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More Space, More Attention, More Success: Keeping High-Risk Kids on Track for Graduation

One third of young black and Latino men will not graduate high school, according to Robert Balfanz, in this past weekend's NYTimes Opinionator series "The Great Divide" (which focuses on socio-economic disparities). Balfanz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and director of the Everyone Graduates Center, explains that of the 12,600 high schools in America, half of all students who veer off track from graduation attend 660 schools; these schools are predominantly in high poverty areas, in major cities or in decaying industrial belt towns. The struggling students, predominantly young men of color, are then endlessly held back, to no improved results; they ultimately fail to graduate high school, leading to a lifetime of unsteady employment and often incarceration.

Something must be done, Balfanz reasons, to keep these students from being held back in 6th and 9th grades. Often, he explains, the signs of students flailing are obvious--poor behavior, attendance, and course performance. But systems are not in place to catch these students as they fall; in fact, from the end of elementary school onwards, arguably when these young men are developmentally and socially most vulnerable (increased familial responsibilities and "meaner" street life, along with the emotional frailties endemic to all "tweens"), social services become weaker, and the criminal justice system, harsher. Students may fail through a variety of emotional, social, logistical, and academic problems; holding them back diminishes their chances of ever graduating, without addressing any of the underlying problems that impede graduation.

What can be done about this seemingly intractable problem? How can we keep these young men from being endlessly held back, and falling off track? Balfanz suggests a variety of solutions tested by the Everyone Graduates Center, including teams of teachers focused on common groups of students, phone calls home to report progress and attendance, extra time for math and English, tutoring for students, and coaching for teachers and principals to help these kids. All of these are good solutions--in schools where these systems were put into play, Balfanz and his team saw higher rates of graduation.

The school at which I teach already utilizes most of these solutions: We have "grade team meetings" wherein the teachers of each grade discuss student performance, lunchtime tutoring offered by each teacher at least three days a week, a mandate that each teacher makes 10 phone calls a week, and an attendance policy wherein students who miss 3rd period (the "official" attendance period) receive an automatic phone call home. To our school's credit, I don't believe we are one of the "drop out factories" to which Balfanz refers in his article--yet, with a 4-year graduation rate of only 63% (based on the class of 2013), we'd certainly like to do better.

One major problem--which the efficacy of Balfanz's proposed solutions highlights neatly--is class size itself. All of the strategies employed by the Everyone Graduates Center can be summed up under one umbrella: individualized attention. What struggling students most need is time one-on-one with teachers, or at the very least, time with a teacher in small groups. But when class size is capped at 34, as it is in the NYC Department of Education, it's nearly impossible for students to get their needs met. There's just too many of them, and only one teacher, and in a 45-minute block, students simply cannot receive the level of individual attention they require--particularly if they're already struggling. And though some students have the wherewithal to come to lunchtime tutoring, if only to sit quietly and start their homework, many young teens lack the confidence or self-awareness to approach a teacher and explain what it is they don't understand.

One of the great failures of the "small schools" movement in New York City, which involved breaking up previously "big" high schools into smaller "learning communities," each under a different leadership team, is that the net effect on the students is exactly the same as before--nothing is actually "small." Multiple schools are crammed into the same buildings (with more administrators, to be sure, but no fewer students), classrooms and other building space are shared (sometimes acrimoniously) between schools, and classes are still packed. If the previous administration's department of education had truly been thoughtful about creating "small learning communities," fewer schools would co-exist in the same buildings, classes size caps would have been significantly lowered, more usable space for all purposes (recreation, community gathering, classrooms) would have been allocated for schools around the city, and more teachers hired instead of more administrators. On a "macro" level, that's how we can help the kids who are in danger of not graduating; invest in the infrastructure to give them the space and the attention that they deserve.

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