If prevention is the best medicine, the city’s public high schools have long been terrible doctors. With a graduation rate hovering just above 50 percent and a recent history of pressuring low-performing students to leave school, the city Department of Education has built a reputation as being a big part of the problem.
But that, say observers, may be starting to change. “There’s been a refreshing transparency, [admitting] that these kids are here and they’re not getting served,” says Jim Marley, director of Pius XII Youth and Family Services in the Bronx.
The biggest change of all? Several new Department of Education initiatives intended to bring low-performing students and dropouts back into the fold. Two–Young Adult Borough Centers and Diploma Plus high schools–were rolled out last year, while the third, Learning to Work, is slated to start this fall.
A Young Adult Borough Center gave Christopher Valentine a second chance. A year and half behind in his course credits, the 18-year-old entered a YABC run by Good Shepherd Services in Brooklyn at the behest of his guidance counselor last fall; he expects to graduate in 2006. “She was saying, ‘This is your last chance,’” says Valentine, who fell behind after cutting classes. “If you go to school, it’s easy to pass. I was just going to do it later.”
The initiatives are winning high marks from youth advocates and city educators alike. With a focus on small campuses–130 to 400 students each–and close partnerships with community-based youth organizations, the schools offer tight-knit, intensive supports for their students.
The downside: They barely even begin to serve the number of people who’ve left the education system but are still young enough to attend Department of Education programs–an estimated 47,000 in all. The new initiatives will serve just 6,000–and many of those will come straight from school, not the street. “What we have is an attempt to grapple with this problem,” says Marley. “But it’s by no means done.”
- Diploma Plus High Schools
Modeled after efforts in Boston, the city’s four Diploma Plus high schools get most of their 550 students the hard way: recruiting. School administrators mail letters and cold-call students who have dropped out, or who have skipped school so regularly they might as well have. Principals pride themselves on bringing back students who might never have returned. The schools accept 15- and 16-year-olds who have fallen behind in their credits and offer a full day of classes, including courses that count for college credit.
Young Adult Borough Centers
Evening schools are nothing new for troubled youth, but the city’s nine Young Adult Borough Centers bring an important innovation: comprehensive job and higher education counseling for students between ages 17 and 19. One useful distinction: the YABCs are programs, not schools in and of themselves. Though classes are taken at the YABC, diplomas are awarded through the students’ original schools.
Learning to Work
Finding a job is increasingly as much a matter of obtaining training and skills as it is about earning a diploma, and that’s perhaps even truer for students entering adulthood. The Learning to Work program, slated to begin this fall, is trying to take that seriously. Intended for students between the ages of 17 and 21, the program will reach out to dropouts and students who are old enough to be upperclassmen but only have enough credits to be freshmen or sophomores. Curricula are still being developed, and will blend work readiness and job skills with courses leading to a diploma or GED. –TM