Learning Disabled

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Ten minutes before class starts, the hall outside the classroom is a whirlwind of energy. Hyperactive students buzz about, talk about other classmates and make plans for the weekend–all things typical teenagers do.

Nobody focuses on actually studying until teacher Greggory Mitchell instructs the students to get busy. A dozen or so file into a small, narrow classroom, stumbling over one another to squeeze around three circular tables. Mitchell says he wants to see a page of work in the next hour from each student, but that plan falters when he is forced to spend at least 10 minutes getting a few of them to stop misbehaving. “Nathan, you can’t work without a pen–don’t try and fool me,” he exclaims. “Steven, at least look like you are trying to study.” Eventually, he calms them down and even manages to devote a few minutes to helping students individually.

Mitchell’s effort to keep peace and order is standard for an overcrowded, chaotic city high school class–except that this isn’t high school. It’s a GED course. And all of these kids, all but one under 19 and many of them as young as 16, have dropped out of high school and are looking for certification to help make them employable, as soon as possible.

The class is smaller than usual today because many of their classmates are out taking the GED test itself. But these students cannot join them–because of their young age, they’re barred by law from taking the exam. Instead, they spend the next three hours studying grammar, spelling, writing, and math by taking practice tests from GED study books (the 1988 edition) and playing games like Jeopardy.

For the students at Discipleship Education Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, this classroom is a godsend. Earning a GED by passing the Test of General Educational Development, a national high school equivalency exam, proves to be the best option for high school dropouts continuing their education. In seeking out that route, many of the nearly 27,000 students who officially drop out of New York City high schools annually–the actual number of dropouts is most likely higher-flock to the city’s adult education centers.

But a number of teachers and administrators in the field of adult education say that the dropouts they’ve been seeing in the last year are younger than ever.

Discipleship often serves students into their sixties and seventies, and in years past, Discipleship Program Director Edith Gnanadass rarely saw more than a handful of 16- and 17-year-old students in the center’s eight-week GED preparation courses. But in the last year, the number of 16-year-olds in particular has hit record highs: 13 of 32 students in its spring 2001 class and another 10 of 36 in its fall class, compared to just 6 of 38 the previous winter and 6 of 36 in the fall of 2000. Scribbled on the 78-person waiting list–it’s always that long, says Gnanadass–are the names of twenty 16-year-olds (and one 15-year-old). In all, 40 are younger than 19.

Meanwhile, at the Flatbush Development Corporation’s GED program, the proportion of 16- and 17-year-old students has doubled in 18 months, from 20 percent to 40 percent. In a little more than a year, 17-year-olds became the majority of the students at the Sunset Park Adult and Family Education Center–and though it doesn’t accept them, the program now gets nearly as many 16-year-olds inquiring about class openings, says Education Director Jessica Peaslee. “Our programs for adults now have a very youthful feel,” she remarks.

For the past two years, 16- and 17-year-olds outnumbered all other students combined at the Linden Learning Center in East New York; over the last few months, an administrator there says, she’s been receiving calls asking about room for 15-year-olds. While always large, the number of 17-year-olds at Manhattan’s Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow is at an all-time high, comprising 35 to 38 students in a typical 50-person class, says Executive Director Sister Mary Franciscus.

The intense influx of young students is putting crushing pressures on these GED programs, and threatening to take the “adult” out of adult education. Particularly troublesome are some of the very problems that help make city high schools such challenging learning environments: a lack of discipline and the presence of a mass of troubled young people.

After a “disciplinary incident” in one GED course last October nearly cost Flatbush Development Corporation the P.S. 269 classroom it uses to conduct its courses, the program banned 16- and 17-year-olds. “The students didn’t want to participate,” says a GED coordinator at Flatbush, who asked to remain anonymous and refused to disclose details of the incident. “It’s difficult to have them in classes, because they are not mentally or socially mature enough to be in classes with adults.”

Flatbush isn’t the only program reacting to behavioral problems among students. Starting in late 2000, Sunset Park excluded 17-year-olds because they didn’t have the same poise or focus the adults did, making the classroom environment too juvenile and distracting, contends Peaslee. “The reality is that adult education programs should be geared toward adults with internal motivation to get their GED. At least now the tone of the class is more adult.”

Literacy Partners, which runs test prep programs around the city, bars students under 18 because it has found that “they tend to be a little more impatient, thinking they could get a GED in three weeks,” says Sheila Ryan, associate director for assessment and recruitment at the 28-year-old nonprofit. “Having kids around changes your focus away from the adults and creates disciplinary problems. It’s like high school.”

These students are flocking to GED courses in greater numbers than ever, GED teachers are convinced, because of the aggressive imposition of new graduation requirements in New York City high schools, including Regents exams. The educators have no problem with high standards and expectations. What they do struggle with is the staggering influx of younger and younger students, and their inability to meet those teenagers’ intense needs, which go far beyond education.

Gnanadass says she doesn’t feel she has any choice but to accept the new wave of 16- and 17-year-olds into her program. It has taken a significant toll. With only three classrooms, space is tight, and last year the growing generation gap forced Gnanadass to split a class in two: The teenagers were too advanced in their reading skills and were interfering in the educational process for the adults. “The younger students don’t want to be here and we don’t want them to be out of school,” she says. “We don’t want them, but what are we supposed to say to them? We don’t want them out on the streets.”

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For Stephanie Marquez, high school wasn’t worth the time–literally. After taking two years to get through the ninth grade at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, Marquez realized that she couldn’t make up the credits she had missed without staying a fifth or sixth year. But for someone eager to move on to college and begin training to become a paramedic, a GED provided her a way to avoid staying in high school until she was 20. Instead she can earn the equivalent of a diploma at 18-the same age at which she would have graduated had she never failed a class.

For Discipleship graduate Lisa Camarano, who dropped out of Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in 2000, staying in class would have been worthwhile, if only she had been in a very different kind of school. “High school wasn’t a good experience,” she says. “They didn’t even care about you. Even if you would go to class, you taught yourself. There was no control. The teacher would try to talk over us, but no one was listening.”

Joan Beckerman, a teacher at Brooklyn’s George W. Wingate High School, has three classes of more than 30 students each, overwhelmed and overcrowded. “It’s impossible to do any service for the students, such as giving feedback to them or writing comments on essays,” she says, noting that an afternoon peer-tutoring program for struggling Wingate students is being cut.

That reality is no surprise to Mitchell, a 15-year veteran of adult education, who says that most of his students complain that in high school they simply were bored or lacked focus, and their teachers could not offer any remedy because they were kept busy trying to manage–let alone instruct-oversized classes. “These kids are underrated,” he says. “The educational system doesn’t put great emphasis on inspiring its students.”

If keeping restless teens in school was already hard, it’s become particularly challenging with the advent this school year of new graduation standards statewide. In September, the state Education Department increased the minimum number of credits needed to graduate from 20.5 to 22. The state is also phasing out the traditional “local diploma” and requires the current crop of freshmen and all who follow to graduate with a Regents diploma–an honor once reserved for college-bound seniors. They will earn it only by passing five stringent exams during their senior year.

Discipleship registrar Florence Sirju says the changes have discouraged many younger students, especially freshmen, who either see the Regents as an impassable wall at the end of their high school careers or who fail too many courses early on to acquire sufficient credits.

By the time they arrive at a GED program, some students have exhausted all hope of graduating from high school. Franciscus notes that one in her current crop had such poor attendance and indifference toward high school that he took three years to get through freshman year before dropping out and coming to her program. “They’ve been running to us since September,” she says. Droves of students headed to the Sunset Park Adult and Family Education Center, too. Even though they were banned, “we still get [inquiries from] plenty of 16-year-olds,” says Peaslee, “and they all say they don’t have enough credits so far to graduate.” The staff administrator at Linden says she has seen students with excessive failures swamping the center since September; one recent 16-year-old student came with just two credits in two years of high school. “The guidance counselor told me the student didn’t have enough credits to walk a dog,” she says.

Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children, believes these new graduation requirements in overcrowded schools create a primary motivator for younger kids to leave school: “These students see the new standards, and they make the decision they aren’t going to get any assistance [to meet them], so they drop out.”

Students have good reason to be concerned. So far, Big Apple high school seniors have fared poorly on the tougher tests. Citywide passing rates on the Regents Exams for the class of 2001 are dismal: Just 56 percent of those tested passed the English Regents and a mere 59 percent passed the math Regents by the margin that will soon be required for graduation. About 17 percent were not tested at all. Though not required at the time, Regents diplomas were awarded to just 27 percent of the city’s class of 2000. The disappointing results placed New York City’s school district a dismal 39th among 50 major cities nationwide in graduation rates. As it stands, says Noreen Connell, executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel, only the best students are meeting the expectations set by Albany. For students to have confidence facing the tests, she adds, they will need more resources and attention: “Right now, we have a Darwinian situation, where kids are not given the services they need.”

It’s easy for counselors and administrators to tell which students aren’t the fittest, from a very young age. School staff look at a student’s scores from the eighth grade competency tests to predict his or her success in high school. “If you look at the reading and math scores, you can tell who is going to graduate,” says Carmen Nesbitt, a counselor at FDR High School who works with struggling students and routinely refers 16-year-olds to GED programs if they unsuccessfully repeat grades two and three times. “Many of the freshmen read and have math skills below the sixth grade level,” she adds. “You can’t have second grade math skills and expect to pass the science Regents.” Nesbitt says that while she tries to get students to build skills in high school before sending them out to a GED program, such an approach is not common practice among her colleagues. “They’ll just send them to a GED program,” she says. “The kids cause paperwork and follow-up, so the unspoken policy seems to be that if a student doesn’t have enough credits, the GED is suggested.”

In fact, that policy may be much more explicit. One attendance officer in Brooklyn, who asked not to be identified, says that he and his colleagues have received directives from school administrators to discharge students if they don’t have half their credits by the time they turn 17.

Many high school students who are chronically unable to graduate end up in large GED classes run by the Board of Ed itself. But counselors have incentives to send students to private programs instead: The state requires schools to keep their dropout rates at less than 5 percent. (Only about two-thirds of city high schools currently meet that standard.) In Board of Ed-sponsored GED programs, students still count as graduates if they pass the exam and as dropouts if they don’t. By contrast, students who go into community-based programs are official “discharges” from the New York City school system, not “dropouts.” The Board of Ed doesn’t follow up to see whether the student actually earns a GED or not, and the discharged students literally vanish from the city’s books. As a spokesperson for the Board’s Division for Assessment and Accountability explains the policy, “Students who are discharged from the school system no longer attend New York City public schools, [so] it is inappropriate to hold schools accountable for these students.”

There are a lot of them: In 2000, FDR discharged more than twice its number of dropouts–a trend consistent throughout the city’s high schools. “The officers discharge them out of school the moment the students show them a letter saying that they are going to the GED program,” says Nesbitt. “Nobody cares about them.”

At 16, Leticia Cedeno wanted nothing more than to get away from FDR, where she had struggled for two years with her attendance. When Cedeno asked last year about options at an alternative high school, her truant officer gave her Discipleship’s contact information. Cedeno says that though she never wanted to leave high school altogether, she took his advice anyway and enrolled at Discipleship last January. She now works at Discipleship as an outreach coordinator. Over the past few months, she has recognized a growing number of former classmates from FDR, including Marquez, in the center’s classrooms.

Camarano had a similar experience. Frustrated by the overcrowded, chaotic environment at Telecommunications High, she called the Board of Education last January, looking to transfer to another school. Someone in the office told her to go to Discipleship and take the GED. Other dropouts report a similar procedure: At their schools, they each received a list of privately run adult education programs and were told to study for the GED.

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Like snowflakes, no two adult education centers are alike. There are more than a hundred in the city, offering programs from remedial high school courses to GED prep emphasizing job placement. Each program has its own size and scope–from renowned operations like the Door, with its $5 million budget, to sessions held in church basements. Money comes in different combinations from all over: private sources, city contracts, some state and some federal grants. But the biggest funder of New York City’s adult education programs is the New York City Adult Literacy Initiative (NYCALI), a program funded through the federal Workforce Investment Act that provides literacy training through numerous organizations around the city. The initiative supplies $30 million to the Mayor’s Office of Adult Literacy and the state Education Department, which then distribute the funds to six providers: CUNY; the New York, Queens and Brooklyn public libraries; the city Department of Youth and Community Development; and the Board of Education. Some providers, like the Board of Ed, hold their own adult education programs, while others, including DYCD, fund programs through contracts with community-based organizations like Discipleship and Sunset Park. The Board of Ed still serves nearly 60 percent of the 50,000 students who seek literacy education each year. The DYCD-funded programs currently serve about 16 percent of the students, more than either CUNY or the public libraries.

Discipleship receives $60 from DYCD and NYCALI for each hour of instruction plus additional funding from the State Office of Child and Family Services. Stretching an annual budget of $200,000 over eight classes and more than 400 students each year, Discipleship needs to make every dollar count, says Gnanadass.

That leaves few resources to address teenagers and the distinct challenges they bring with them. “These students come in facing heavy-duty issues, such as low self-esteem, teen pregnancy, broken homes and no family structure to speak of,” Gnanadass notes. Unlike in high school, there is no counselor down the hall to comfort the kids when they get in trouble. “Many of these students need supportive counseling, which we just can’t provide,” she adds.

“We are not equipped to handle that kind of class,” agrees Sunset Park’s Peaslee. “You would need a full-scale youth program to handle their needs, and we didn’t have the support for that type of counseling.”

Gnanadass continually writes about the situation in her quarterly reports to Discipleship’s city and federal funders but has yet to find a solution. In the meantime, she is trying to secure more funds and is considering contacting the Board of Education about placing some of the kids in city-run programs.

For some GED programs, the pressures young students pose are even greater. These groups rely on performance-based education and job training contracts, which pay them only when students get and retain employment. The job training program at the 18-year-old Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow is funded through the city Department of Employment and receives money only once its graduates keep jobs for at least nine months. The organization provides GED prep on the faith that its graduates will ultimately secure a job.

Franciscus routinely turns away 16-year-olds because employers won’t hire them, but placing a class full of 17-year-olds who never graduated from high school is proving to be no breeze either, particularly in the current economy. While Franciscus normally places about half of her 100 graduates into jobs, just two people in her current crop have secured employment.

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To discourage students from dropping out of high school, New York has always possessed stringent GED eligibility requirements. Under normal circumstances, New Yorkers must be at least 19 years old, one year removed from school or a former member of an already-graduated class. (About one in five high school diplomas awarded in New York State is a GED.) In the past year, getting an equivalency diploma in New York has become even tougher: The GED testing service altered the exam’s format at the start of 2001, and students who passed some, but not all, of the exam’s five sections before 2002 are now required to retake the entire test sections.

Young New Yorkers determined to earn their GED traditionally had a place to take refuge–New Jersey. The Garden State has none of the age requirements New York does, so droves of New York youths–about 225 of them in 2000 alone–get around New York’s rules by testing across the Hudson River. Gnanadass herself sent around twenty-five 16-year-olds over the state border last year.

But that route, too, is now a dead end: This past July, New Jersey banned out-of-state GED test-takers. Vermont officials did much the same in 1997, requiring applicants to provide in-state addresses, after test-takers seeking more flexible terms–including lower age limits–overwhelmed the Green Mountain State. (New Jersey education officials refused to explain why they decided to bar out-of-staters.) Both Cedeno and Camarano took and passed the GED just before New Jersey imposed its ban.

While 16- to 18-year-olds wait and wait to take the test, they take up precious classroom slots, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis at Discipleship–where students continue, on and off, until they pass the tests. There are therefore fewer openings in the program for new students of any age.

Intelligent, taciturn Crystal Teesdale, a 16-year-old who dropped out of Wingate last June, dreams of becoming a computer technician. She also has fears of ending up like many of her family members who never finished high school. She herself didn’t like being a number in the system. She says she knows a GED is the way to avoid going down the well-traveled road of her family, and with a 268 out of 400 on her practice test–well above the 225 needed to pass–Teesdale is more than ready take the GED exam. But the rules force her to wait until June.

While her apathy forced Teesdale out of high school, her determination to succeed in a more supportive environment is getting her through Discipleship. “I have to wait because of the age limit,” she says. “But I’m still in the program. I can’t stop, because now I have to take care of myself and further my education. I must get that GED.”