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A teacher leans over to help students seated at desks.

Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat

One-fourth of city’s middle school students are older than their classmates, report says

By the time Daniel stopped showing up at his Brooklyn middle school last year, he was 17 and still had not completed the eighth grade.

Nearly a quarter of the city’s middle-school students — or more than 50,000 pupils — are at least one year older than their classmates, in most cases because they have been held back from moving to the next grade before, according to a new report by Advocates for Children of New York, which provides free legal and advocacy services for families. Last school year, more than 8,600 middle-school students were, like Daniel, three or more years older than most of their classmates.

For Daniel, a Jamaican immigrant who entered the city school system in third grade and was eventually diagnosed with a learning disability, his troubles began in elementary school, where he was held back multiple times. Once he reached middle school, he was retained again.

As Daniel’s teenage peers moved on to high school without him, his frustration and embarrassment grew — he couldn’t bear walking to school in a middle-school uniform — and he acted out. He tangled with the law and stopped going to school, prompting children’s-services officials to contact his mother.

Meanwhile, his mother was trying to enroll Daniel in schools for older students, but he either didn’t meet their admissions criteria or wasn’t accepted. As another school year started last week, Daniel left home and hasn’t returned since, said his mother, Ingrid Lamont.

“I feel like I’m losing my son,” she said, “and there’s nothing I can do.”

For a new schools chancellor who has made middle schools a priority, these older middle-school students present a daunting test.

Like Daniel, they are more likely than other students to have a disability, to be black or Hispanic, and to attend a school in a low-income area, according to the report, which analyzed demographic data from the 2011-12 school year. The path to graduation for these students can look bleak: They have lower attendance rates than their peers and are two to 11 times more likely to drop out of school, according to statistics cited in the report.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has already taken steps that could lead fewer middle-school students to fall behind. Most notably, she ended the requirement that students pass certain tests to move to the next grade — a decade-old policy meant to hold students to high standards, but which advocates say sent many on a downward spiral.

The education department is also expanding a program this year that lets older eighth-grade students learn alongside peers their age and potentially be promoted to high school mid-year, and another designed for overage middle-school students caught up in the criminal-justice system.

But even with the expansions, programs created specifically for older middle-school students who are behind their peers can only serve about 450 students, according to the report, titled, “Sixteen Going on Seventh Grade.” That could leave thousands of additional overage students stranded in middle school and in danger of dropping out, said Ashley Grant, an Advocates for Children staff attorney and lead author of the report.

“While we’re excited about the direction the city is moving,” Grant said, “it’s not enough.”

Students can get stuck in middle school for many reasons, advocates and educators say.

They may have disabilities, behavior problems that have led to frequent suspensions, or unstable home lives. (In 2011, roughly a quarter of the students who were older than their classmates and had been held back more than once were recently homeless, a city official said at the time.)

The requirement under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that students pass state exams or a test at the end of summer school in order to move to the next grade stymied many students, according to the report. Some students passed one of the state tests but not the other, or left town for the summer and missed those exams, and so were held back.

Especially if they are retained more than once, some middle-school students dread taking classes alongside visibly younger peers and start to skip school, advocates say. In many cases, those students face the same coursework and tests that stumped them before, but with little extra support.

“Students see this hurdle and they feel with every fiber in their body that they can’t make it over,” said James Waslawski, principal of M.S. 350, New Directions Secondary School, a Bronx school that opened last year and will eventually enroll overage students in grades six through 12.

The report calls for several changes that could reduce the number of middle-school students who fall behind, and help those who already have.

One idea is to allow students to move to the next grade as soon as they meet the promotion requirements, even if they do so during the school year. (Waslawski said the education department promised he would be able to promote students mid-year, but as of now he cannot.)

Another recommendation is to establish more programs to catch up overage sixth and seventh-grade students. Last year, about 2,900 students were at least three years older than their seventh-grade classmates, and yet the city has only 200 seats in programs designed for such students, according to the report.

In response to the report, an education department spokesman noted the expansions of the programs for overage middle-school students, the promotion-policy change, and new after-school programs.

“Supporting middle school students is at the heart of the Chancellor’s priorities,” said the spokesman, Harry Hartfield.

Correction: A previous version of this article and headline said that about one-fourth of middle-school students have been held back before. In fact, while 23 percent of middle-school students are at least one year older than their peers, and advocates believe most of those students have been retained before, some portion of those students are overage because they enrolled late or transferred from districts with different age requirements. The city Department of Education has not provided data about what share of overage middle-school students have previously been held back.