New York City’s Alternative High Schools Are Lifelines Under Constant Threat of Being Severed
In a city locked in an endless debate over the merits of properly resourcing our public schools, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the risk of not doing so. The lives and education of millions of students across the five boroughs has been disrupted, and the consequences could be lifelong for many. This is especially true for the over 13,000 distinctively dedicated and driven students attending the city’s 55 alternative transfer schools, which allow students who have left, stopped out or fallen behind at other high schools to earn their diplomas and find a meaningful educational community. Transfer school students are disproportionately poor and financially insecure, Black and Brown, immigrants and English Language Learners, in the foster care and shelter systems, those who have suffered housing insecurity, mental health struggles, and those with special needs (see Table 1). These schools are a critical and under-appreciated resource for these NYC youth and their families — and they are under threat.
Young people stop out of high school for varied reasons, including the need to care for family members, mental health challenges, fear, over policing, over testing and their need for an educational environment that is less Eurocentric and more relatable. Transfer schools address the needs of these students with care, dignity, and high expectations, by offering individualized, academically rigorous curriculum, supportive services, internships, and post-secondary preparation through robust partnership with community organizations.
But these schools face a doubled threat. First, they are vulnerable to an accountability system implemented by the state that requires a 67% graduation rate. Many of these schools cannot satisfy this threshold as a function of the students they serve and the structural inequities within which these students are trying to survive. Second, these schools and their partner organizations are being asked to endure drastic cuts — at just the moment when youth are most in need and the social safety net is all but fully shredded.
The Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY was invited to conduct a secondary analysis of more than 800 transfer school student responses to a survey conducted in 2018, the largest sample ever surveyed. Our research sheds light on the gifts and educational dreams of these students, unpacks the key commitments and practices of transfer schools and offers a set of timely policy recommendations.
Survey respondents identify four key components that contribute to the success of transfer schools.
#1 Opportunities and Resources Aligned with Students’ Needs.
Students report a litany of obstacles: unmet learning needs, family and financial responsibilities, and mental health and housing instability were among the most common. Yet, over 80% of students indicated that their transfer school helped address the obstacles they faced, a lot (46%) or somewhat (36%). Upon further review, we learned that transfer schools in our sample generate creative strategies — in concert with community-based organizations — to provide opportunities and resources that mitigate the effects of neighborhood divestment, over-policing, and failing social safety nets.
# 2 Building School Cultures of Care and Compassion.
Social science research has demonstrated that students perceive transfer schools as places of care, where they experience a “sense of belonging.” Indeed, students in our sample were far more likely to trust adults in their transfer schools than in their previous ones (87% and 45%, respectively), and 53% of students say their transfer school helped them learn how to ask for help, while students cite being previously “too scared” or in schools that were too overcrowded to ask.
# 3 High Expectations Attuned to Students’ Needs and Supports.
Our data confirm that transfer schools create flexible and still challenging coursework that translate into concrete skill development. Compared to their prior schools, students were more likely to report a higher sense of academic purpose and that transfer school teachers believe they will succeed (see Chart 1).
# 4 Building an Ecology of Personal and Collective Responsibility.
When students were asked to identify the single obstacle that most hindered their progress in school, most placed responsibility squarely on their own shoulders, even as we know that many of them aren’t afforded the expensive academic “water wings” that economically, racially, and socially privileged students enjoy.
While students who took the survey focused on personal responsibility, they also highlighted collective responsibility and collaboration in their transfer schools. They credit educators, counselors, family, and peers who support and motivate them.
Through policies, practices, structures, and relationships, in a city rife with inequities and racial/class injustice, transfer schools build cultures of accountability — for students, educators, and community partners.
Transfer schools and their community-based partners are integral to our city’s post-COVID recovery, and our collective well-being. These educators and counselors know how to support young people wounded by structural inequity and driven by educational desire. We all deserve a policy infrastructure that prioritizes these schools, community organizations, and students. What can be done?
First, this is the moment to redesign our accountability systems in New York State. As we enjoy a temporary “sabbatical” from Regents and high-stakes testing, the State should cancel high-stakes standardized tests for Spring 2021, and permanently end single-indicator, test-driven graduation requirements.
Third, we must fairly tax the wealthiest and corporations and reinvest in community-based organizations dedicated to youth leadership, culturally responsive care, and economic redevelopment.
If COVID19 has taught us nothing else, the huge inequities have been laid bare. To revitalize the city for all its children, we must construct educational policy around principles of re-distribution, dignity, care, and collective responsibility. NYC’s transfer schools can lead the way.