago (63,000)
despite adding little new money and encoun-
tering sharply rising construction costs. School
officials say they've used leased space and
other innovations to make the numbers work;
the DOE said in a recent statement that the
proof that it takes overcrowding seriously is in
the fact that "schools hired more than 1,300
additional teachers and created more than 925
additional classrooms [in 2007) alone."
But some of that class size reduction is
from falling enrollment, not new seats. And
critics question whether the DOE has a grasp
on how bad overcrowding still is and where
it is worst. Citing problems with data col -
lection, the DOE blew a legal deadline in
November for providing the latest, detailed
figures on class sizes.
Separately, SCA's annual report on school
capacity and utilization (a.k.a. · The Blue
Book")-which a state judge in the past said
understated overcrowding-shows wide-
spread fluctuations in the seating capacity of
schools. These numbers might not reflect actual
changes on the ground; the SCA depends on
principals to report the data. Across the 2005,
2006 and 2007 reports, some schools' capaci -
ties rose by hundreds of seats without explana-
tion. Others fell drastically. Some went up one
year and down the next, or vice versa.
Critics suspect that many of the recent gains
reported in the Blue Book reflect not the con-
struction of new schools or new space but the
conversion of art and music rooms. science labs,
gyms and even closets into classroom space.
A survey this spring by the office of Bronx
Council member Oliver Koppell found that
while some schools in his borough are
relatively roomy, many are struggling for
space-and making sacrifices. John F. Ken-
nedy High School, one of five high schools
on the Kennedy campus, · should be at 1,600
students" but was holding 2,400 kids, having
converted H auto shops, closets, etc. H to class-
room space, its principal wrote. Bronx Theatre
High School's principal reported, "We have
to use hallway space for classroom ... Dance
Advanced Placement classes-that will
burnish their college applications must
often find them at large high schools,
which seat 3,000 or more students. If
they are academically able, they can
earn a place in the selective admission
high schools or in one of the city's two
early-college small high schools. (Over
25,000 students a year test for fewer
than 3,500 seats.) If, like most students,
they don't qualify for a selective-admis-
sion school, they turn to the city's large
schools, and take their chances.
VII. Still losing track
In the ongoing conversation about
graduates and dropouts, some students
are invisible. These are discharged stu-
dents-kids who leave New York City
high school rolls, ostensibly to other dis-
tricts, private schools or non-DOE GED
programs. It's not just a few students,
either: Nearly one in five entering ninth-
graders in 2002 was discharged by 2006.
Regardless of where they went, they're
gone: Discharged students do not appear
in any total numbers of students for the
2002 cohort. Their absence does not af-
fect graduation or dropout numbers. For
that reason, education advocates have
long alleged that some city high schools
"push out" kids who are failing or falling
behind in order to boost the school's test
scores and graduation rates. The alleged
practice was not unique to New York. It
has been documented in large, urban
school systems nationwide. It's not new,
either, as pushout tactics have been in
use since the 1960s. But a new, national
focus on high-school graduation, be-
ginning with the No Child Left Behind
mandate linking school survival to test
scores and graduation rates, means that
schools felt increasing pressures to de-
liver higher numbers of graduates.
In 2003, Advocates for Children
(AFC), sued the Department of Educa-
tion over pushouts. Their suit alleged the
involuntary discharge of some 160,000
high school students over three years
and charged that three large city high
schools were essentially forcing failing
students out of school. Students who
room is being converted to a classroom ... We have had to restructure our program
significantly ... We have eliminated our daily PE (dance) classes in order to fit in academic
classes ... [and are) using our theater for academic classes: And when DeWitt Clinton High
School's principal was asked, "Have you converted art rooms, music rooms, science labs into
classrooms?" he replied: "All of the above: then added, simply, "We need fewer students."
Crowding affects more than enrichment. Teresa Andersen, a mother and the president of the
Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, says students at some schools end up late
for class because of long lines to get through metal detectors at the front door. Safety is another
concem. "You put the mildest mannered people in a confined space where they cannot move,
they're going to act up,· says Andersen. "That's human nature."
Jatnna Ramirez, a senior at Bronx Intemational High School in Morrisania. has gym class at 7:45
a.m. and lunch at 10:45 a.m. and takes one class in a trailer; another class is held in the principal's
office. she says. "I used to take dance class. They allowed us to use the auditorium. Then they
changed it because there was a class that needed it" she says. ·We went to gym on the fifth floor.
then a gym on the first floor. There were some days when we couldn't use any gym and we had to
have class in the hallway.· Jatnna is considering college and getting ready for the Regents exam,
but notes that, "it's hard for us to pass that Science Regent when we don't have a science lab."
While school officials acknowledge that overcrowding is still a problem, the administration
sometimes seems to downplay it: When results from the first-ever citywide survey of parents,
teachers and students were released in September, the DOE said that while 24 percent of parents
named overcrowding as their top concem, ·45 percent of parents said creating more or better
programs is the schools' top priority: But there was no such" more or better programs· choice
on the survey; DOE generated that 45 percent number by combining several smaller ones. It had
the effect of making overcrowding look like a secondary, rather than primary, concern.
The School Construction Agency has launched a pilot program to address individual over-
crowded schools that don't get enough relief from the current capital plan. It has also shifted
several planned schools around the city to meet pockets of need and launched an initiative to
build much-needed science labs. As time rolls on and seats get built, however. the current capital
plan grows less flexible. A draft plan for the next five-year phase, covering 2010 to 2014, is due
out next year. The problem is that no one knows whether to count on a substantial commitment
of state money for the next phase.
And while the Bloomberg administration will shape the next school construction plan, it
will be the next mayor's problem to actually build it out. That's one reason why educational
advocates are already talking about ways to make school construction an issue in the 2009
mayoral race. -1M
had long-term absences were pushed
out; some who were pregnant were not
permitted to return to school; others
who had been incarcerated were not
allowed to re-enroll at their home high
school, the suit claimed. Under-credited
students were not informed of their le-
gal rights to full-time public education
through the end of the academic year in
which they turn 21.
'''There are a number of different ways
to push a kid out," says RobertTobias, the
NYU professor and former city schools
administrator. "Some kids are actually
encouraged to leave, but students with-
out services, or support, or programs-
it might look like they dropped out, but
really, they were pushed. Those kids are
subtracted from the graduation cohort.
It's one area where you could lower your
dropout rate and elevate your gradua-
tion rate through manipulation, not bet-
ter education. That's one way of gaming
the system."
On its surface, the pushout practice
seems a venal sin on the part of high
school principals. It's more complicated
than that. Time and energy are both lim-
ited quantities. Students who will age
out of high school, like those who are 19
or 20 with fewer credits than birthdays,
may never recoup sufficient credits to
graduate by 21. Faced with an overbur-
dened school system and students who
appear undermotivated, apathetic and
underprepared for the rigors of high-
school work, administrators might rea-
sonably wish to channel their schools'
WINTER 2008 27
Some 17,000 students counted neither as graduates nor as dropouts but left the class of 2006 as
discharges. It's unclear how many eventually dropped out. Photo: JM
finite resources to students who will
most benefit from them, The practice
of pushing students out of high school
is "a lesion, "that has been festering for
many years," wrote senior U.S. District
Judge Jack B. Weinstein in a 2004 opin-
ion, but "resolution of these cases will
not resolve the deep-seated socioeco-
nomic, political and education issues
that underlay failures of our education
But New York residents' legal right
to a free public education is clear. In its
lawsuit, AFC argued that the fact that
students were ill-served in the lower
grades should not disqualify them from
28 WINTER 2008
deserving a place in high school.
The litigation resulted in a 2004 settle-
ment with the DOE in which the depart-
ment didn't admitfault but did commit to
developing stronger alternatives for stu-
dents who don't succeed in conventional
schools; this contributed to the genesis
of the small-schools movement, and the
well-funded creation of the Office of Mul-
tiple Pathways to Graduation's transfer
schools, Young Adult Borough Centers
and enhanced GED programs. Notably
absent from the agreement was an ex-
plicit promise by the DOE to no longer
push students out of city schools.
The settlement agreement did, how-
ever, mandate the development of a de-
tailed planning interview-also called
the "exit interview" in DOE documents
(revealing what some believe to be the
DOE's true intentions)-and a process
by which parents, students, counselors
and other school personnel meet, dis-
cuss the student's rights and explore the
options to earn a high school diploma. In
a 2004 letter to the plaintiffs, DOE Gen-
eral Counsel Michael Best committed
the department to regular and complete
reporting of data on discharges and
planning interviews. Repeated requests
for these data for this article-both ver-
bal and written, informal and made un-
der the Freedom of Information Act-
were not met by the DOE. Attorneys
at AFC say they didn't get the reports
promised them, either. By all appear-
ances, the department's agreement to
track and explain what has happened to
discharged children since 2004 has not
been honored, with no apparent conse-
quence. The total number of discharged
students since then could approach or
exceed 50,000 individual students, based
on DOE statistics.
Current DOE statistics show that
17,021 students were discharged from
the cohort of students that should have
graduated in 2006. According to the
DOE, more than 13,000 left the city's
schools; the balance took various paths:
They entered the workforce, enlisted in
the military, enrolled in GED programs
or simply left. Looking at the DOE's
school-by-school data, it's clear that
many more students were discharged
from failing and struggling schools
than high-performing institutions. This
pattern might reflect schools' desire to
shore up graduation rates by eliminating
difficult, absent or disengaged students.
It also might be an example of ''voting
with your feet"-the wholesale rejection
of a bad school by students and their
parents. The likelihood is that both fac-
tors are in play: Failing schools need to
ramp up graduation rates to stay open,
and students are more inclined to leave
failing schools than strong, more engag-
ing learning environments.
Some students don't just leave
school-they leave the country entire-
ly. "Tracking down missing students
can be exceedingly difficult, particu-
larly in communities characterized by
household instability and high rates
of mobility," writes researcher Chris-
topher Swanson. "Finding these stu-
dents ... takes limited resources away
from other priorities, like improving
student learning." One veteran princi-
pal put it succinctly: "When a kid goes
back to China, do you think they leave
a forwarding address?"
The DOE is noncommittal on the
question of why the students are be-
ing discharged. lilian Garelick, DOE's
Director of Mandated Responsibilities,
who oversees attendance policy and
procedure, including dropout preven-
tion, told City Limits, "I don't want to
give you an explanation for what I don't
understand," and declined to elaborate
on the differing discharge rates. DOE
Senior Instructional Manager for As-
sessment and Accountability Jennifer
Bell-Ellwanger, whose portfolio includes
oversight of testing, graduation data and
coordination between the DOE and the
State Education Department on policy
issues, said that the greater number
of discharges from large, struggling
schools probably reflected public dissat-
isfaction: 'These schools weren't work-
ing for a large number of kids. I wouldn't
be surprised that these are places that
kids didn't want to go, and parents might
say, 'OK'" Small schools, Bell-Ellwanger
said, are the DOE's response to high dis-
charge numbers.
The question is whether it is the
school principals, rather than students
or parents, who are making the choice
of who stays and who goes-in other
words, whether pushouts are still hap-
pening. DOE spokesman Dina Paul
Parks (who has since left the DOE) told
City Limits that ruling out pushouts is
virtually impossible: 'That's like say-
ing, do kids faIl down in the playground?
We have policies, we have protocols,
and we have the expectations that the
policies will be implemented in the right
way." But some anecdotal reports from
principals, regional administrators and
students suggest that students contin-
ue to be pushed out, without planning
interviews, in a constant, quiet exo-
dus that is tacitly sanctioned or simply
overlooked by regional administrators
and higher-ups. One district administra-
tor who requested confidentiality said,
"long-term absences are being taken off
the register. Principals are being told to
drop them." A regional official said "ad-
ministrators in the field were not doing
discharge interviews," despite the DOE
commitment in the lawsuit settlement
to interview every student being dis-
charged. 'They're removing kids from
the books; it's happening very quietly,"
this veteran educator added. 'They just
don't exist anymore." School officials,
citing concern for their jobs, were un-
willing to speak for attribution.
Some students who left their origi-
nal high school say they weren't made
aware of their legal rights; they did not
understand their right to stay in school
if a guidance counselor or dean urged
them out, because those rights were
not made explicitly clear. When Wildcat
Academy student Jalissa Martin learned
in conversation that she had a legal right
to remain enrolled at her home high
school, she was shocked. "Nobody told
me that," she said. "Is that right? The
principal sent a letter to my house say-
ing he was gonna kick me out."
The DOE insists that planning inter-
.................................. .......................................................................................................................................
For the class of 2006, some high
schools showed very high numbers of
discharges compared to the graduating
class. Here are the schools with the
highest discharge rates among facilities
that the DOE hasn't publicly targeted
for shutdown:
So",ce: DOE
Bushwick Community High School (Brooklyn) 12 14
.............................................................. .................................................
Newcomers High School (Queens) 108 105
Gregorio Luperon High School (Manhattan) 38 35
........................................................................... ....................................
Far Rockaway High School (Queens) 107 96
...................................................................................... .........................
John F. Kennedy High School (Bronx) 362 315
............................................................................................ ...................
Christopher Columbus High School (Bronx) 351 287
Monroe Academy for Business & Law (Bronx) 53 41
Franklin D. Roosevelt High School (Brooklyn) 365 263
Louis D. Brandeis High School (Manhattan) 236 491
................................................... .........................................................
Humanities & Arts Magnet High School (Queens) 63 94
WINTER 2008 29
New York City 48.3%
Cleveland 41.8%
Tracking graduation rates can be tricky
business. One commonly used method
is to compare the number of diplomas
issued in a given year to the average
number of students in that graduating
class's eighth, ninth and 10th grade
years. It's a crude approach but it allows
comparisons among cities-showing
that New York's diploma graduation
rate in 2006 ranked in the 10 worst of
the 100 largest U.S. school districts.
Source: us. Department of Education
30 WINTER 2008
views are universal, and that pushouts
are not officially sanctioned-quietiy
or otherwise. "It's beyond policies or
protocols. There's accountability," says
JoEllen Lynch, chief executive direc-
tor for the DOE's Partnership Support
Organizations, which coordinates the
work of outside partners who assist city
schools. "If somebody has evidence,
they should bring it. Otherwise, it's just
talk." When asked about the concerns
of career educators for potential retri-
bution, Lynch responded, "If someone
has that suspicion, they should report
it. It's extraordinarily unfair to make
that blanket accusation."
Ernest Logan, the principals' union
head, also denies any coercion. "I don't
think people are being pressured one
way or another. What you want is for that
child to be successful," he says. "You're
accountable no matter where he goes.
Most of my members would rather have
a student that they can keep in their build-
ing who is successful." But Kim Sweet's
information differs. "We believe push outs
are still happening," she asserts. "We
have heard that discharge interviews are
not happening with regularity."
Students who are at greatest risk of be-
ing pushed out look and behave a lot like
students who drop out. In the main, these
are students of color, from underserved
or impoverished communities, with less
robust social and family supports than
their more successful peers. They are
younger than the legal dropout age of 17
and often have 10 or fewer credits-too
few to enroll at the administration's new
Young Adult Borough Centers. Concen-
trated in areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn
but essentially everywhere in New York
City, these are the students that offer,
and face, the biggest challenges. They
are also students in the most racially seg-
regated schools. In a few schools, dis-
charged students outnumber graduates.
Most city high schools show a steady, if
less marked, attrition.
Litigation continues on the pushout
issue; at Boys and Girls High School
in Brooklyn, hundreds of low-level
students were being warehoused in
the school's auditorium with limited
instruction and attenuated academic
programs. The abuse was so blatant
that Judge Weinstein ruled that no dis-
covery phase was needed to document
AFC's pushout charges.
If pushouts continue in the city's
schools, as anecdotal reports suggest,
they are-while deeply troubling-less
flagrant and less frequent than they
were in the past; now, the city discharg-
es tens of thousands of students, not
hundreds of thousands as before. The
concern today is that hard-to-educate
students-with special needs, with be-
havior and discipline issues, with over-
whelming social problems-are staying
in the system but being channeled into
alternative programs that don't track
outcomes. It's a different kind of fun-
nel, advocates say, but the toughest-to-
reach kids are still leaving school, and
no one knows or tracks what's happen-
ing to them. In other words, whatever
its positive impact, one effect of Klein's
creation of multiple pathways to gradua-
tion is that the statistical erasure of stu-
dents persists: Those who leave school
as discharges leave the rolls of their
cohort, and are no longer counted as
students-not graduates, not dropouts,
not still-enrolleds, just "not." It means
that the fate of the city's most at-risk
students threatens to become detached
from the system's overall success.
The Klein reforms raise the possibility
of another, different problem, says UFrs
Casey. He points again to the fact that the
new, small schools were permitted to bar
special education and English Language
Learner students for the school's first
two years. 'The consequence of that was,
when they got to their third or fourth
years, they set a pattern which many
of them never changed," Casey says.
'There's more of an exclusion dynamic
than a pushout dynamic."
VIII. Grade: Incomplete
Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used to
talk about blowing up the old Board of
Education headquarters at 110 livings-
ton Street in Brooklyn. Mayor Bloom-
berg was less hyperbolic, but more
successful. He took it over, renamed it,
moved it to his own backyard and in-
fused it with new blood. Few mourn the
creaky bureaucracy that was left behind.
But like the students they oversee, DOE
policymakers have limitations.
Within the department, a culture of
innovation forces a near-constant drum-
beat of adaptation to changes in cur-
riculum, structure and administration,
which necessarily pulls focus away from
instruction. "Nobody's accusing me of
moving too slowly," says Chancellor
Klein. "I don't think people understand
how hard it is to transition a system and
get entirely different outcomes." Some
believe the recent attrition of public-
school teachers is one consequence of
the succession of sweeping changes.
Others say the waves of reform have
made it impossible to gauge which ideas
work and which don't; no initiative has
been given enough time to prove itself.
Besides moving fast, the changes
have been top-down. Often, it seems
that innovations flow from Tweed to the
schools, with little opportunity for cre-
ative feedback at the planning and for-
mation stages. Increasing participation
by philanthropic and corporate funding
partners reinforces the impression that
outside influences are shaping public
education-that the schools are being
remade by private design, and not by
public consensus. '''The vision of what
public education is and might be has dis-
appeared," says Diane Ravitch, an edu-
cation historian and NYU professor who
once supported some Klein reforms but
is now a leading critic. "Now, what mat-
ters is what can be measured."
In school politics as in life, perception
is at least as important as reality; the best
of intentions can be trampled by flaws in
execution and communication. Recent
DOE public relations snafus-regard-
ing school report cards, dissonance be-
tween federal and state test scores, even
the early 2007 busing fiasco-might be-
tray some of the blindspots inherent in
the backgrounds of some of Tweed's top
policymakers. Lawyers and MBAs, not
career educators, occupy many of the
top positions on Klein's staff. Columbia
Law Professor James liebman person-
ally developed the system that gener-
ated the controversial citywide school
report cards; five lawyers and no teach-
ers form the recently-convened Teacher
Evaluation Unit, designed to weed out
bad teachers. Klein himself came to the
'" if


I •


Chancellor Joel Klein is one of several cur-
rent DOE leaders who hails from the private
sector. Photo: City Hall
department with a stellar reputation as
an astute, socially-conscious lawyer, not
as a teacher.
"I think it is certainly the case that
they don't really understand in their
bones what it takes to make a school
go and they don't really appreciate the
effects of constant change," says UFTs
Casey of the current DOE leadership.
'''These folks tend to be much more ide-
ological, so there's kind of an abstract,
dogmatic quality to their ideas. The no-
tion that market conceptions of educa-
tion are answers to every question is
perhaps the major failing of that kind of
ideological mindset." Others would say
that brash, even bruising strokes were
exactly what the city's inert educational
system needed.
Educating kids is nothing like making
widgets. With something concrete and
inanimate, it's easy to conclude whether
a strategy is working or not. In educa-
tion, the commodity is human, fluid and
complicated, vulnerable to influences
far beyond the classroom. As bold as
it is, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor
Klein's school reform model operates
in an educational environment shaped
by economics, race and national policy.
Schools are asked not just to teach but
to meet low-income students' myriad
social needs. No Child Left Behind, the
federal mandate that leashes funding to
"progress" defined by test scores, has
supporters and skeptics. And whether
or not test scores do more harm than
good, the question of whether students
are actually learning to think is much
harder to measure.
In any event, it's too early to know
whether the Bloomberg-Klein reforms
will effect lasting change. Interim re-
sults abound but real outcomes are still
years out. The cohort of five-year-olds
who started school this past September
will, with luck, graduate in 2019.
There can be no doubt, however, on
one key point: Under Klein et al., DOE
has placed the dropout crisis at the cen-
ter of its reform agenda and its eventual
legacy. "I am clearly accountable," said
Chancellor Klein. "If the graduation rate
goes down, if the city doesn't improve, I
am accountable."
he students at Wildcat and Sheeps-
head and New Utrecht don't real-
ize they're part of a rolling experiment
in which a city is trying to make its high
schools work. They're teenagers, look-
ing for their path in life. Every day, they
make the small decisions that might get
them to graduation, to that sunlit, cap-
and-gown moment when total strangers
offer congratulations on the sidewalk
and when overdressed mothers rou-
tinely collapse in happy sobs. Some of
those students will be the first in their
families to graduate; some will wonder
if they have the mettle to survive and
succeed in college.
For Anthony, whether he'll earn his
chance to walk the commencement
walk, gown trailing behind him, remains
uncertain. The choice he faces is a test,
for him and for the city. •
WINTER 2008 31