Order to Cut Their Failure Rate, Schools Shed Students
Lewin and Jennifer Medina, New York Times, July 31, 2003
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Growing numbers of students — most of them struggling
academically — are being pushed out of New York City's school
system and classified under bureaucratic categories that hide
their failure to graduate.
Officially the city's dropout rate hovers around 20 percent. But
critics say that if the students who are pushed out were
included, that number could be 25 to 30 percent.
The city data make it impossible to determine just how many
students are being pushed out, where they are going and what
becomes of them. But experts who have examined the statistics
and administrators of high school equivalency programs say that
the number of "pushouts" seems to be growing, with students
shunted out at ever-younger ages.
Those students represent the unintended consequence of the
effort to hold schools accountable for raising standards: As
students are being spurred to new levels of academic achievement
and required to pass stringent Regents exams to get their high
school diplomas, many schools are trying to get rid of those who
may tarnish the schools' statistics by failing to graduate on
time. Even though state law gives students the right to stay in
high school until they are 21, many students are being
counseled, or even forced, to leave long before then.
And yesterday, after declining to comment on the issue for two
months, Chancellor Joel I. Klein conceded the point. "The
problem of what's happening to the students is a tragedy," he
said, "It's not just a few instances, it's a real issue.
"The goal is for students to graduate in four years, but we've
got to stop giving the signal that we're giving up on students
who don't do that. We need more programs for them, at the same
time as we keep up our high expectations for the system."
Shortly after Mr. Klein's interview, the mayor's office, too,
expressed its sense of urgency about addressing the pushout
"For any child that's being pushed out, we need to correct that
problem, we need to fix it as soon as possible," Deputy Mayor
Dennis M. Walcott said. "From the mayor's office on down, we
have to make sure that everyone knows it's not acceptable to
tell children to leave a school because they've fallen behind.
We need schools to offer as many program options as possible.
We're very serious about this."
At best, the pushouts attend alternative programs leading to a
General Educational Development diploma, which is far less
valuable in the job market and far less likely to lead to
college. But G.E.D. teachers say most of the young pushouts
never earn that certificate.
"It's not a new problem, it's just worse," said Elisa Hyman, a
lawyer with Advocates for Children, an advocacy group that helps
students who have been pushed out gain reinstatement. "We've had
guidance counselors calling on their cellphones from bathrooms
saying they've been told to get rid of kids."
According to a report by Ms. Hyman's group and the city's public
advocate, using statistics reported to the city by each high
school, the New York City schools discharged more than 55,000
high school students during the 2000-1 school year — a number
far higher than that year's graduating class of fewer than
Of course, not all of those discharged are pushed out of the
system; many move out of the city, transfer to private or
parochial schools, or drop out of their own accord. But
according to an Education Department breakdown obtained by The
New York Times, 4 out of 10 were categorized as "transferred to
another educational setting," the category that can hide the
Many in that group sought transfers to a different high school,
public or private, in the city. But many others were pushed into
alternative programs at 16, 17 or 18 because they cut classes or
failed to accumulate the number of credits expected for their
"There are too many being pushed out and lost," said Betsy
Gotbaum, the city's public advocate. "We need to know where they
are and what's happening to them."
In many ways, Cynthia Boachie is typical of the pushouts. She
was 17 when a counselor told her she could no longer attend De
Witt Clinton High School. She had been in one too many fights,
and missed one too many classes.
Still, it came as a surprise.
"I knew I wasn't the best, but I thought I was doing O.K.," she
said. "They just, you know, didn't care. They said they couldn't
Higher Goals for Schools
New York's pushouts are just now coming to public attention, in
part because of the report by the public advocate and Ms.
Hyman's group, which has filed suit against the Education
Department, accusing Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn of
dumping hundreds of students in the last three years.
Educators nationwide are waking up to the problem of pushouts.
With the advent of high-stakes testing in dozens of states, and
the fact that under the federal No Child Left Behind Act,
schools with low graduation rates risk being deemed failing
schools, schools are facing real temptations to make their
results look good by getting rid of low performers.
Just this month, Miami school officials began investigating a
principal who apparently tried to weed out low-performing
students to bolster the school's test scores. And the Houston
schools are mired in controversy after a state audit found that
at some schools, more than half those discharged should have
been classified as dropouts.
In New York, Mr. Klein said, the pushout problem was one he
inherited, and became aware of only late last year. Since then,
he said, he has been investigating the issue, and making plans
for a new accountability system that will, among other things,
keep better track of what happens to students who leave the
Mr. Klein said he was not aware that the discharge issue had
been brought to the department's notice in prior years.
But two years ago, just before he left his post as chief of
assessment and accountability, Robert Tobias recommended an
audit after noticing a "heavy use of the discharge codes" under
which students are no longer accounted for in a school's
The discharge codes can be misused, he said, by classifying
students who drop out of the system as having left the city. "It
would be possible to inflate graduation rates and reduce your
dropout rate," said Mr. Tobias, who is now an education
professor at New York University.
While the Department of Education classifies each student who
leaves school under one of dozens of codes, it does not release
— or apparently even compile — information on how many students
leave under which circumstances and what becomes of them.
Furthermore, students leaving in similar circumstances may be
The accuracy of accounting for children who leave the system and
the murkiness of the discharge codes, Mr. Tobias said, "really
need some attention if you are going to tighten up on graduating
and dropout rates."
Whatever the flaws of the Education Department data, G.E.D.
providers citywide say it is clear that discharged high school
students are flooding into adult-education programs.
Azi Ellowitch has been teaching for more than a decade in the
equivalency program at the Lehman College Adult Learning Center,
which traditionally catered to low-income adults and immigrants.
Youths Rush to Sign Up
A few years ago, she began noticing a change in who was signing
"They started coming in for orientation and they were 18 or 19,"
she said. "We began to have a completely different
By last year, Lehman was so inundated with younger students that
it created a supervised study program for those of high school
But most of the young discharged students get no further than
making inquiries or registering for a program. In fact, Ms.
Ellowitch said, three times as many high school-age students
sign up as ever enroll in the program. And of those who do
enroll, about half are two or three years away from being able
to pass, Ms. Ellowitch said.
"These are kids who have gone back and forth, and have fallen
behind," Ms. Ellowitch said. "Schools don't seem to know what to
do with that. Those kids are the least appropriate for the G.E.D.
program. If they need brushing up, we can certainly help them.
But that's not what most of these kids need. They need years of
Cynthia Boachie has been one of Ms. Ellowitch's hardest-working
students since she started the program in January, and she says
she believes she will get her certificate soon. Ms. Ellowitch,
however, said Ms. Boachie would need at least another year or
two of preparation. And most young students, she said, do not
remain in the program.
To be sure, a few pushouts have strong enough academic skills to
get a quick G.E.D. — but even they often have regrets about not
getting a regular diploma.
Andres Paez, 18, was advised to move on after four years at John
F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, where, because of frequent
absences, he had accumulated only enough credits to be
considered a sophomore.
"They said you're not making it, and no matter how hard you
work, you're not going to make it, so there's no point in your
trying anymore," Mr. Paez said.
Mr. Paez moved from the huge high school building to the
equivalency class in the red trailer out back — a program open
only to those with relatively good math and reading skills.
Those who get an equivalency diploma in such programs are
counted as graduates of the school, just like those who get
Mr. Paez did well there. He started the class in February and
got his certificate in April. Still, he said, if anyone had told
him that he could have stayed in school longer and gotten a
Regents diploma, he probably would have done so.
"I didn't know you could stay in school until you were 21," said
Mr. Paez, who is looking for a job. "When they told me I had to
try harder, I did, and my last term I was doing much better
about not cutting. It was awkward when they said there was no
point in trying anymore. I think they just wanted me out of the
Schools Save Face
For high school principals in large schools with discipline
problems, weeding out those who cut class can be a step toward
regaining order. Often, they say, it may be best to find an
alternative for students who are skipping school and failing
classes, rather than letting them linger in high school.
"These are kids who have had a negative experience in high
school, kids who've had trouble sitting still for class," said
Marlene Kawalick, Mr. Paez's G.E.D. teacher. "When they come
into G.E.D., I tell them, this is your chance to put that behind
you, to do something productive and move on with your life."
Good or bad, Mr. Paez now counts as a success in the high
school's statistics. But weaker students, discharged to
community-based equivalency programs, are excluded from the
school's numbers, and not counted against them.
Given the pressure on schools to show good results, it is
understandable that principals would have little interest in
holding on to low-performing students.
"Principals are told these kids who aren't doing well are going
to make your school look terrible," said Don Freeman, who
retired as principal at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School
last year. "Sending them into a G.E.D. program is not a
negative, it's not a dropout, it won't count against you. So
more and more of the vulnerable unsophisticated kids are
counseled out to G.E.D. programs."
The pressure for high on-time graduation rates has made life
especially difficult for educators committed to working with
struggling students, people like Vincent Brevetti, the founding
principal of the six-year old Humanities Preparatory Academy,
where more than half the students are at least a year behind
their expected grade.
Mr. Brevetti, who has always taken transfer students and found
that the school has a high success rate with students who spend
five years in high school, said his former superintendent had
explicitly warned him that he should stop taking transfers and
concentrate instead on ninth graders who would graduate on time.
"He told me, `The days of give me your tired, give me your poor
are over,' " Mr. Brevetti said.
Most students seem to be unaware that they have the right to
stay in school until 21. In interviews with dozens of discharged
students from all over the city, only one student had heard that
she had a legal right to attend school until 21 — and that was
because she overheard her attendance officer trying
unsuccessfully to argue the point with the guidance counselor
who said she had to leave the school.
Over the last two years, the students being pushed out have
Community-based adult-education programs say they are now seeing
students as young as 16. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the program
at Lutheran Family Services receives more than 250 calls a year
from high-school-age students, although such students are not
"The kids think the G.E.D. is going to be an easy fix," said
Martha Kamber, who has run the program for nearly 15 years.
"That's what their counselors tell them. I don't know how you
can tell that a 16-year-old isn't going to graduate, but that's
what they tell them."
Two years ago, students under 18 made up about 20 percent of the
200 students at the Discipleship Outreach Ministries G.E.D.
program in Brooklyn. Today, that number is closer to 40 percent,
said Edith Gnanadass, the director of the program.
The pushout phenomenon, education experts say, exploits a quirk
in the city's statistical reporting: under the city's system of
counting, dropouts count against a school's results but most
discharges do not.
Their exclusion makes the city's statistics look far more
According to the city's count, in the class that started ninth
grade in the fall of 1998, there were 63,460 students, of whom
51 percent graduated four years later, 20 percent dropped out
and 29 percent were still enrolled.
Those are hardly impressive figures, but they would be
substantially worse if they included discharged students, and
counted G.E.D. graduates separately from those who get a regular
high school diploma.
By those lights, slightly less than 40 percent of the class of
2002 graduated, 19 percent were discharged, 16 percent dropped
out, 2 percent got a G.E.D., and 23 percent were still enrolled
and would need more time to graduate.
A Hole in Record-Keeping
In many ways, discharges are the black hole of the system's
record-keeping. School administrators are required to explain
each student's departure by assigning one of more than three
dozen codes, indicating, for example, that the student moved out
of the city, enrolled in a vocational program, got a full-time
job, moved into a high school equivalency program or was
expelled after a long-term suspension.
But the codes overlap, and do not paint a clear picture of what
actually becomes of the students. For example, at William H.
Taft High School in the Bronx, 178 students were discharged with
a Code 89 two years ago, meaning that they were moving to an
alternative high school. According to a breakdown that city
education officials compiled in response to a request by the
public advocate, 41 of those Code 89 students went into
"auxiliary services" programs, which generally lead only to a
G.E.D. But in the same breakdown, an additional 40 students sent
to the very same programs were discharged under a different
category, Code 31.
The city does not compile tallies of how many students are
discharged each year under which codes, nor does it provide
information on how many of those discharged are disabled or
immigrants who speak little English.
Instead, it gathers a hodgepodge of information, using a number
of different methodologies, none of which yield comparable
results. And while the city used to compile and release the
reasons for all dropouts and discharges, it no longer does so.
"I knew it was confusing, but I have been learning the details
just in the last few weeks," Mr. Klein said.
"The information should be out there, and it should be clear,"
he said. "You're never going to change the system unless you're
On June 30, Ms. Gotbaum wrote to Mr. Klein to express "strong
concern" over the high school discharge tracking system,
recounting her office's request last September for a breakdown
of high school discharges, which was forthcoming only after a
nine-month delay — and then yielded what she said was inadequate
At some schools, city statistics show, more students are
discharged each year than graduate or drop out. At Taft, 1,018
students were discharged in 2000-1 — fully 40 percent of its
peak enrollment of 2,493. That tally included the 369 dropouts.
Among the students who started ninth grade at Taft in 1997, 253
had been discharged four years later, while 157 had dropped out
and only 123 graduated.
The numbers are not much better at several of New York's other
large high schools, including Thomas Jefferson in Brooklyn and
Seward Park in Manhattan.
Many more students could graduate, said Jill Chaifetz, executive
director of Advocates for Children, if they were encouraged to
stay and complete the extra work it would take them to graduate,
whatever the time frame.
"Instead of calling kids and saying, `You're not going to make
it so you should leave,' " she said, "it would be a completely
different conversation if you called them in and said, `You
won't be able to graduate in four years, but you have seven
years, so let's talk about a long-term plan that will give you
the enrichment and services you need to help you get to
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