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Getting Students Back on Track

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June 21, 2011 08:32 pm

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There is one phrase that is among the most common to hear in a federal education policy conversation: the nation’s lowest-performing schools. In fact, I think I probably say it at least twice a day. There’s another phrase, though, that’s equally important yet far less common to hear: the nation’s most at-risk students.

Since the inception of No Child Left Behind, federal education has focused primarily on improving underperforming schools as its vehicle to boost the outcomes of struggling students. The most recent iteration of the federal School Improvement Grant program has only cemented this emphasis. Unfortunately, the school-centered focus has emerged without a parallel student-centered focus on those who are most at risk of dropping out of high school.

To be sure, both strategies are necessary—it’s important to improve struggling schools so as to prevent students from falling off track to graduation in the first place, but a student can fall off track at any high school, whether it is considered to be one of the nation’s worst or not.

In New York City, this point is not lost. As part of its nearly decade-long effort to transform its school system, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) has balanced a dual emphasis on both its lowest performing schools and its most at risk students, or those who are off track to graduate from high school with their peers.

NYCDOE implemented its Multiple Pathways to Graduation initiative in 2005 to address its 138,000 off-track students, defined as those who are over-age and undercredited for their grade as well as those who have already dropped out. Recognizing that these students were not all the same, NYCDOE used data to identify different segments of the off track population and subsequently created school models and programs to address each of the segments’ particular needs. NYCDOE has received much attention for this work both because of its scope and its early indications of success.

Last week, the Alliance released “Helping Students Get Back on Track: What Federal Policymakers Can Learn from New York City’s Multiple Pathways to Graduation Initiative”, a brief discussing how federal policy can better support students who are off track to graduation and describing the NYCDOE experience in order to highlight lessons that could inform policymakers as they develop an approach to address these students.

I have had the good fortune to visit two of NYCDOE’s Multiple Pathways sites—West Brooklyn Community High School and the Young Adult Borough Center at John Adams High School—and walked away profoundly impressed. Most strikingly, these sites are by design quite different from each other and serve very distinct student populations. West Brooklyn is a transfer school, one of three models that were implemented under the Multiple Pathways initiative (the Alliance brief includes an appendix that describes all three models in depth). It was created to serve younger students who have spent at least a year in their original high school but fell off track and now have a long way to go to complete graduation requirements. Conversely, like all Young Adult Borough Centers, the one at John Adams High School was created to serve older students who fell off track to graduation later in high school and therefore are closer to completing graduation requirements.

Despite these design differences, the two sites share what I think of as their secret weapon in getting students back on track: a strong partnership with outstanding community based organizations. West Brooklyn partners with Good Shepherd Services, a youth development agency, and the Young Adult Borough Center at John Adams has paired with Queens Community House a well-established social services provider. (The Alliance’s brief describes in more detail the philosophy and logistics behind these types of partnerships.) As a visitor to these sites, I was struck by how well the community based organizations are integrated into the daily activities of the sites. The organization’s site-based staff works in tandem with school staff to provide three essential functions:

  1. Provide both academic and non-academic support to students, thus removing the barriers that caused students to fall off track in the first place.
  2. Create more meaningful relationships between adults and students. In fact, the sites implement a “primary person” model where every student has a personal relationship with at least one adult at the site. I still chuckle thinking about one student who described how he can’t skip school now because if he were to ever not show up in the morning he would have someone “blowing up” his phone until he came in.
  3. Engage students by creating relevance through connections to what lies beyond high school. They do so by offering career skills workshops, substantive internships, and college and career exploration opportunities.

A last point that struck me during my visit was that both sites provide rigorous academics that are aligned to New York State standards while still providing an accelerated program that can catch students up and bring them back on track. It is the way that the schools are organized to deliver the academics and the support that is provided to students that makes the difference and allows students to get back on track.

Of course, New York City is not the only school system taking a serious look at its off track students and implementing a systemic approach to address them. Be sure to let us know in the comments what other places you know that are doing similar work because the teachers, students, and communities deserve to be recognized for their hard work and admirable efforts!

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.