Thousands of city students can’t get out of middle school grades, leaving them overage, demoralized, and at great risk of dropping out — and the DOE isn’t doing much of anything for them, according to a report released this week by Advocates for Children of New York on behalf of the citywide Out of School Youth Coalition. (Disclosure: Before starting GothamSchools, I worked at Insideschools.org, which is a project of Advocates for Children.)
“Stuck in the Middle: The Problem of Overage Middle School Students in New York City” chronicles the DOE’s decades-long track record of inadequately meeting the needs of overage students; describes the various reasons that students become overage, including academic failure, interruptions in schooling, and illegal discharge; and highlights schools where innovative initiatives appear to be helping overage middle schoolers make it to high school.
The issue of overage students is not new, and under the promotion requirements set by Chancellor Klein, the number of students held over in the gateway grades — 3, 5, 7, and, as of next year, 8 — has actually dropped because so many students are required to attend summer school. Still, the phenomenon is pervasive, the report argues. Because the DOE does not make available information about the number of overage students, the report relies on anecdotal data and a survey of nine Bronx middle schools, which found that 26 percent of students were overage for their grades.
The DOE has at times offered special programs for kids who can’t get out of middle school, such as the “8 plus” program that consolidated overage 8th graders and offered accelerated remediation and the prospect of mid-year promotion. However, that program was eliminated before the last school year, without anything to replace it. More recently, the DOE has focused on creating high-quality GED programs and transfer high schools, but they require students to be 17 and, in the case of the transfer schools, have successfully completed several high school credits, so those programs remain closed to overage middle schoolers. Earlier this year, when the DOE released its 8th grade promotion policy, it did address the issue of overage students, providing special dispensation for 8th graders who had previously been held over twice to be promoted if they attend summer school and make a good faith effort there, even if they ultimately do not pass the state tests or all of their courses. But as the report points out, research indicates that being retained just once seriously damages a student’s chances of completing school.
The Out of School Youth Coalition recommends that the DOE adopt the reform measures recommended last year by the City Council’s Middle School Task Force and the Coalition for Educational Justice, including enhancing professional development for middle school teachers, improving mental health services in middle schools, and providing Regents-level classes for all middle schools. Mayor Bloomberg announced last fall that all middle schools will offer Regents-level courses within two years, but the DOE hasn’t committed to most of the broader, non-academic goals the City Council and CEJ set forth. In addition, the coalition recommends that the DOE allow flexible scheduling for overage students who want to work or to move to high school mid-year; create a database of successful interventions that schools in New York can draw upon; improve the procedures for placing students coming from situations of instability; make data on overage students publicly available; identify and target students at risk of becoming overage; and clarify criteria for appealing retention decisions.
The report’s describes a handful of schools that have been successful in working with their overage populations. At MS 80 in the Bronx, for example, a mental health clinic serves students and their families, and overage students can get paid for interning in the school’s office. At PS/IS 89, high-performing and overage students together enroll in a “Seven Plus” program that allows them to complete 7th and 8th grade in one calendar year, including during summer session at a local high school. I’ve also visited a middle school that continued to offer informal “8 plus” programs to overage students even after the DOE eliminated the citywide program. In these small classes, teachers could target the unique needs of overage middle schoolers and provide them with age-appropriate work and enrichment experiences. The DOE could contribute mightily toward reducing the dropout rate by studying ways that middle schools help their oldest students and then supporting the proliferation of those practices — why instead does it pretend the problem of overage middle school students doesn’t even exist?