Thursday, May 24, 2018

New Report Recommends Comprehensive Plan for District’s High Schools to Better Serve Off-Track Youth

New Report Recommends Comprehensive
Plan for District’s High Schools to Better Serve Off-Track Youth
Research Reveals Incremental Improvements
Over Past 10 Years
BOSTON — Thursday, May 24, 2018 — The Boston Public Schools (BPS) needs to make bold, systemic changes to the district’s high school policies and practices in order to address recommendations in a newly completed report the district commissioned that calls for a more holistic, integrated approach to prevent students from falling off track to graduate and help them recover when they do.

The report, titled “Excellence and equity for all — Unlocking opportunities for off-track youth in Boston Public Schools,” was funded by the Barr Foundation and produced by the EY-Parthenon practice of Ernst & Young LLP. The extensive study examines how students who are not on track to graduation face steep challenges and low rates of success. It also identifies why students fall off track and the early-warning indicators that could put youth at risk of falling off track.

BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang commissioned the report last August to gain a deeper understanding of how the district’s secondary and alternative schools have historically supported those students considered “off track to graduate,” meaning they are at least two years off-pace in terms of their age and required credits.

“I want to thank the Barr Foundation for its generous support that paved the way for this incredibly important study, and the EY-Parthenon team for its analysis,” Superintendent Chang said. “The research provides the direction we need to develop a plan to overhaul how we engage these students who are most at risk. We must take bold actions to make the dramatic, lasting improvements deemed necessary by this comprehensive report.”
According to the report, the proportion of BPS students who are considered “off-track” has decreased slightly over the past decade, and there are strong signs of promise in the last three years. However, the district still has thousands of students falling off track, placing them at risk of dropping out. The research found that while 90 percent of BPS students stay on track to graduate, very few of those who fall off track recover to graduate.

In fact, one of the key findings of the report is that among the 3,300 students viewed as “off-track,” only one in four, or 25 percent, end up graduating within four years while 36 percent graduate in six years. Comparatively, 84 percent of “on-track” students graduate in four years while 89 percent graduate within six years.

“There are some urgent, sobering truths in this report,” said Jim Canales, president and trustee of the Barr Foundation. “We look forward to learning more from the district as plans take shape to respond boldly and decisively, with a clear-eyed focus on serving our young people.”

Superintendent Chang and his leadership team presented the report Wednesday evening to the Boston School Committee.

We take this update very seriously and have tasked Superintendent Chang and the district to carefully study the report’s recommendations and develop specific, sustainable and decisive action steps by the fall for the School Committee’s consideration, said School Committee Chairperson Michael Loconto. We are not afraid to take on the challenge of changing the trajectory for more of our our off-track youth and ensure they get back on track to graduate.

In 2007, BPS commissioned a similar report from the then-Parthenon Group to study how the district served off-track youth. In the decade since that last report was produced, the percentage of students who are at least two years behind relative to typical age and credit accumulation patterns of graduates of BPS high schools, has only improved by two percentage points.

Today, almost one in five students is off track by two years or more. Additionally, less than half of all Black and Latino students attended a high school with an expected graduation rate above 70 percent during the 2015-16 school year. These students, by and large, were attending open enrollment schools and alternative schools.

After the original 2007 report revealed a serious need for improvement to better serve off-track youth, BPS made significant efforts and investments in crucial areas, including alternative education. Thanks to these concerted efforts, the BPS four-year graduation rate has risen from 57.9 percent in 2007 to 72.7 percent in 2017. Over the same time, the annual dropout rate has fallen from 7.9 percent to 3.6 percent.

“While these gains are important, we know they are not enough,” Dr. Chang said. “We must develop innovative ways to re-engage the thousands of students who fall off track while in our high schools and provide a pathway to re-enrollment for those who drop out.”

Among the report’s findings:
  • Many open enrollment schools (schools in which students do not have to pass an exam or go through an admissions process) are not meeting the high needs of many of their students — and demand for these schools has fallen over time.
  • Part of the difficulty for open-enrollment schools results from the stratification of the BPS system; the most needy are clustered in a subset of schools, exacerbating the challenge.
  • Funding of BPS high schools does not fully reflect the broader diversity and intensity of need across schools.
  • Students who eventually become off track frequently transfer from school to school within BPS and often experience poor outcomes when they switch schools.
  • Alternative education schools, on average, are not successfully re-engaging off-track students, and students seeking a placement in alternative schools are frequently unable to find one.

Despite systemic challenges, the report makes a range of recommendations, including:
  • Transforming open enrollment and selective schools.
  • Overhauling alternative education.
  • Better identifying early warning signs when students are falling behind.
  • Changing policies for admission and funding to enhance equity and create conditions that allow all schools to succeed.
  • Shifting to an ongoing, data-driven, active management approach of high schools.

Dr. Chang said his leadership team will closely review the report and its recommendations to determine the best path forward for BPS.

“Our dedicated educators work very hard to prepare our students for college, career, and life readiness. We will need to get rid of the systemic and policy barriers so that they are in a better position to do their best work on behalf of all our students, including those who are falling behind and are off track to graduate,” Dr. Chang said. “We believe that all students can and should graduate and perform at high levels, even those with the most needs. We owe this to them.”

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