What if you were repeatedly told you were a failure? Eventually, you would turn off, give up, drop out. This is, unfortunately, the experience of many students who struggle in New York schools, just a few of whom get back on track and end up in transfer schools.
Five years ago, I was lucky enough to begin working with Bushwick Community High School (BCHS), a transfer school that opens its arms to these dropouts and truants who had once been branded failures, and finds a way to listen, inspire, and motivate them to reimagine their possibilities. The school’s New York City Progress Report speaks of the success of their approach: Students’ improvement in attendance at BCHS is among the strongest of any transfer school. Given how they had performed in middle school, these students have phenomenal scores on their English and math Regents exams. The City’s official survey of teachers, parents, and students consistently lands the school among the top rated in New York. A few years ago, the school was given a rigorous four-day visit by a nine-person team led by an upstate superintendent. The superintendent summed up his report by telling the school staff that he had conducted nine such visits in his career and this was “the only school where I would send my own children.”
But there’s one other thing you should know about BCHS: the school has been repeatedly told it is a failure.
In fact, BCHS is far from perfect. Many former dropouts come to the school thinking they will get back on track and they don’t; far too many drop out again. Others stay but continue to struggle, making progress too slowly. All that adds up to a terrible graduation rate and other bad data; bad enough that this spring, BCHS got designated a “Restart” school by the State.
But BCHS is not the only transfer school that has fallen onto the list of failing schools. Two other transfer schools that found themselves on the list were shut down entirely, with the understanding that their performance was so poor that new schools should be opened in their place.
I haven’t worked with those other transfer schools, so I can’t say as much about what the quality of engagement and education those students were receiving. What I can say is that in a data-driven system, schools like BCHS that are explicitly designed to take the students with the worst data need to be very carefully reviewed when decisions are made based on their data.
Of course, we should hold schools accountable for graduation rates. But should we punish schools that take in students who are ready to learn, even if they are too old to graduate by the legal limit?
Of course, we should hold schools accountable for student learning. But should we punish schools that try to help students who had failed and failed again before arriving at their doors?
Of course, we should discourage dropouts. But how do we make sure that schools are not punished for reaching out to former dropouts with open arms and trying to reengage even the hardest to reach?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but it is important that we raise them nonetheless. If we don’t try to find better answers than we have now and improve the ways we hold transfer schools accountable, we not only do a disservice to schools like BCHS that are branded failures when they are not, we also do a disservice to tens of thousands of students who need a school system that will stop failing them and start helping them.