“It wasn’t until high school, after changing high schools three times, that I ended up at City-As-School, a transfer or alternative school in New York City. City-As-School’s welcoming environment allowed me to have a place to heal. I was finally met with supportive school staff who wanted to see me succeed.”

—Anelfi Maria, Transfer School Alum and Researcher, Eskolta School Research and Design

There are disconnections between traditional school settings and the student populations they serve. In a system created by white hetero men, students of color fall through the cracks of a model that wasn’t created for them. Students within marginalized communities come with stressors from their own personal lives and are pushed out by environments where their learning needs are not met. Discipline is punitive and cultural awareness and appreciation is missing. These practices affect all students, but they disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQIA students. 

These systemic policies have harmed me throughout my educational journey. In second grade, I felt what it meant not to fit the traditional standards. I got extra time on tests and got pulled out of the classroom for special workshops to help with my reading. Shortly after, I was evaluated and got diagnosed with dyslexia. While at home, I didn’t feel like a bad reader or that I had dyslexia. I read my mom’s legal documents and translated them to her. By the third grade, all the reading intervention wasn’t helping me. I kept failing the state test until I got held back. The shame that came with being held back lingered on for me.

It wasn’t until high school, after changing high schools three times, that I ended up at City-As-School, a transfer or alternative school in New York City. City-As-School’s welcoming environment allowed me to have a place to heal. I was finally met with supportive school staff who wanted to see me succeed. I was set with a support system that was there to support my individual goals. 

These experiences compelled me to pursue biostatistics in grad school, and in 2020 to partner with Eskolta School Research and Design in a study on the experiences of alternative school graduates like myself. We heard from alumni who, like me, felt as though the education system continuously failed them. Through finding new safe places in transfer schools, students thrive in a system that better serves them. 

These findings are captured in the study: How They Thrive: Lessons from Students in New York City’s Alternative Transfer High Schools that I co-authored with Ali Holstein and Alicia Wolcott on behalf of Eskolta School Research and Design.

Our interviews with nineteen alternative school alumni as well as the large amounts of data reviewed revealed a common set of recurring themes:

  1. There are systemic barriers that students face prior to entering transfer schools; some of these barriers persist after high school.
  2. Transfer schools are humanizing.
  3. Transfer school experiences connect to postsecondary interests and opportunities.
  4. Pathways to success are not necessarily linear or traditional.
  5. Underserved students are making progress at transfer schools in ways not captured by traditional accountability measures.

From these findings, we developed recommendations to policymakers to try to disrupt these harmful patterns seen in traditional schools and apply the embedded healing practices seen in transfer schools:

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

Safety: Expand restorative justice practices in traditional schools so students feel understood and not policed. Restorative justice is not only a response to conflict but a way to foster positive communication and build trust and understanding.

Postsecondary Transition Supports: After high school, alumni kept in touch with adults from their transfer schools, mostly informally, for a range of reasons including college navigation, parenting advice, emotional support, tutoring, and motivation.

Accountability: Incorporate the perspectives of students and families when assessing the value of a school and the success of its students. 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.

Flexibility: Schools should adopt practices used 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. Schools can consider  flexibility in scheduling, offer remote learning, and choose assessments that place performance above attendance.

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. 

As a participant in this study and a researcher, I want policymakers, administrators, educators, and the general public to know what it feels like to not fit in the ideal mold. It was painful to hear interviews from alumni like me who felt rejected by society and were made to feel guilty for not adhering to societal norms. 

We can use our voices and the strength of reports like this one to dismantle the traditional one-size-fits all approach to education and instead work toward creating safe environments that serve all students.

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