For Immediate Release

Contact: Celia Alicata |

How They Thrive: Lessons from Students in New York City’s Alternative Transfer High Schools Elevates the Voices of Alumni to Shed Light on Lessons for All Public Schools

(April 11, 2022 — New York City) — Eskolta School Research and Design today released How They Thrive: Lessons from Students in New York City’s Alternative Transfer High Schools, a hallmark study that examines why alternative transfer schools produce better graduation outcomes for students who are underserved and finds the answers from alumni. Among those who don’t graduate within four years, students in transfer schools have twice the rate of earning a credential than in traditional high schools (51% vs. 25%); 64% of all students who earn a diploma in their 6th, 7th, or 8th year do so from a transfer school vs. 14% from traditional schools. Findings demonstrate the effectiveness of NYC transfer schools to create humanizing experiences, build supportive relationships, track progress beyond traditional accountability measures, and connect students to opportunities and interests that persist beyond high school.

The research elevates the voices of young people in New York City impacted and underserved by our public school system and examines policies and practices in alternative schools that better support all students. Alumni in the study are students who left their traditional or specialized high schools for an alternative setting. They describe a system where traditional schools reliably fail to meet their needs. As a result, in the 2018-19 school year, the study revealed nearly 100,000 NYC high school students were over-age and under-credited, or two years behind in credit accumulation for their age. These students were disproportionately Black and Latinx students, students with disabilities, and multilingual learners.

Five major findings of the study are rooted in the stories of alumni and echoed by citywide data:

  1. There are systemic barriers that students face prior to entering transfer schools; some of these barriers persist after high school. Students become invisible and unsafe in schools that are large, in buildings that are policed, and in classrooms that are rigid. High-stakes standardized tests create barriers to graduation and real-world learning. 
  2. Transfer schools are humanizing. Alumni described supportive relationships with adults from their transfer school; they said they felt seen, understood, and cared for in school and postsecondary transitions. 
  3. Transfer school experiences connect to postsecondary interests and opportunities. Alumni describe internships, coursework, and other opportunities in high school connected them to what they are doing today. 
  4. Pathways to success are not necessarily linear nor traditional. When asked to define success and identify what they are proud of, alumni speak of accomplishments beyond enrollment and employment. Success is also showing up for their communities, taking care of loved ones, being financially independent, finding purpose, and persisting through challenges.
  5. Underserved students are making progress at transfer schools in ways not captured by traditional accountability measures. Among those who don’t graduate within four years, students in transfer schools have twice the rate of earning a credential than in traditional high schools (51% vs 25%). 

“As a participant in this study and a researcher, I want the readers of this report to feel what it’s like to navigate through school as a student who doesn’t fit into the one-size-fits-all traditional system,” said Anelfi Maria, co-author of the study and City-As-School alum — a transfer school in NYC. “And I hope policymakers might help create schools that see students like me for what we are capable of.”

Through the interviews with alumni, Eskolta learned that the challenges they face are not met with systemic solutions but instead with stigma they carry beyond high school.

Alternative high schools are often labeled as failing based on traditional measures, but when you listen to young people describe their experiences in transfer schools, it sounds like they are finally getting what they need,” said Ali Holstein, co-author of the study. “We have to look at the system leading them to transfer schools; for example, missing school because you have to take care of your siblings is not a problem for young people to solve—that’s on us. It’s time to develop solutions to predictable barriers our alumni describe in high school and after.”

Six specific recommendations for policymakers and educators in all public schools surfaced from their stories and the findings:

Caring and Affirming Schools: Promote school structures and cultures that make caring relationships possible: trauma-informed classrooms, small class sizes where students can receive individualized support, empathetic leaders who have routines for listening to students and families. 

Safety: Expand restorative justice practices so students feel understood and not policed. Invest in adult learning focused on race, gender, and sexual identity so educators are well prepared to welcome and affirm students of all identities. 

Postsecondary Transition Supports: High schools could strengthen support by formalizing and expanding the role staff and alumni networks play in students’ lives after high school.

Accountability: Look beyond raw test scores, and consider multiple ways of assessing growth and readiness for life after high school. Improve data systems to capture non-linear pathways and accomplishments. See Eskolta’s Ethical Framework for Alternative Accountability for more.

Flexibility: Schools should adopt practices in transfer schools that reflect that they care for students facing adult responsibilities, health issues that require time out of school, or other common barriers to school success. 

Meet Financial Needs: Direct financial support should be considered as students enter adulthood so students can afford to continue their education. Not only does the data point to the relationship between internships and graduation, paid internships help students simultaneously learn and meet their financial responsibilities. 

“Schools across the country are discussing re-engagement of youth,” said Makila Meyers, Director of Research and Policy, Eskolta. “As this happens, top of mind for us is going to the source: students, especially those underserved. Our young people offer great insight to how schools can better support their needs. And our alternative transfer schools have a role to play in this national conversation.”  

“The number of young people who are underserved by our school systems is staggering—both in New York City and across the country,” said Nada Ahmed, Executive Director, Eskolta. “At Eskolta, we want the stories of marginalized young people to be centered in the policies and practices that schools adopt to better address learning opportunities for everyone. That’s why this report feels so significant: we can learn valuable solutions if we listen to our students and to the schools who help them succeed.”

Access the full report.

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