Mixed Results for the City’s Last Chance High Schools

The school day had just come to a close at Aspirations Diploma Plus High School, an East Brooklyn high school for 219 students who have struggled to keep up their grades in other schools. History teacher Jeremy Taffel sat behind his classroom desk that April afternoon, getting ready to leave for the day. Just then, one of his students slowly entered the classroom, avoiding her teacher’s eyes.

“I will not be here for PM School today and I think we’ve already had this conversation,” Taffel said with a hint of irritation, responding to the student’s request for after school help. PM school is an after school program that helps students complete missed assignments and lessons for credits toward their diploma.

“Seriously, it was my grandmother’s 78th birthday. I couldn’t miss it,” she said. She held a binder under her arms and a pleading expression on her face.  She has been frequently absent, which is a significant problem at Aspirations. Even PM school may not be able to catch her up so she can graduate on time.

“I completely understand that,” Taffel said.  And you had other legitimate excuses for those others two days but I told you.”

“I know, but…” she said.

“By law you have to be here a certain amount of hours,” said Taffel. “I told you, you can’t miss anymore days.” Aspirations is one of the city’s 52 transfer schools designed to provide a last chance for teens who are not on track to graduate with a high school diploma for a variety of reasons.  The schools have a wide range of success in helping students complete high school graduation requirements of 44 credits and Regents exams before they age out at 21.

“And you came to school today at 2 o’clock?  You don’t have any classes before 2 o’clock?” he asked, growing increasingly agitated.  Taffel deals with excuses for absences from students constantly, forcing him to repeat lessons or cut back on his content material.

“Yeah.  I had a doctor’s appointment,” she said.

“So…what about…okay…I can’t do PM school today, okay?” Taffel said. “I know you’re trying, but you can’t miss anymore days.” Taffle looked intently at his student and asked her to think hard about how she can make it to school more often. The student nodded and walked slowly out of the room.

Taffel was grappling with the fundamental dilemma faced by the students and teachers in the city’s transfer schools. The school population is filled with teenagers whose students have struggled with myriad issues in their lives that prevented them from buckling down and doing their schoolwork. Some had behavior problems and were suspended multiple times from their previous schools. Others live in unstable homes, either in homeless shelters, or bouncing between foster homes. Still others are burdened by mental impairments. What they have in common is more than the ordinary lack of focus in their young lives.

While a billboard hangs in the hallway at Aspirations High encouraging students to be college bound, the transfer school has struggled with low graduation and college readiness rates.
A billboard hangs in the hallway at Aspirations High encouraging students to shoot for college. The transfer school has struggled with low graduation and college readiness rates. Photo By: Annum Khan

Aspirations has had trouble with keeping students in school and on track to graduate. The school managed last year to move its School Report Card grade up to a C after three years of D’s and F’s. Still, its 6-year graduation rate dropped significantly from 43 percent the year it opened, to 30 percent last year. Only 8 percent of Aspirations students were deemed ready for college according to the city’s recent college and career readiness measure.

Principal Shermila Bharat understands the challenges at her school and has created extra classes to help students pass their Regents exams. “Quite frankly, our students lack basic study skills and don’t study outside of school,” Bharat said.  “Transfer school is about personalizing instruction and there is an incredible group that does that here on a daily basis.”

Alan Cheng, principal at the Manhattan-based City-As High School, one of the oldest transfer schools in the city started in 1972, believes transfer schools can be beneficial to students who need them most since the small size allows for greater attention to each student.  Each transfer school is meant to have only 200 to 300 students.  Still results vary. At City-As, 61 percent of students graduated in 2013 and 29 percent were college ready, both well above the citywide average for all schools. Aspiration’s graduation and college readiness rate remain well below the city average.

One reason for the disparity may lie in the admissions criteria. Transfer schools each have their own. For example, Aspirations requires that students have a minimum of 10 high school credits before they are admitted, in accordance with NYC department of education minimum requirements. Students at City-As High School need 22 credit hours, half the number needed to eventually graduate.

The best transfer schools like City-As tend to be closed to students with the largest hurdles to graduate. A large majority of teens emerging from juvenile detention facilities fall into this category. Transitioning back into the city’s public education system can be a juvenile offender’s biggest challenge, according to Amy Breglio, staff attorney at Advocates for Children, which provides legal services for at-risk youth.

“They go to schools stretched really thin,” Breglio said. If transfer schools won’t take them, they end up in District 75 schools for children with special education needs.

The majority of U.S. juvenile offenders need behavioral and emotional health services, which are integral to the transfer schools. According to a 2011 report by Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty, incarcerated youth have a two to four times higher chance of severe mental illness than the national rate of all youth. Transfer schools partner with community-based organizations such as Good Shepherd, which would allow these juveniles the support they need while attending high school.

Cheng’s students at City-As benefit from an experiential learning model where they attend both classes and an internship every week, preparing them for jobs and life.

Taffel agrees that more vocational training for students must be offered in high schools, especially transfer schools such as Aspirations in which a significant amount of the student body will either not go to college, or will drop out of college later on.

If a juvenile offender is admitted into a transfer school, his or her rate of success and support varies widely according to the resources at the school.

Sean Ahern, a cooking teacher at a high school at Rikers, believes more needs to be done for juvenile and adult offenders in attaining an education due to the high recidivism rate of young people. Instead of these offenders going back to school in the city and progressing with a more routine lifestyle, many end up back in jail.

Rikers has around a 66 percent recidivism rate overall, while the national average recidivism for 16 to 24 year old men alone is at 67 percent, according to Getting Out and Staying Out, a reentry program for 16 to 24 year old male inmates at Rikers jail.   “Your kid comes in, serves his time and then goes back out to the same situation.  What’s different?” Ahern said.

The transfer school system may not be as accessible as it needs to be to juvenile offenders, but it does have a good track record when it comes to helping struggling students at other high schools.

Onyjie Edwards, 19, a high school senior, studied at three high schools since the ninth grade before ending up at Aspirations. She had trouble in her previous schools making friends, getting along with teachers and focusing on academics. Aspirations helped inspire her to do better, and she is now on track to graduate this June and go on to college after passing her Global History Regents exam, also in June.

Odelia Kaly, 16, has been at City-As-School for nearly a year and has completed two internships in the city—one at the

Kaly interned at the Integral Yoga Institute in Manhattan after transferring to City-As high school.
Kaly interned at the Integral Yoga Institute in Manhattan after transferring to City-As-School high school. Photo By: Annum Khan

Integral Yoga Institute and another at Bluestockings bookstore in Manhattan. Kaly transferred to City-As after a rough transition into her former, highly competitive city high school. She said she became suicidal when her schoolwork kept piling up alongside familial hardships and an eating disorder.  City-As provided the atmosphere and resources she needed. She plans to obtain certification to become a yoga instructor, and is now contemplating her choices for college.

Kaly sees all types of people come through City-As, from students who are homeless or in foster care, to young, teenage mothers.  At her transfer school, “everyone is just understanding.”

Taffel admits that the challenges his transfer school presents on a daily basis makes him question his impact as a teacher. But when his successful students come back to thank him, saying how instrumental he was in their success, it feels worthwhile. “It’s very frustrating, he said, “but it’s very satisfying at the other end.”


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