Caucus of the NYC Council Convenes Dropout Summit

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By Mary Alice Miller

City Councilman Robert Jackson sits with Congressman Charles Rangel, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, at the Dropout Summit.

A Dropout Summit was held Feb. 23 at Baruch College. In collaboration with Directions for Our Youth, the United Way and the National Dropout Prevention Center, the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the NYC Council presented a power-packed conference that was attended by several hundred of NYC’s most influential public and private sector education advocates.
Robert Jackson, chair of the NYC Council Education Committee, warmly welcomed all in attendance, grateful for the expressions of concern regarding NYC’s dropout crisis. According to Jackson, “The future of our city depends upon well-educated youth. We must provide adequate resources in order for our young people to reach their potential.” (Jackson has demonstrated his commitment to the problem of unequal distribution of resources for education by leading a decades-long fight for equitable funding from NY State via the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. Recent judicial decisions and budget appropriations have proved him right.)
Although we think we know how bad the situation is, Directions for Our Youth provided some shocking statistics: NYC is in the top three for the worst high school graduation rates of the nation’s 50 largest school districts, with a grad rate of 38%. In 2005, more than 21,000 students dropped out of NYC public high schools. There are 506 failing schools in NYS, 409 of them in NYC. New York City’s dropout factories (where 100 or more students dropped out from the class of 2005) include (in Brooklyn): Lane, Adams, Madison, South Shore, FDR, Lafayette, Boys and Girls and Bushwick. Similar results exist in all other boroughs.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced the formation of a task force on Middle Schools, which will be holding hearings this spring. Quinn feels the dropout problem starts in middle school.
Keynote speaker Jonathan Kozol, darling of liberal educators, gave an entertaining yet empty presentation. Kozol admits his experience is in teaching elementary school. For all his talk (and writings) about education, he doesn’t have a clue of what goes on in middle and high schools. What is most offensive is his repeated assertation that in order for minority students to get a quality education, they must sit next to white students in the classroom. This begs the question: in dense urban areas, where are you going to get enough white students to put one in every classroom? Do classrooms without the requisite white student doom minority students to failure? Let’s get real.
Congressman Charles Rangel, newly appointed chair of the House of Representative’s Ways and Means Committee, brought the dropout issue home. “Lack of education and poverty is dangerous to national security.” Rangel related the dropout rate to costs for society. He said the common thread in gun violence between the youth who is shot and doing the shooting is dropping out. The youth who is shot requires extensive and expensive emergency room services. A paralyzed kid may cost $2,000,000 over their lifetime. Both are generally unemployable. Once caught in the criminal justice system, the recidivism rate is 50%.
Rangel said the average salary in the Army is $30- 40,000. Even if a youth wanted to use the armed services as an employer of last resort because of dropping out and a criminal record many cannot reach even the Roosevelt Standard of minimal qualifications.
According to Rangel, it is unfair to tell a 16-year-old, ‘Sorry, your life is over.’ Rangel recommends the public and private sector create jobs that do not require a high school diploma.
Bronx Borough President Adolpho Carrion said we no longer need think tanks and magic curriculum; we know what works- early intervention and small class size. We also need second-chance schools to capture 16-21-year olds.
Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum recommended an expansion of Career and Technical Education, citing the example of Clara Barton H.S.
Sheila Evans-Trannum, Associate Commissioner of the NY State Education Department, provided an informative overview of the role of government in education. Trannum reminded us that the Constitution of the U.S. placed education in the hands of the states, which in turn, delegates responsibility to local education agencies (LEA’s). The NYS Ed. Dept. is responsible for oversight and monitoring. The State sets standards; LEA’s set curriculum.

Dennis Wolcott, Deputy Mayor

Do you wonder why NYC dropout rates are different from NYS numbers? Trannum states NYS does not count summer graduation rates. Neither does NYS count GED’s. Reason? NY State wanted to discourage LEA’s from pushing students toward GED’s because GED standards vary. NYS also includes the graduation rates of special education students. Referring to JetBlue Airline’s recent media attention, Trannum pointed out that JetBlue’s CEO has ADD, which did not stop him from starting three airlines. We should not count special-ed students out. Trannum believes we should hold schools accountable- not students.
Deputy Mayor Dennis Wolcott presented a litany of Bloomberg’s reforms, starting with Children First in 2002. Other changes in the past 4 years include the end of social promotion, longer school days, reduction in achievement gap and the hiring of 1400 parent coordinators. In 2005, Chancellor Klein created the Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation, which focuses on youth development. The Office of Multiple Pathways administers 25 transfer high schools, 100 GED programs and 20 young adult centers that focus on learning-to-work. NYC has received $1.3 billion allocated to create 102,000 new classroom seats by 2010. Walcott states lower class size requires space.
When asked how NYC would staff these new, smaller classrooms and what workforce management strategies the city has to move substitute teachers (who are working on certification and have passed required teacher tests) into these positions, Walcott states he did not know anything about substitutes. He did say the city intends to move qualified teachers into these positions. This answer seemed odd, considering the Teaching Fellows program currently puts unqualified “teachers” directly into classrooms with only summer training. Teaching Fellows assists and pays for the requisite master’s degree, assists these fellows with passing certification tests while providing them with full teacher salary and benefits. No one can say Teaching Fellows are qualified, yet there they are in the classroom. Many Teaching Fellows (recruited from outside the city) cannot deal with classroom management issues urban students bring, and therefore leave before completing the mandated 2-year program participation.
Substitute (per diem) teachers are experienced with classroom management issues and are prepared with myriad lesson plans as a result of going into a variety of classes and schools on a sometimes-daily basis. In 2004, there were 12, 400 substitute teachers working in NYC with no medical benefits, substandard pay scale, no summer income and virtually no union advocacy despite UFT dues deductions. Yet substitutes are necessary to the functioning of NYC schools because certified teachers are required to participate in training that regularly takes them out of the classroom. Substitutes fill in during these required teacher absences. Substitutes are so necessary to the smooth functioning of schools that in 2005, Klein introduced SubCentral, a computerized system to provide substitute labor to schools in an egalitarian way. So far, SubCentral has been successful.
A commonsense approach to staffing the new classroom seats in 2010 is for NYC to create a workforce management program specifically for substitutes NOW, along the lines of programs already available for para-professionals (assistant teachers) as well as Teaching Fellows.
The most refreshing part of the Dropout Summit was the participation of young people. A couple of hundred students attended the afternoon session with Walcott. (No, they were not playing hooky; schools were closed due to the midwinter break.) It was good for the deputy mayor to hear directly from students currently navigating the NYC school system. Walcott got to hear the variety of student concerns, ranging from inadequate availability of books in small schools, to metal detector’s inability to pick up drugs smuggled into schools and student desire to participate in the formulation of school policy at the building level.
Another interesting aspect of the summit was breakout groups focusing on the role of family, school, teacher, community, government, student and the school district. These sessions happened concurrently, so that it was impossible to attend more than one. They did give participants the opportunity to attend the session they were most interested in.
We all know the problems caused by dropping out. We have some solutions. Now let’s get to work.

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