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MELS students marched last December to celebrate their college acceptances.

MELS students marched last December to celebrate their college acceptances.

Alex Federov / NYC Outward Bound Schools

How one diverse New York City high school got 100 percent of its students to graduation

As graduation approached this year, Principal Damon McCord had to do something he didn’t expect: limit the number of guests that students in his school’s first graduating class were allowed to invite.

That’s because every single senior at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School graduated this year, threatening to overflow the school’s auditorium with their family members.

The school’s graduation rate is almost without precedent: It is one of just two “unscreened” schools over the past decade to graduate its entire senior class without an admissions process that takes students’ academic records into account.

Launched six years ago, the Forest Hills, Queens school also stands out as a relatively diverse island within one of the most segregated school systems in the country. The school, which serves middle and high school students, is 39 percent Hispanic, 18 percent black, 17 percent Asian and 20 percent white. Sixty-two percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 25 percent have special needs. Still, 98 percent of its graduating class was accepted to college.

The school is part of the city’s network of NYC Outward Bound schools, and McCord said the school’s unusual focus on hands-on learning paired with dedicated advisors who track student progress have contributed to its success.

McCord, who runs the school along with co-principal Pat Finley, spoke with Chalkbeat about how the pair managed to graduate all of the school’s 115 seniors. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the secret to getting all of your students to graduation?

As a New York City Outward Bound school [there are 11 citywide], there’s an intense amount of focus on school culture, character and getting students to and through college. And so when you combine that kind of emphasis on educating the whole child, making sure that we’re not screening kids out or tracking kids or anything like that, and making sure that every kid has access to a high-quality education … it increases the amount of student engagement in their own education.

And so, as a result, we have over 90 percent attendance in our high school. For a school that doesn’t screen their students to have a four-year June graduation rate of 100 percent just really speaks to kids feeling bought into school.

What are the sorts of experiences that students are having that you think are drawing them into school?

One of the biggest pieces is “crew.” Crew is like an advisory program — it’s a group of no more than 16 students that meet every morning first period with their crew advisor. Every morning, the crew advisor is the first point of contact for a student, so [they] right away know if a student is having a good day or a bad day or might need some support throughout the day.

That crew advisor also works with the student to focus on their academic goals, to plan their student-led conferences, which is what we do instead of parent-teacher conferences. Students present their learning to their parents and their crew advisor, so there’s just an incredible amount of responsibility that the students take on to kind of talk through what they’ve been learning.

Are there specific things you can point to that really excite students and make them want to be there?

I think having a curriculum that focuses on relevance for teenagers and getting them to realize that they can make an impact on their world and that their choices do matter – we don’t take a cynical view of teenagers as not caring about things. So when we get students involved with different social activists in eighth grade and they write activist profiles, when they go out on the street and interview people in immigrant-rich communities about the immigrant experience and then write a book about that – a lot of these things resonate with kids. They realize it’s not just words on a page I’m looking at, I can have an impact on the experience that an immigrant family has if that’s what I want to pursue in college. I can make healthier choices about the food I eat that will impact my global environment.

What obstacles do your students face on the way to graduation?

I think the obstacles for a lot of our students is, I think, in a very test-focused society like we are right now, this is the kind of education people are looking for, especially colleges. A lot of those old systems have not necessarily changed yet. We offer some AP courses, but do we offer 20 different AP courses? No. Because an AP course is more about breadth rather than depth in a particular topic. It’s really hard to reconcile some of those curricular beliefs with some of the things our kids need for college.

Were there any close calls this year with students who might not graduate?

I think we had a couple kids that were really close, and because of the team of adults that were working with kids and making sure they had what they needed, we were able to get everybody over the finish line. It’s something we may never do again.

Your student body is relatively diverse, but it’s also slightly whiter and less economically disadvantaged than the city’s student population overall.

When we first opened the school, Pat and I were really committed to the idea that we were a District 28 middle school and that we would recruit and have a student body that was reflective of the district. We watch our numbers really closely in terms of our socioeconomic breakdown, our ethnic breakdown.

We don’t do any quota-ing or anything like that, but if we see that our numbers of applicants from a particular elementary school are low year after year, we may do a little extra reach out to those schools just to make sure they’re getting the word out to the parents of their fifth graders to make sure they’re aware that we’re an option for them, and that we’re not just a school that is for a local neighborhood.

Ninety-eight percent of your students are headed to college. How do you help so many of them navigate what is a really, really complicated process?

I think crew goes a long way with that, so our college counselor worked a lot with our crew advisors, as well as our twelfth-grade team leader and our academic dean, to make sure that we were getting college information in the hands of students and their families early on. But we also made sure that the 2 percent that were not accepted to college had a plan in place. One is doing a gap year with his parents … and then the two others are going to culinary school.

What’s next year’s college acceptance and graduation goal?

[Laughs] I think the goal is always 100 percent. Is it likely we’ll hit 100 percent? I don’t know. But we’re going to work like hell to make sure we try.

We set out to prove that you could be a fully public unscreened school with 20 percent special needs students, and an incredibly diverse student body that didn’t track kids in honors classes, and still be successful and still provide a good experience for kids. And this first graduating class has shown that it is possible, … that a public school can do this if they value certain things like knowing kids well, engaging curriculum, working with families. It can be done.