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Comptroller finds city underreported high school drop-outs

City school officials have underreported the number of students who dropped out of high school in the past by reclassifying some of them, according to a report released by the State Comptroller today.

The report, which comes out of an audit completed by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office in January, examines a group of students that are labeled as “discharged,” meaning they have left the school system for legitimate reasons, such as moving to another state or deciding to enroll in a G.E.D. program. It finds that some of these students should actually have been labeled as drop-outs, but because of paperwork errors or school officials’ failure to follow state regulations in certain cases, they were counted as discharged.

Students who are discharged don’t count towards the city’s drop-out rate and some advocates have argued that principals can misuse the discharge code, entering students who simply dropped out in order to inflate their graduation rate artificially. Overall, the comptroller’s report found that even with the improper discharge classifications taken into account, the city’s graduation rate was “generally accurate.”

To determine whether the city’s Department of Education was improperly classifying drop-outs as discharges, auditors in the comptroller’s office examined the records of students who started high school in 2004 and should have graduated in 2008, but were discharged along the way. They randomly chose 500 of the 17,025 general education students who were discharged and 100 of the 1,923 discharged special education students.

Through interviews with principals and guidance counselors and analysis of students’ records, auditors found that 74 of the 500 (about 15 percent) discharged general education students and  should have been considered drop-outs. For special education students, 20 of 100 did not have enough documentation to prove they had been discharged.

The report notes that in the vasty majority of these cases of improperly labeled students, schools weren’t able able to find enough documentation of students’ new schools or entrance in G.E.D. programs to satisfy the State Education Department’s requirements for discharge.

But in some cases, the report says, the students had clearly dropped out. According to the report, one student who quit high school to join the military was classified as discharged. Another dropped out and was labeled as such, but then the school changed the students’ classification to discharged and couldn’t provide auditors with documentation to show why.

DOE officials responded to the report by saying that most of the students who the comptroller designated as erroneously discharged were not hidden drop-outs. Instead, they are victims of a discrepancy between the city and state’s standards for proving students have been discharged.

“We believe that, in practice, they [the state standards] impose an unfair and unwarranted burden on school principals, administrators, counselors, and outreach workers,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow Suransky in his written response to the audit.

In response to the audit, school officials challenged some of the report’s findings. One example they cited as evidence of the state’s overly strict standards was the case of a student who left her New York City high school and returned to West Africa after her father was deported. Her uncle confirmed that she had left but because her school couldn’t verify this directly with the student’s father, auditors said she should have been labeled a drop-out.

In the report, the comptroller’s office responds that the student was discharged in 2004 but it wasn’t until May of 2010 that city officials interviewed the girl’s uncle and learned that she had returned to West Africa in 2007. For the three years between when she stopped going to high school and when she left the country, the city had no documentation proving she had been in school.

Lower East Side Prep High School Principal Marth Polin said that properly discharging students is not easy. Many of her students are recent immigrants from China and it’s not unusual for them to leave the U.S. or New York City without telling anyone at her school.

“It’s very arduous,” she said of the discharge process. “The problem is they often don’t tell us they’re leaving, and then we’re held accountable for them.”

When Polin’s students do tell her where they’re going, they still have to sit for a planning interview, sign papers saying they are discharging themselves (or their parents are), and provide a plane ticket proving they are leaving the country. Once they’ve left, they have to prove they’ve enrolled in a new school, otherwise they’re classified as drop-outs.

“I don’t think it’s entirely fair because any of us that do take a lot of immigrant kids, we do take the biggest hit,” Polin said.

“It may be arduous but there’s no other way to get around to actually verify this stuff,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters. Two years ago, Haimson and Jennifer Jennings, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, released a report on the city’s increasing number of discharged students.

Haimson said that because schools are graded — and sometimes closed — based on their graduation rates, principals have an incentive to use the discharge label for their students who drop out.

“It’s a combination of sloppy oversight and an accountability system which really hurts these kids the most, by having schools push them out and then lie about it,” she said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”