turnaround story

A student says the city's anti-truancy push changed her life

Jean Robinson, a senior at the High School for Teaching and the Professions, speaks at a press conference Wednesday about truancy reduction.

As the new kid at the High School of Teaching and The Professions in the Bronx two years ago, Jean Robinson awoke each morning filled with dread and anxiety about going to school.

“You know, everybody has their own different cliques and I wasn’t really fitting in with any of them,” Robinson said.

A sophomore transfer, Robinson missed her old friends and began skipping school. Over the course of the 2009-2010 school year, she missed more than a month of school and, with each passing day, knew a high school diploma was further and further out of reach.

“I thought about it every day, but I just felt like I needed that extra push,” Robinson said. “I didn’t have that at the time.”

Robinson’s paltry attendance rate caught the eyes of city officials, who at the same time were launching a citywide push to raise attendance rates among students who were absent most often. They paired Robinson with a mentor who monitored her attendance and made sure she was showing up to school.

With the help from her mentor, a school guidance counselor, Robinson last year reduced her absence rate by more than 50 percent, missing just 10 days of school.

Robinson’s turnaround was touted by Mayor Bloomberg as a success story of the year-old attendance initiative called “Every Student, Every Day,” which, in addition to mentors, included letters home to parents and celebrity wake-up calls. As a result of the first year’s success, Bloomberg announced Wednesday that the city was more than doubling the initiative’s scope, from 25 schools to 50 schools with more than 4,000 students.“The gains that our mentors have made within just one year prove that we’re certainly on the right track and show that this is a problem that can be overcome or at least ameliorated,” Bloomberg said at a press conference at High School of Teaching and The Professions to announce the program’s expansion.

Robinson was one of 450 students – out of 1,450 targeted – to improve their attendance rate by an average of 16 days, according to results of a study conducted by a multiagency task force formed in conjunction with the “Every Student, Every Day” program. The study compared attendance rates of students who missed at least one month of school — and were chronically absent — or at least two months of school, putting them into the “severely absent” category.

Overall data from the study showed that students who were paired with mentors were generally more likely to go to school than those without, with high schoolers being the most likely to improve attendance with a mentor’s help.

Attendance rates for middle school students were least responsive. Once paired with mentors, students who had missed more than two months of school in the past actually showed up to school about 6 percent less often than those who did not have a mentor, a result that officials said they would study further.

A new coalition of 300 volunteer mentors from non-profit agencies, such as City Year, the Children’s Aid Society, and Citizen Schools, will enter schools to work with the chronically absent students. At other schools, trained school staff, such as school aides and guidance counselors, will also mentor students.

The program’s cost, an estimated $250,000, will come mostly from private donations from Macy’s, officials said.

The task force and program was created in response to a 2009 report that found that one in five students in the city’s school system missed at least 30 days of school per year, a statistic that is correlated with increased likeliness of dropping out.

“Truancy is often the first step in the wrong direction, because the more school a child misses during the early grades, the more unlikely it will be for him or her to succeed in the higher grades,” Bloomberg said.

The expanded initiative will also target students who are most likely to miss school, even if they have not already been chronically absent. Students returning from long suspensions or time spent in a juvenile justice facility and students in foster care will get special attention, as will students in “high-risk transition grades” – first, sixth and ninth grades.

Robinson, who is now a senior, said that before she started working with her mentor, no one had ever bothered to tell her had to go to school.

“I just feel like I needed that extra push, somebody to get me out the door and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to school,'” Robinson said.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.