To Cut Failure Rate, New York City Schools Push Out Students
Ohanian comment: It's good to see that the reporters use the right word: Push-out. As Steve Orel of the World of Opportunity (The WOO) in Birmingham, Alabama, has been telling us for years: These young people aren't dropping out; they are being pushed out.
Growing numbers of students — most of them struggling academically — are being pushed out of New York City's school system and classified under bureaucratic categories that hide their failure to graduate.
Officially the city's dropout rate hovers around 20 percent. But critics say that if the students who are pushed out were included, that number could be 25 to 30 percent.
The city data make it impossible to determine just how many students are being pushed out, where they are going and what becomes of them. But experts who have examined the statistics and administrators of high school equivalency programs say that the number of "pushouts" seems to be growing, with students shunted out at ever-younger ages.
Those students represent the unintended consequence of the effort to hold schools accountable for raising standards: As students are being spurred to new levels of academic achievement and required to pass stringent Regents exams to get their high school diplomas, many schools are trying to get rid of those who may tarnish the schools' statistics by failing to graduate on time. Even though state law gives students the right to stay in high school until they are 21, many students are being counseled, or even forced, to leave long before then.
And yesterday, after declining to comment on the issue for two months, Chancellor Joel I. Klein conceded the point. "The problem of what's happening to the students is a tragedy," he said, "It's not just a few instances, it's a real issue.
"The goal is for students to graduate in four years, but we've got to stop giving the signal that we're giving up on students who don't do that. We need more programs for them, at the same time as we keep up our high expectations for the system."
Shortly after Mr. Klein's interview, the mayor's office, too, expressed its sense of urgency about addressing the pushout problem.
"For any child that's being pushed out, we need to correct that problem, we need to fix it as soon as possible," Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott said. "From the mayor's office on down, we have to make sure that everyone knows it's not acceptable to tell children to leave a school because they've fallen behind. We need schools to offer as many program options as possible. We're very serious about this."
At best, the pushouts attend alternative programs leading to a General Educational Development diploma, which is far less valuable in the job market and far less likely to lead to college. But G.E.D. teachers say most of the young pushouts never earn that certificate.
"It's not a new problem, it's just worse," said Elisa Hyman, a lawyer with Advocates for Children, an advocacy group that helps students who have been pushed out gain reinstatement. "We've had guidance counselors calling on their cellphones from bathrooms saying they've been told to get rid of kids."
According to a report by Ms. Hyman's group and the city's public advocate, using statistics reported to the city by each high school, the New York City schools discharged more than 55,000 high school students during the 2000-1 school year — a number far higher than that year's graduating class of fewer than 34,000.
Of course, not all of those discharged are pushed out of the system; many move out of the city, transfer to private or parochial schools, or drop out of their own accord. But according to an Education Department breakdown obtained by The New York Times, 4 out of 10 were categorized as "transferred to another educational setting," the category that can hide the pushouts.
Many in that group sought transfers to a different high school, public or private, in the city. But many others were pushed into alternative programs at 16, 17 or 18 because they cut classes or failed to accumulate the number of credits expected for their age.
"There are too many being pushed out and lost," said Betsy Gotbaum, the city's public advocate. "We need to know where they are and what's happening to them."
In many ways, Cynthia Boachie is typical of the pushouts. She was 17 when a counselor told her she could no longer attend De Witt Clinton High School. She had been in one too many fights, and missed one too many classes.
Still, it came as a surprise.
"I knew I wasn't the best, but I thought I was doing O.K.," she said. "They just, you know, didn't care. They said they couldn't help me."
Higher Goals for Schools
New York's pushouts are just now coming to public attention, in part because of the report by the public advocate and Ms. Hyman's group, which has filed suit against the Education Department, accusing Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn of dumping hundreds of students in the last three years.
Educators nationwide are waking up to the problem of pushouts. With the advent of high-stakes testing in dozens of states, and the fact that under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools with low graduation rates risk being deemed failing schools, schools are facing real temptations to make their results look good by getting rid of low performers.
Just this month, Miami school officials began investigating a principal who apparently tried to weed out low-performing students to bolster the school's test scores. And the Houston schools are mired in controversy after a state audit found that at some schools, more than half those discharged should have been classified as dropouts.
In New York, Mr. Klein said, the pushout problem was one he inherited, and became aware of only late last year. Since then, he said, he has been investigating the issue, and making plans for a new accountability system that will, among other things, keep better track of what happens to students who leave the system.
Mr. Klein said he was not aware that the discharge issue had been brought to the department's notice in prior years.
But two years ago, just before he left his post as chief of assessment and accountability, Robert Tobias recommended an audit after noticing a "heavy use of the discharge codes" under which students are no longer accounted for in a school's graduation rate.
The discharge codes can be misused, he said, by classifying students who drop out of the system as having left the city. "It would be possible to inflate graduation rates and reduce your dropout rate," said Mr. Tobias, who is now an education professor at New York University.
While the Department of Education classifies each student who leaves school under one of dozens of codes, it does not release — or apparently even compile — information on how many students leave under which circumstances and what becomes of them. Furthermore, students leaving in similar circumstances may be classified differently.
The accuracy of accounting for children who leave the system and the murkiness of the discharge codes, Mr. Tobias said, "really need some attention if you are going to tighten up on graduating and dropout rates."
Whatever the flaws of the Education Department data, G.E.D. providers citywide say it is clear that discharged high school students are flooding into adult-education programs.
Azi Ellowitch has been teaching for more than a decade in the equivalency program at the Lehman College Adult Learning Center, which traditionally catered to low-income adults and immigrants.
Youths Rush to Sign Up
A few years ago, she began noticing a change in who was signing up.
"They started coming in for orientation and they were 18 or 19," she said. "We began to have a completely different conversation."
By last year, Lehman was so inundated with younger students that it created a supervised study program for those of high school age.
But most of the young discharged students get no further than making inquiries or registering for a program. In fact, Ms. Ellowitch said, three times as many high school-age students sign up as ever enroll in the program. And of those who do enroll, about half are two or three years away from being able to pass, Ms. Ellowitch said.
"These are kids who have gone back and forth, and have fallen behind," Ms. Ellowitch said. "Schools don't seem to know what to do with that. Those kids are the least appropriate for the G.E.D. program. If they need brushing up, we can certainly help them. But that's not what most of these kids need. They need years of basic learning."
Cynthia Boachie has been one of Ms. Ellowitch's hardest-working students since she started the program in January, and she says she believes she will get her certificate soon. Ms. Ellowitch, however, said Ms. Boachie would need at least another year or two of preparation. And most young students, she said, do not remain in the program.
To be sure, a few pushouts have strong enough academic skills to get a quick G.E.D. — but even they often have regrets about not getting a regular diploma.
Andres Paez, 18, was advised to move on after four years at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, where, because of frequent absences, he had accumulated only enough credits to be considered a sophomore.
"They said you're not making it, and no matter how hard you work, you're not going to make it, so there's no point in your trying anymore," Mr. Paez said.
Mr. Paez moved from the huge high school building to the equivalency class in the red trailer out back — a program open only to those with relatively good math and reading skills. Those who get an equivalency diploma in such programs are counted as graduates of the school, just like those who get Regents diplomas.
Mr. Paez did well there. He started the class in February and got his certificate in April. Still, he said, if anyone had told him that he could have stayed in school longer and gotten a Regents diploma, he probably would have done so.
"I didn't know you could stay in school until you were 21," said Mr. Paez, who is looking for a job. "When they told me I had to try harder, I did, and my last term I was doing much better about not cutting. It was awkward when they said there was no point in trying anymore. I think they just wanted me out of the school."
Schools Save Face
For high school principals in large schools with discipline problems, weeding out those who cut class can be a step toward regaining order. Often, they say, it may be best to find an alternative for students who are skipping school and failing classes, rather than letting them linger in high school.
"These are kids who have had a negative experience in high school, kids who've had trouble sitting still for class," said Marlene Kawalick, Mr. Paez's G.E.D. teacher. "When they come into G.E.D., I tell them, this is your chance to put that behind you, to do something productive and move on with your life."
Good or bad, Mr. Paez now counts as a success in the high school's statistics. But weaker students, discharged to community-based equivalency programs, are excluded from the school's numbers, and not counted against them.
Given the pressure on schools to show good results, it is understandable that principals would have little interest in holding on to low-performing students.
"Principals are told these kids who aren't doing well are going to make your school look terrible," said Don Freeman, who retired as principal at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School last year. "Sending them into a G.E.D. program is not a negative, it's not a dropout, it won't count against you. So more and more of the vulnerable unsophisticated kids are counseled out to G.E.D. programs."
The pressure for high on-time graduation rates has made life especially difficult for educators committed to working with struggling students, people like Vincent Brevetti, the founding principal of the six-year old Humanities Preparatory Academy, where more than half the students are at least a year behind their expected grade.
Mr. Brevetti, who has always taken transfer students and found that the school has a high success rate with students who spend five years in high school, said his former superintendent had explicitly warned him that he should stop taking transfers and concentrate instead on ninth graders who would graduate on time.
"He told me, `The days of give me your tired, give me your poor are over,' " Mr. Brevetti said.
Most students seem to be unaware that they have the right to stay in school until 21. In interviews with dozens of discharged students from all over the city, only one student had heard that she had a legal right to attend school until 21 — and that was because she overheard her attendance officer trying unsuccessfully to argue the point with the guidance counselor who said she had to leave the school.
Over the last two years, the students being pushed out have gotten younger.
Community-based adult-education programs say they are now seeing students as young as 16. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the program at Lutheran Family Services receives more than 250 calls a year from high-school-age students, although such students are not accepted.
"The kids think the G.E.D. is going to be an easy fix," said Martha Kamber, who has run the program for nearly 15 years. "That's what their counselors tell them. I don't know how you can tell that a 16-year-old isn't going to graduate, but that's what they tell them."
Two years ago, students under 18 made up about 20 percent of the 200 students at the Discipleship Outreach Ministries G.E.D. program in Brooklyn. Today, that number is closer to 40 percent, said Edith Gnanadass, the director of the program.
The pushout phenomenon, education experts say, exploits a quirk in the city's statistical reporting: under the city's system of counting, dropouts count against a school's results but most discharges do not.
Their exclusion makes the city's statistics look far more positive.
According to the city's count, in the class that started ninth grade in the fall of 1998, there were 63,460 students, of whom 51 percent graduated four years later, 20 percent dropped out and 29 percent were still enrolled.
Those are hardly impressive figures, but they would be substantially worse if they included discharged students, and counted G.E.D. graduates separately from those who get a regular high school diploma.
By those lights, slightly less than 40 percent of the class of 2002 graduated, 19 percent were discharged, 16 percent dropped out, 2 percent got a G.E.D., and 23 percent were still enrolled and would need more time to graduate.
A Hole in Record-Keeping
In many ways, discharges are the black hole of the system's record-keeping. School administrators are required to explain each student's departure by assigning one of more than three dozen codes, indicating, for example, that the student moved out of the city, enrolled in a vocational program, got a full-time job, moved into a high school equivalency program or was expelled after a long-term suspension.
But the codes overlap, and do not paint a clear picture of what actually becomes of the students. For example, at William H. Taft High School in the Bronx, 178 students were discharged with a Code 89 two years ago, meaning that they were moving to an alternative high school. According to a breakdown that city education officials compiled in response to a request by the public advocate, 41 of those Code 89 students went into "auxiliary services" programs, which generally lead only to a G.E.D. But in the same breakdown, an additional 40 students sent to the very same programs were discharged under a different category, Code 31.
The city does not compile tallies of how many students are discharged each year under which codes, nor does it provide information on how many of those discharged are disabled or immigrants who speak little English.
Instead, it gathers a hodgepodge of information, using a number of different methodologies, none of which yield comparable results. And while the city used to compile and release the reasons for all dropouts and discharges, it no longer does so.
"I knew it was confusing, but I have been learning the details just in the last few weeks," Mr. Klein said.
"The information should be out there, and it should be clear," he said. "You're never going to change the system unless you're brutally candid."
On June 30, Ms. Gotbaum wrote to Mr. Klein to express "strong concern" over the high school discharge tracking system, recounting her office's request last September for a breakdown of high school discharges, which was forthcoming only after a nine-month delay — and then yielded what she said was inadequate information.
At some schools, city statistics show, more students are discharged each year than graduate or drop out. At Taft, 1,018 students were discharged in 2000-1 — fully 40 percent of its peak enrollment of 2,493. That tally included the 369 dropouts. Among the students who started ninth grade at Taft in 1997, 253 had been discharged four years later, while 157 had dropped out and only 123 graduated.
The numbers are not much better at several of New York's other large high schools, including Thomas Jefferson in Brooklyn and Seward Park in Manhattan.
Many more students could graduate, said Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children, if they were encouraged to stay and complete the extra work it would take them to graduate, whatever the time frame.
"Instead of calling kids and saying, `You're not going to make it so you should leave,' " she said, "it would be a completely different conversation if you called them in and said, `You won't be able to graduate in four years, but you have seven years, so let's talk about a long-term plan that will give you the enrichment and services you need to help you get to graduation.' "
Tamar Lewin & Jennifer Medina
New York Times
To Cut Failure Rate, Schools Shed Students