On Thursday, opening day for New York City’s public schools, Chancellor Dennis Walcott met with students, teachers and staff at the New Settlements Campus in the Bronx.
“By every measure, New York City’s students have made incredible gains, and we’re going to push even harder to prepare more students to graduate ready for college or their careers,” Walcott told the crowd.
One of those gains, which the Chancellor and Mayor Michael Bloomberg say are largely the product of controversial reforms instituted under Bloomberg’s tenure, includes a steady rise in middle and high school graduation rates since the 2001-2002 school year. The high school graduation rate increased from 47 percent in 2005 to 61 percent in 2011, according to Department of Education (DOE) statistics.
On Wednesday, the Independent Budget Office (IBO) released a comprehensive analysis of the DOE’s records for graduation rates of the New York City public high school class of 2009.
Like the DOE reforms themselves, such as closing under-performing schools, introducing new charter schools and — new this year — moving 160,000 special needs students into classrooms with non-special needs students, the DOE’s graduation rate data has been questioned. In 2009, a report by the executive director of Class Size Matters and a researcher suggested that the city was under-reporting its dropout rate, and thus boosting its graduation rate, by classifying certain dropouts as discharges. A discharge is the DOE classification for a student who could prove good cause for leaving a school, such as their family leaving the city.
A 2011 audit by the state comptroller found evidence that substantiated the report’s claims, but said the amount of possible number fudging was negligible. In 2011, City Council passed a law requiring more detailed reporting and analysis of discharge data.
The IBO found that of the 17,193 students who were officially discharged from the class of 2009, 8 percent were discharged for reasons that critics say should classify them as dropouts. If those students were to be counted as dropouts instead of discharges, the graduation rate in 2009 would drop 0.6 percent, said the IBO report.
In a written response, a DOE spokesperson said, “The IBO report validates, yet again, that New York City has made significant progress raising graduation rates and closing the achievement gap. Since 2002, we have seen significant improvement in the four-year graduation rate. We will continue to strive toward even greater progress.”
Who is Graduating, Who Isn’t
The IBO dug deeper to find out more about the class of 2009. When they broke down data on the graduates (66 percent), dropouts (12 percent) and those who were still enrolled after four years (21 percent) by race and country of origin, the following findings emerged.
The IBO found that the graduation rate for students who had immigrated to the U.S. was 67 percent, while the rate for students born in the U.S. was 66 percent.
Students from Europe, Asia and Africa had higher graduation rates (ranging from 72.2 to 91.7 percent) overall than students born in the U.S. (65.6 percent). But students born in the Caribbean and Latin America were less likely to graduate than U.S.-born students.
Students born in Mexico were the least likely to graduate, with a rate of 42.5 percent.
Based on data from Instituto Nacional de Estatisdica y Geografia in Mexico and the Mexican Consulate in New York, New American Media estimated that “upwards of 250,000 of the city’s 320,000-strong Mexican-born population is of indigenous origin,” generally from some of the country’s poorest and most under-educated regions.
Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, told the New York Daily News, “As the Mexican statistics show, it really doesn’t make sense to lump together immigrants in one big bucket.”
Hong said that the Obama administration’s new immigration policy, which allows certain young undocumented immigrants to live, study and work in the U.S. for two years, may help improve the low graduation rate among students from Mexico. Young immigrants across the U.S. began lining up to apply for the “deferred action” program on August 17.
Throughout Bloomberg’s mayoral career, there has been strong debate over how communities are served by the school system and the impact of various School Improvement Grant strategies on the graduation rate. As director of of transfer schools for Good Shepherd, Rachel Forsyth helps students who have dropped out of a traditional schools earn their high school diploma at one of Good Shepherd’s three transfer schools. Forsyth said the improved graduation rates have a lot to do with the increase in services for dropouts in recent years.
“When I first started working in education seven years ago, there were fewer options for a student who wasn’t going to graduate in four years. Now, there are way more opportunities,” she explained, citing initiatives like the Young Adult Borough Centers, and a big increase in the number of transfer schools (now 43) dedicated to graduating high school students who are at risk of not graduating in traditional schools.