Adding New York Students to the Roll Call of American Graduates

Adding New York Students to the Roll Call of American Graduates

September 20, 2012 at 3:01 pm

This coming Saturday, public television stations across the nation are dedicating an unprecedented seven hours of air-time to highlight solutions to the nation’s dropout crisis. According to NYC Department of Education  statistics, nearly 40 percent of  the city’s ninth graders will not graduate in four years, and in 2011, the high school graduation rate was 61 percent. American Graduate Day on Sept. 22 will feature  over 20 partner organizations across the country who are are helping youth succeed in school. Many of these organizations are headquartered here in New York City and viewers of  WLIW, THIRTEEN and NJ TV — all part of WNET (the parent company of MetroFocus) — will also hear from local organizations that are keeping youth engaged through art education, tutoring, health clinics,  teen pregnancy prevention programs and more.

Watch MetroFocus Video:

In May 2012, MetroFocus shared the story of Giselle Peña, 18, who earned her high school diploma with the help of the “GPS”  (graduate, prepare, succeed) counseling system. This United Way program was administered by Queens Community House counselors at the school Peña attended, Newtown High School.

MetroFocus spoke this week with two city organizations whose dropout prevention programs begin with early education and continue through high school.

Children’s Aid Society

Richard Buery, The Children's Aid Society's president and CEO, with students at the Dunlevy-Milbank Center, a comprehensive community facility on West 118th Street in Harlem. Photo by Conrad Ventur for The Children’s Aid Society.

Richard Buery is president and CEO of The Children’s Aid Society (CAS), which serves New York’s neediest children and their families at more than 45 locations in New York City and Westchester County. Buery will appear on American Graduate Day with two students who participate in CAS programs.

Q: Is there a particular age when students are the most vulnerable to losing their track to graduate and what assistance do they most need at that time?

A: There are multiple key turning points. There’s early childhood, ages 0-4. There we need to invest in early childhood education — programs that prepare kids for school academically, cognitively, and socially.

Third grade is another trigger point. If you’re not reading on level by third grade, it becomes increasingly difficult to catch up.

You signal to kids what’s important to you. You’ve got to let your kids know that school matters.

The transitions between elementary, middle, and high schools are points where challenges can happen, particularly around 8th grade. That’s a place when credit accumulation becomes critical. Young people are making decisions about whether or not they’re going to be on the school track. A principal at one of our high school partners told me that 38% of its ninth graders had failed one or more courses in the previous year. Be prepared to support students in ninth grade — not just academically, which is critical – but also for the experience of being in high school, which is so much different than middle school. There are more opportunities for kids to fall the cracks. Life coaching skills around independent learning, thinking and studying are important.

Transition points are points at which those who care about children have to be particularly focused in identifying children who are high need so that we don’t lose them.

Q: The Steps to Success Initiative has been helping black boys since 2007, and its first participants are now in junior high. Based on the experiences of these youth, is there a top priority you’d recommend to the NYC Department of Education?

A: Similar to the previous question, it’s important to provide early, intense ongoing support to young boys who are not on grade level and are struggling. Particularly for young boys of color, mentoring is critically important, as are life coaching and strategies of connecting young men to positive role models and engaging them in pro-social peer environments. We make sure the youth are part of a peer group that is focused on positive outcomes.

The time you have with kids is limited – you have kids for “x” hours per day. They’re going to make decisions when they’re away from you. So one of the things you can do is to make sure that they have role models that can help inspire them and make sure their friends are friends that will encourage them to do the right thing and not the wrong thing.

Q: Is this really something that the NYC Department of Education can do?

A: Absolutely. Schools are tremendous platforms for engaging children in positive activities because schools are where children go. Build strong after-school and summer programs, strong mentoring programs, case management and life coaching initiatives for the highest needs kids. That’s central to our model at the Children’s Aid Society of what we think it takes to make a great school. There’s no reason why the Department of Education couldn’t adopt those models on a broader scale — or, the reason would be money and will.

Q: You have school-based health clinics at many of your Community Schools. What are some of the health concerns that affect students’ ability to participate in school to their best advantage?

Children’s Aid Community School

Student receives a check up at a Children’s Aid Society Community School. Photo by Ben Russell for The Children’s Aid Society.

A: Health is critical.  On a very basic level, the ability to manage children’s primary health care in a school environment means they don’t have to miss school because they’re sick, or out for an appointment, or [have let] a small problem become a big one. The fundamental strategy is making sure that children have access to primary care and an environment where you remove the friction – they’re in school anyway, they don’t have to leave school to get care.

Two overwhelming issues are asthma and obesity, which also affect your academic performance and your school persistence. School-based health clinic are critical to combat those and other issues. Twenty percent of students we served last year in our school-based health clinics systemwide were affected by asthma and that percentage is higher in certain neighborhoods.  We have a school-based clinic in East Harlem where 40 percent of the kids have asthma. We also know that 20 percent of the students we serve in our school-based health clinics are obese.

Asthmatic children in elementary schools are more likely to miss school. We find that children who are asthmatic but who receive care at our school-based clinics have higher attendance rates, and students are more likely to graduate or be promoted than those who do not come to our health clinics.  The emergency visits for kids in the Bronx without a school-based clinic are double than for those of kids with school-based clinics.

We also provide mental health services. It’s critically important particularly for  populations of color, which often attach a stigma to mental health services. Kids who would never go see a therapist or psychiatrist will come into a school-based wellness center or health clinic and receive mental health service there.

Q: For any New Yorker concerned about students’ success and graduation, what would you recommend – both to those who might volunteer and those who don’t have time, but want to help shape education’s future?

A: It sounds corny, but it starts with being an engaged citizen. Just thinking about the New York City environment —  but it’s true statewide and nationwide — so many of these issues come down to what investments we as a society are able and willing to make in a strong educational system, a strong health system for children. People need to call their city councilor and congressman and talk about the importance of after-school programs and school-based health clinics.

We have to elevate things like the dropout crisis, the education gap in the public imagination, because only when citizens demand results, only then do you get a change in policy. I often find that’s really what’s lacking. It’s one thing when we who do this for a living are standing at the barricades making demands, but what it takes is everyday citizens writing letters and showing up at city hall hearings and demanding that these things are as important as defense policy or anything else you can think of.

Q: What is a first step for parents to take if they’d like their area school to become a Community School, or start implementing services similar to the ones the Children’s Aid Society offers?

A: It starts with letting your principal know that you would like to see something developed. Identify the principal as an advocate, then begin to identify what resources and services exist in your community that you can leverage. Is there a local health clinic or a museum or after school program provider that you can engage? Make sure you have a principal that wants to make it happen.

Q: Are there recent partnerships or programs at your Community Schools that have proven especially successful at engaging students in academics and involving their parents or caretakers?

The Children’s Aid Society Ercilia Pepin Parent Leadership Institute

Parent and staff at the graduation ceremony for the Ercilia Pepin Parent Leadership Institute. Photo courtesy of The Children’s Aid Society.

A: That’s a long list. Just on the parents end, one program I’m very proud of is the Ercilia Pepin Parent Leadership Institute. Last year we trained 500 parents in school and education leadership, how to be an advocate for their kid and helped them to develop their own academic skills. We help them understand the importance of education and  teach them what it means to be an education advocate for their children.

Another example is The Carrera Adolescent Pregancy Prevention Program, which is a school-based and after-school program where staff are intergrated into the school community. The program works with the entire school to help children believe in their future and it has remarkable results. Kids who participate in the program get pregnant at half the rate of a control group. The program also demonstrates strong results in terms of school persistence. Children are more likely to graduate and start college. It started as a pregnancy prevention program, but we found that the way you get kids to avoid pregnancy is by giving them a reason not to get pregnant and to invest in their futures – with life skill classes, sports, and of course, sexuality classes.

Q: What do you advise parents do at home to help their children succeed in school?

A: Most simply, you have to — in your household — create an environment that promotes learning and create an expectation that college is the goal. At the earliest stages it’s important to have a literature-rich environment. In low income environments, I have heard statistics that they have something like 200 fewer books at home, and by the time children start school, they will have heard 3 million fewer words articulated. It’s important to read to your child, to show them books and let them see you reading.

Signal to your child what your expectations are. There are different ways to manifest that. That can be investing in your own education — advancing yourself.  Your principal should know who you are, not because you’re complaining but because you are an active participant in the school community.  Talk to your child about school and what’s happening. Ask them about test grades. You signal to kids what’s important to you. You’ve got to let your kids know that school matters.


Queens Community House and an Update on GPS Graduate Giselle Peña

Giselle Peña (not pictured here) worked this summer at Camp Café, the culinary camp for 6- to 12-year-olds at Queens Community House (QCH). Photo courtesy of QCH.

Queens Community House (QCH) serves nearly 25,000 children, youth, adults and older adults at 22 sites in 11 neighborhoods of Queens. It offers the GPS program at Jamaica High School, Newtown High School (where Peña graduated) and VOYAGES Preparatory High School (a transfer school that the nonprofit co-runs with the Department of Education).

At the Jamaica and Newtown schools, students who have had between 20 and 76 absences during the eighth or ninth grades can enter the GPS program, which helps students make up for missed credits so they can graduate on time four years later. A spokesperson for QCH said that most students who are recruited for GPS choose to join the counseling program, which can in turn recommend them for other services, such as tutoring or SAT prep classes at QCH.

Do the best you can and try to keep grades high. One, it makes you feel good and two, you have better chances for college.

Giselle Peña not only graduated this spring with the dedicated encouragement of GPS counselor Kazuko Sakamoto, but she entered LaGuardia Community College this fall.  Peña is continuing her work at Queens Community House as a program aide for a second year, assisting second and third graders from PS 120 in an after-school program. She is expecting a promotion to program leader, a position that helps create lesson plans.

As for college, Peña is confident. “I don’t find it too hard,” she said, but she does dedicate her time to studying. “I have enough sense to get my homework done. When I’m at school I focus on it and when I’m at work I focus on work and during my free time — on homework. “

Her advice to ninth graders who are in the same position she was years ago? “I’d tell them to not be afraid to trust an adult. At times you just need to take a chance and it will benefit you in the long run.”

She went on to address academics, too. “I’d recommend that they do tutoring and prepare for the Regents exams.  If you pass a few, you don’t have to worry about them senior year.”

The one Regents test she did take her senior year was in U.S. history.  “I wasn’t always good at that class, but I tried and I studied and passed it on the first time,” she said matter-of-factly.

It seems her mindset always looked past graduating high school to the next step, college.  Her tips for high schoolers:  “Do the best you can and try to keep grades high. One, it makes you feel good and two, you have better chances for college. I also recommend the College Now program at Newtown because you can get credit for college.”

Her favorite class at LaGuardia is English 101, where she likes how her professor teaches. “She keeps me in my seat, motivates.”

Peña wants to be a gym teacher and is majoring in secondary education.  Her final bit of wisdom for high schoolers who are in a similar situation to where she once was, with distractions outside of school and too many missed classes:

“I would like to say that life is not easy, but you have to try.”

Watch Video About American Graduate Day, Sept. 22, 2012:

The national television broadcast American Graduate Day will air live on public television stations from the Tisch WNET Studios at Lincoln Center from 1 to 8 p.m. EST on Saturday, Sept. 22.