getting to graduation

It’s official: New York is making it easier for students with disabilities to graduate this year

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

New York students with disabilities can now graduate high school without passing most Regents exams. The dramatic move by New York’s education policymakers could increase demand for the state’s less-rigorous “local” diploma and reignite a debate about academic requirements for those students.

Under new rules approved Monday, students with disabilities will be able to earn a local diploma by passing the math and English Regents exams and proving to superintendents they have mastered course material in other subjects. Previously, those students had to pass another two or three exams with a lower score.

The changes, which will go into effect this month, are part of a broader effort by New York policymakers over the last two years to help more students reach graduation. Eliminating the need for some students to pass the exit exams is the most noteworthy departure from the state’s traditional requirements yet — and could have a big impact, given that nearly one in five New York City students has a disability. Almost half of graduates with disabilities already opted for the local diploma last year.

“We know that all students are capable of achieving this accomplishment,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Monday. “It’s on us to offer them multiple pathways to do so, pathways that are rigorous.”

State policymakers estimate that the new measure, which was adopted as an emergency regulation but faces a formal vote Tuesday, could help about 2,200 more students graduate this year. It’s also likely to add a dose of confusion into this round of Regents testing — which also starts Tuesday — and schools’ last-minute efforts to certify students for graduation.

Policymakers have been searching for new graduation pathways since 2012, when the state raised the passing Regents exam score to 65, instead of the previously required 55.

Students with disabilities have been at the center of this debate. Only 40 percent of the city’s students graduate high school in four years, and some educators and advocates have worried that students with disabilities were getting snared by the new standards.

But some observers are already worried that the changes, which apply only to students with Individualized Education Programs, could have a negative effect by reducing expectations for students with disabilities.

“This does not sound like a step in the right direction to me,” said Mark Anderson, a special education teacher at Jonas Bronck Academy in a comment on a previous story about the change. “What sort of expectations are we conveying for success in academics if we make it ‘easier’ for some?”

Regents acknowledged that the move might draw criticism for lowering standards, but said the benefits to students and families outweighed that concern.

Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa pointed out that students will still be required to take and pass Regents-level classes, and they will also have to attempt the exams. Keeping students in a rigorous classroom environment is “critical,” she said.

Under the new regulation, superintendents will review a student’s final course grade and also schoolwork completed throughout the year to judge whether he or she mastered the material.

New York has historically struggled to avoid tracking students into less rigorous diploma options. The state eliminated an IEP diploma, an earlier option for students with disabilities that was largely meaningless, since it was not accepted by colleges, the military, or employers as a high school credential.

The state also eliminated the option for most students without disabilities to earn a local diploma in recent years, focusing on getting more students to earn a Regents diploma that requires passing multiple exit exams with a score of 65.

The move away from local diplomas was important for ensuring all students get the best educational experience, said Regent Lester Young, who supported the changes on Monday. When that diploma was available, students of color were being disproportionately steered toward that less-rigorous option, he said.

“Whenever there have been local diploma options, the least of us get pushed in,” he said.

Others think the measure’s requirements are still too stringent for students with disabilities. Some took particular issue with the requirement that students would still have to pass the English Regents exam.

“As an ELA instructor of learning disabled high school students … I am outraged,” said John Connolly, a commenter on a previous story about the policy change. “Of all exams, how can the Regents believe that the Common Core ELA should remain?”

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.