On May 9th, Eskolta held an online presentation and panel discussion on our mixed-methods study How They Thrive: Lessons from New York City Alternative School Alumni. With over 100 attendees from high schools, districts, universities, nonprofits, and community-based organizations from around the US, the event offered a chance to hear key findings from the researchers and discuss their implications with a panel of transfer school educators and alumni.
How They Thrive set out to capture what alumni had to say about their experiences before, during, and after their time at transfer schools and understand how this differed for students experiencing systemic racism. The study found that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 28% of all NYC high school students were “underserved,” meaning they were two years behind in credits for their age—representing almost 100,000 students across the city. Among this group, Black and Latinx students were overrepresented. But for those underserved students who enrolled in transfer schools, the outlook was different. “We found that if we looked at all the students across the city who didn’t graduate within that four year benchmark for accountability, 51% of the students who found their way to transfer schools ultimately graduated, compared to just 25% of those who stayed at traditional high schools,” report co-author Alicia Wolcott shared.
Why do students seek out transfer schools? “A lot of them mentioned crowded schools, feeling invisible…” co-author Ali Holstein remarked. “They talk about a lack of support and flexibility in their traditional schools.…It could be mental health or health issues, housing issues, issues that are really beyond the school system. So sometimes they have to miss some school, and some of them felt that they were not getting the support to make up lost learning time or the flexibility to complete things…. ” These findings were echoed later in the panel when Jill Chaifetz Transfer School alum Robert Reyes recounted his experience: “I remember once back in my old high school, I had walked into class late and I tried to talk to the teacher how I can catch up. And her response was, ‘I don’t want to talk to you. Get out.’”
- Ali Holstein | Research and Policy Consultant, Eskolta
- Makila Meyers | Director of Research and Policy, Eskolta
- Evin Orfila | Alum / Advocate Counselor, Liberation Diploma Plus High School, Eskolta Board Member
- Alicia Wolcott | Senior Strategy Consultant for Research and Partnerships, Eskolta
- Allison Farrington | Principal, Research and Service High School
- Robert Reyes | Alum, Jill Chaifetz Transfer High School
- Nekisha Smith | Director, South Brooklyn Community High School / Alum, West Brooklyn Community High School
“Many [students] walk into schools carrying a burden that should not be theirs… The systems connected to them have failed them. The medical institution, the criminal institution, other schools, housing…. A kid in the 9th grade shouldn’t have to decide if he can get to school on time or does he have to bring his little brother to school on time first…. So you have to create environments and celebrate every single win that a kid has when they come to school.”
The contrast in approach he and many other students felt at their transfer schools is marked—and, in the language of the report and alumni themselves, humanizing. “In Jill Chaifetz, when I would come late and I will try to catch up, I will just see the difference… they will be just with their arms open wanting to help. And that’s just one example there that made me feel that, wow… what seemed impossible at the time, which was finishing high school, I saw as possible.”
The study also aimed to document the kinds of school practices and policies that contribute to the differences in students’ experiences and academic progress at transfer schools. These include offering students trusting relationships with adults, social-emotional supports, post-secondary guidance, restorative justice practices, internship and school club opportunities, and ensuring that school is a supportive and culturally relevant space where students feel known and welcomed. Panelist Dr. Allison Farrington, principal of Research and Service High School, explained, “Making sure that they see themselves when they walk into the school building, making sure that they understand that this is a cultural institution. This is their home; it’s their living room.”
Nekisha Smith, Director at South Brooklyn Community High School and a transfer school alum herself, talked about the intentional approach to relationship building at her school: “We create that nurturing environment… the students can walk in, and they feel comfortable letting you know, ‘Hey, I’m having a rough day today. I need a minute,’ and they will not be penalized for it. We can guarantee that for every one student that comes in, there’s three people attached to them. It can be an advocate counselor, a job and internship coordinator, or career and access counselor…. We’re able to connect them to resources. We’re able to hear their story and provide some form of support that will help them get to the next level.”
Evin Orfila, co-moderator and an alum of Liberation Diploma Plus High School who returned there after college to work as an educator, expressed the shift in mindset Liberation tries to promote, “There is no shame in failure. Failure is a place to be vulnerable, to learn. Growth comes from failure…. When you come in our building, if you fail math, come to the office, we can find a way to do it again. We celebrate a win for finding an alternative method to reach the goal that you want.”
The video series How They Thrive – Alumni Voices below illustrates findings from the research through the voices of NYC transfer school alumni.