New Century High Schools Initiative

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Secondpage_newvisions_logoThe October 27, 2006 American Youth Policy Forum in Washington, D.C. spotlighted the New Century High Schools Initiative in New York City. EL editor Naomi Thiers was on hand to hear what New Visions President Robert Hughes and his colleagues had to say.

New Century Schools are part of a public-private partnership between New Visions (a Gates Foundation funded program which works to create smaller, more effective high schools in poor areas of NYC) and the New York City Department of Education.

Seventy-five such high schools have been created, concentrated in the South Bronx. Because New York has free high school choice, any student can go to a New Century School, and here’s what’s making New Century so attractive: In four years they have brought most of their schools to about an 80% graduation rate, up from about 50% for most schools.

Among things that seem different and successful about this initiative:

  • It is a working private-public partnership for reform. New Century High Schools (NCHS) work closely with the city’s Dept. of Education, even as they bring to light logistical/structural problems within the system that hold students back from graduating. The DOE has created a parallel structure to NCHS within the department and has plans to continue implementing these reforms after the Gates Foundation grant runs out. So it sounds like systemic change as well as help for individual schools.
  • High schools have to apply to New Visions to be brought into this reform process. Half the schools who apply are turned down because they don’t show the local leadership base or capacity for the reform to work (many are encouraged to strengthen local leadership and reapply later).
  • New Visions works with the DOE and teachers’ unions to gradually “shrink” and personalize each school that’s chosen as a New Century School. The school stays in the same building. The first year of the reform, reforms are applied only to incoming 9th graders; the second year they are applied to 9th graders and 10th graders, and so on, until all grades are participating.
  • Gradually, with input from teachers and the union, new faculty are hired. Existing faculty can apply to be rehired at the smaller school; about half do so. NCHS works closely with the faculty who remain to improve curriculum and teaching practice.
  • Community partnerships are a huge element. Each school has a lead partner. Many other community groups are heavily involved, such as the New York Yankees, the Botanical Gardens and other museums, and an urban welfare rights group.
  • The program openly aims for two measurable goals: to increase each school’s graduation rate to at least 80%, and to have 92% attendance, a huge advance for most of these schools. (Presenters talked about how they have to finesse this with principals, who don’t want to talk openly about anything lower than 100 percent graduation.)
  • The program continually charts data from their schools, and not just aggregate data. Using a student identifier, they track individual data for each student from freshman year on, reviewing each student’s achievement and whether that student is on track to graduate on time.
  • Taking into account how required courses are arranged, and how many “Regents” (New York’s standardized tests) need to be passed and when, New Century Schools created an “On-track Metric” to predict how prepared each incoming freshman is to graduate within four years. They keep schools on top of what each student needs to achieve each year to keep up with graduation requirements.

Hughes and Ron Chaluisan (Vice President for Programs, New Visions for Public Schools) shared observations on what they’ve found useful in helping students in urban schools with high dropout rates graduate:

  • Often the sticking point is not that a student fails a course or is unable to pass the required number of Regents, rather it’s logistical obstacles that the student encounters. For example, if a student falls behind during freshman or sophomore year, it’s impossible to take enough credits during junior/senior year to catch up and graduate on time.
  • There’s a gap between the achievement required to graduate from a New York high school and that required to succeed at City University of New York (where most graduates of city high schools go) without remedial courses. A student can graduate from high school with a 55% correct score on the Regents, but would need a 75% correct score to succeed at a CUNY college.
  • While New Century Schools encourages inquiry learning-style teaching, they found that adopting these teaching practices was not the most important factor in getting more kids to graduate. Tracking student data and removing obstacles to students catching up on credits was much more predictive of who graduated.

Robert Hughes stressed how the New Century Schools approach–working persistently for 80 percent graduation rate at all schools within a few years–contrasts with NCLB’s more incremental approach. He said NCLB’s approach needs to change by:

  • focusing on school leadership;
  • using value-added data;
  • clearly articulating a national goal for a high school graduation rate.

For more on New Century Schools, including data-rich PowerPoint overviews of the program and its evaluation, go to the AYPF Web site.

Submitted by Naomi Thiers, Associate Editor of Educational Leadership magazine.